CSIS: Yemen Needs Nation-Building and Reconstruction Efforts for Peace

The Center for Strategic and International Studies published in May 2017 a detailed analysis of the conflict in Yemen that closely examines the humanitarian catastrophe and outlines the necessities for sustainable peace. The civil war in Yemen has led to an economic collapse, massive destruction of infrastructure and civil institutions, and a health crisis. The author argues that a military victory or ceasefire won’t be sufficient for recovery or peace. In order to move to stable postwar development efforts, Yemen must be truly united under a modern central government that can effectively govern and focus on recovery, bolstered by international aid. The US must prioritize nation-building as it seeks a solution to the civil war, otherwise it risks a devastating relapse into conflict.


War...produces crippling casualties with long-term costs, children with little education but schooled in fear and violence, new sectarian and tribal tensions, and the need to combine all of the complex governmental, social, and economic challenges of recovery with the challenge of development. So do forms of conflict resolution that do not provide any effective path to deal with such problems. Simply halting the fighting, dividing the country to create ceasefires, and/or creating leadership who can move away from violence but cannot govern effectively delays any serious and coherent effort at both recovery and development.


The author further argues that Yemen has never had genuine national unity. The unification of the North and South Yemen states in 1990 was fraught and troubled by southern separatist tensions and sporadic outbursts of sectarian conflict. The national government was unable to provide the type of lasting unity that could forestall the outbreak of conflict, and this political weakness and ineffective governance contributed to the onset of the civil war. Yemen’s failed economy, exacerbated by rapid population growth, a deficiency of water and arable land, and a high rate of poverty, also fostered the instability that triggered the conflict.


The civil war’s impact on Yemen is severe and has transformed the country into a “humanitarian nightmare.” Thousands of civilians have been killed, and millions more affected by the ensuing economic decline and destruction of civilian services. Airstrikes have leveled schools, health facilities, and places of work, causing casualties and massive damage to civilian livelihoods. Eighty percent of the population is in need of humanitarian aid; 3 million Yemenis are displaced and 17 million are food insecure. The conflict has ravaged the economy: inflation has spiked, investment has dropped, and GDP has shrunk by at least 32%. Such economic harm increases the challenges to postwar development significantly, costing billions of dollars in reconstruction and generating long-term injury to human capital.  


The situation in Yemen, however, has moved beyond crisis, to the point of humanitarian nightmare. It has become a stalemate where the casualties from actual combat are limited, but where the fighting has produced a stalemate that has left the entire country without meaningful governance and security, and has crippled an already desperately poor economy.


Reconstruction is a critical, yet precarious, facet of peace. It must be nationally-driven and led by the citizens so that trust in institutions and the government can be built up. The private sector must engineer economic growth, as the government will be unable to completely rebuild the economy alone, according to the author. The US and other states can support this process by contributing international aid, but even aid must be constrained to avoid rent-seeking and other destructive consequences that have occurred in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The US’ participation in promoting reconstruction is vital, because a military victory or ceasefire only pauses fighting and doesn’t stimulate the essential elements for stability: growth and unity.