Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Yemen: A Brewing Humanitarian Crisis

by Isobel Coleman
October 18, 2011

Yemenis stand next to empty gas cylinders awaiting gas supplies in Sana'a (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters).

As anti-government demonstrations continue unabated in Yemen, there are few signs of resolution to its current impasse. Growing violence, in Sana’a and in the north and southwest provinces, threatens to dissolve into full-fledged civil war. This would not only be (further) destabilizing to the region, but runs the risk of precipitating a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Yemen already struggles with acute problems of food security, water shortages, and unemployment. A collapse of the state would reverberate across the Gulf, and demand further international involvement.

The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a report on Friday that paints a dark picture. The cost of basic commodities has risen by 43 percent since January 2011; the price of bread has risen 50 percent. Fuel shortages caused by the fighting have contributed to the hike in prices, and complicate humanitarian efforts. Levels of acute malnutrition in children are 40 percent–double the combined emergency thresholds. Over 400,000 people have been displaced in the fighting with fully half of them from the two northern provinces of Sa’ada and Hajjah. An Oxfam report warns that the current rate of water consumption in Sana’a, the capital, is unsustainable, and could literally lead to the abandonment of the city within a decade.

The intensification of violence makes delivering aid more difficult, not only for logistical reasons (The UN has drawn down its international staff two times this year). The Netherlands refused to deliver aid to Saleh’s government to protest the killing of pro-democracy demonstrators. Chronic corruption and inefficiency further complicate efforts of engagement. The UN reports a 40 percent funding gap as of last week for the 2011 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, which requested $290 million in aid.

Humanitarian relief is only a stop-gap measure anyway. Yemen has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and the Saleh government has done a poor job of providing basic services like health care and education. With unemployment hovering at roughly 50 percent among young people in Yemen, increasing Yemeni access to jobs in the region will be an imperative part of addressing the country’s struggling economy. A recent report by Chatham House details the obstacles and challenges facing Yemeni workers in neighboring Gulf countries. Yemenis have struggled to be competitive in the regional job market, in part for a lack of skills. But politics has also played a role in Yemen’s employment woes. In 1990, President Saleh supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Infuriated, the Saudis and other Gulf states expelled a million Yemenis from their (mostly construction) jobs. Yemenis have not recovered those positions since, to devastating economic effect. Before 1990, remittances from Gulf countries made up over 40 percent of GDP in North and South Yemen.

If Yemen does become a failed state, the burden will be felt most immediately by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries. Even if a political solution to its current crisis can be found, Yemen’s economic problems will continue to fester. Its neighbors have every incentive to think creatively about ways to bolster the Yemeni economy.

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