On Wednesday, August 29, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and Mercy Corps hosted a panel discussion on Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and its impact on the political transition.

One week prior to a major donor conference for Yemen in Riyadh on September 4 and 5, reports indicate half of Yemen’s 25 million people are on the verge of starvation, and the growing food crisis and lack of access to basic services has become increasingly dire. To discuss the impact of the humanitarian crisis and stagnant economic conditions on Yemen’s political transition, the panel discussion featured Nancy Lindborg, the assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Mohammed Qazilbash, the Yemen country director for Mercy Corps, and Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a senior advisor with Partners for Democratic Change. Danya Greenfield, deputy director of the Hariri Center, moderated the discussion.

Qazilbash presented an on-the-ground perspective and noted the sobering reality that more than a million Yemeni children are currently malnourished. He emphasized that food is in fact available in the market, yet rising food prices and a lack of income has undermined Yemenis’ abilities to feed themselves and their families. In addition to the difficulty in securing food, Yemenis are also suffering from a severe water shortage that further contributes to malnutrition. Many of these health concerns are not new, but they have been excacerbated by violent conflict throughout the country, thousands of internally displaced persons, an influx of refugees, damaged infrastructure, and exhorbitant fuel costs.

Taking such needs into account and recognizing the importance of Yemen in the regional and international context, Lindborg embasized the Obama Administration’s robust support for Yemen. She noted that the US will provide $334 million in total aid to the country in 2012—including $185 in non-military aid, of which $117 is humanitarian—making the US the single largest donor for humantarian assistance to Yemen. In allocating these funds, USAID has sought to balance emergency humanitarian funding with aid for longer term development and political structure. The organization, she explained, is engaged in a process of “layering, integrating, and sequencing” short and long-term initiatives, in order to ultimately guarantee “an accountable government that will be able to deliver services to [Yemeni] communities.”

Al-Dawsari, meanwhile, warned that Yemen’s historically robust systems of tribal governance and conflict resolution have become less effective in recent years under the weight of this crisis. Scarcity of water and food resources, widespread poverty, and extreme levels of unemployment in a population where some 80 percent of individuals are under thirty years old have placed new strains on this system. These strains make young Yemenis more likely to be drawn into extremism and violence, and this creates further setbacks to ensuring stabililty and moving toward a full political transition. Attacks carried out on Yemeni gas pipelines and electricity towers, for instance, have cost the country billions of dollars in construction cost and lost production, in addition to the further humanitarian impact of electricity outages.

These various facets of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis are closely intertwined with the country’s ongoing political transition. On the one hand, the political upheaval that began in 2011 has exacerbated Yemen’s humanitarian situation; the government has struggled even more in providing security and essential services, while Yemeni oil production—and therefore government revenue—declined as revolution took hold of the country. At the same time, when President Saleh was removed from power, Yemenis expected improvement in their quality of lives in immediate and tangible ways. This has placed tremendous pressure on the transitional government to deliver at a time when there are the least equipped to do so; it is a litmus test for the transitional government, which must provide results if it hopes to secure legitimacy.

With these challenges in mind, the speakers offered their thoughts on how the US and the international community can play a proactive role at this critical juncture. Regarding the administration of such foreign assistance, Al-Dawsari and Qazilbash both remarked on the need to look beyond strictly intergovernmental operations. Mr. Qazilbash proposed that it is critical to offer multiple channels of aid, not just through the government but also through the conduit of civil society. Ms. Al-Dawsari echoed this sentiment, noting that the Yemeni government suffers from a lack of trust among much of its citizenry; civil society groups, she suggests, may prove an important bridge between the government and the people, thereby facilitating widespread engagement in the transition.

The speakers offered further insight in response to participants’ questions regarding Yemen’s unemployment crisis and struggling private sector. Qazilbash and Lindborg both stressed the need for concerted programs of skill development and microfinance that would empower Yemeni youth to enter the private sector by starting their own businesses. Greenfield further emphasized the notion that Yemen needs an “enabling environment” for the private sector, one with guarantees of contract enforcement and the rule of law; this would encourage Yemeni businesspeople to keep their business in Yemen while hopefully prompting members of the Yemeni diaspora to bring their business back.

Despite the fact that Yemen faces a period of crisis and uncertainty, the panel concurred that it is also a time of hope. As Qazilbash noted, “our challenge is to ensure that that hope is maintained and does not turn into hopelessness,” so that the country may continue to progress towards stability and democracy rather than stagnating before the revolution has been seen through.

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