USAID's Yemen Country Study: Humanitarian assistance alone is not enough

USAID released a country study for Yemen in January, summarizing the findings of research conducted in 2016 on the effects of the ongoing conflict. The study focuses on a variety of facets of the Yemeni state, society, and the relationships between the two as the civil war continues, based on interviews conducted in seven different governorates. Research findings covered Yemeni views on the social contract between government and citizens, perceptions of authority figures, the security situation, provision of basic services, social cohesion and trust between citizens, dispute management, and international and civil society organizations.

In terms of the social contract between government and governed, the study finds that many Yemenis consider “the state” to be a legitimate concept but are in practice largely dissatisfied with the state’s performance of the role they feel it should play in society. Issues with state performance include such problems as “corruption, cronyism, and lack of transparency, accountability, and necessary skills (experience).” Yemenis seek honesty and integrity in authority figures, stressing that these are the qualities necessary in order to gain public trust. The USAID study also addresses Yemeni views on authorities in the country, which has become decentralized due to the vacuum left as state power wanes:    

"People’s reaction to these changes on the ground are positive in the immediate term because of the relative stability they afford, but people are highly cognizant of the tenuousness of the reforms and eager for “the state” to return...Respondents describe Houthi incompetence and lack of legitimacy and described their tactics as spanning a range from arbitrary to brutal. Houthis rely on the local authority to exert power and as such, do not want to dismantle the state. There is a constant vying for power by the state (which has no power but bears responsibility) and the Houthis (who have power but have no responsibility)."

Security, furthermore, is an issue which is highly localized in Yemen. Lacking central authority, regional actors are playing a major role. Meanwhile, access to basic services is the highest priority issue for most Yemenis interviewed. Most people lack access to basic services but have a variety of coping strategies and high levels of tolerance that allow them to survive nonetheless.

In terms of social cohesion, the study found a strong sense of community among interviewees, translating to a high willingness to support one another and volunteer time for the greater good. However, trust levels are low and many people fear retaliation for speaking against the status quo. Simultaneously, dispute management is a service that the state is unable to provide; like security, it falls to a wide variety of other authorities. Interestingly, this is one of the only arenas in which respondents expressed satisfaction with Houthi leadership due to quick decision-making. However, many Yemenis also expressed dissatisfaction with bias and discrimination by other dispute management actors. This is one arena in which Yemenis feel the state should have the ultimate authority.

Finally, the study addresses perceptions of international organizations and civil society organizations. While there is general support for these institutions among Yemenis, they have caveats as well:

“...people do not feel listened to when it comes to project identification and implementation. Humanitarian assistance is viewed as highly needed and respondents generally appreciate the work that is being done, however, several respondents articulated a need for support in other sectors, noting that humanitarian assistance alone will not solve the issues at hand.”

This is an important point to emphasize; although humanitarian assistance is desperately needed in Yemen as the country faces a disastrous famine with a faltering health system, aid alone is not enough. The people of Yemen most urgently require a peaceful, political solution to the conflict in order to begin the long process of rebuilding their country.