Peacebuilding integral to humanitarian aid in Yemen

Sawsan Al Refai argues in this blog that peacebuilding should be seen as integral, not supplementary to humanitarian action in Yemen.

A so-called “forgotten war” is remembered by me and my family everyday. My thoughts are never far from the spring of  2015 when I was stranded outside of Yemen while my two young children were left behind in a burning city. This is a period of time that I indeed wish could be forgotten.

Like the millions of Yemeni civilians affected by the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes and internal conflicts, my family has suffered psychological, social, and economic shocks. I have been totally displaced from my country while an unprecedented number of more than 3 million Yemenis have been internally displaced. The statistics on the war’s impact on poverty, basic services and infrastructure are horrifying, and I believe the actual data, particularly on hunger, is far from the reality on the ground. Yemen is on the verge of a real and extensive famine.

Peacebuilding deficiency

To no one’s surprise, the humanitarian community remains fully focused on direct provision of basic needs and the needs are great. More than 14 million people are without enough food, over 19 million lack access to clean water and sanitation and around 14 million do not have access to adequate healthcare. Since January, 4.6 million people have been directly helped by nearly 100 organisations that are trying to delivery humanitarian aid. This obviously falls short of helping the many millions more in need but equally important, has the aid been the best if could be?

A few organisations have gone the extra mile, attempting more sustainable interventions such as transitional shelters managed by the community, alternative learning spaces, cash for work and food for work livelihood programmes, among others. Even so it is striking how peacebuilding is an absent part of humanitarian aid, both as a component and an approach.

Part of the reason for this is that many humanitarian organisations do not necessarily understand the difference between peacebuilding and conflict resolution. As a result, they often think it is not within their work mandate. Peacebuilding is mostly perceived by humanitarian actors as an “intervention” rather than an actual programmatic approach. When compared to other popular programmatic approaches (such as rights-based and results-based programming, gender mainstreaming and inclusive programming), peacebuilding is still not recognised as a crucial mainstream of aid. In fact, you would not be able to put your hands on a single peacebuilding analysis framework that is widely used.

Obstacles to mainstreaming peacebuilding

Mainstreaming peacebuilding is not easy, particularly in the absence of a common vision on the role of aid in peace. Although the Bridging framework of  the United Nations in Yemen, a transitional extension of the previous UN Development Assistance Framework, recognises the need for tools that address dispute resolution, community policing and social cohesion, the document almost always mentions peace in the context of peace negotiations and peace agreements, not ever in the context of actual action on the ground.

Meanwhile humanitarian actors are obliged by their guidelines to reach the most vulnerable, while a peacebuilding approach may involve working with and benefiting people and communities that are less vulnerable, or even worse reaching out to those in control of resources and with decision-making power. For this reason, humanitarians shy away from bold peacebuilding approaches, in fear from stepping into the deep and risky swamp of politics.

Humanitarian work is also by definition “urgent” and time is usually needed to include peace aspects in every single humanitarian intervention. On top of this, as local technical expertise is often expected to be unavailable, the additional resources to bring in overseas technical assistance is a luxury many feel they can’t afford.

Peacebuilding is integral, not supplementary

Peacebuilding efforts aim to create conditions that allow for peace over the long-term and to prevent future violence. They attempt to support humanitarian action through equal targeting rural and urban, men and women, youth and non-youth, as well as people from different conflicting parties equally to maintain peace.

Humanitarian work must take reconciliation and local conflict transformation activities into account if it is to become effective and sustainable. It is crucial that it improves people’s access not only to food, shelter and medical supplies, but also to decision-making and improves their role in peace making.

For that to happen, humanitarian personnel themselves need to be instructed in the field of peacebuilding and a peacebuilding sensitive programming approach attempted in their work. A peace marker system, which measures to which extent peace is addressed or mainstreamed, or peace sensitive success criteria should be built in all programs to ensure that humanitarian action enhances promotion of peace values, and builds local capabilities to transform conflict through social negotiation, collaboration and tolerance.

Peacebuilding at the core of many mandates

In my work with the Arab Network for Civic Education (ANHRE), a regional network of CSOs in the Arab world, we have learned that to fulfils our mandate of promoting human rights among youth and grass-root communities we have to focus on peacebuilding. It is indeed now at the core of our mandate and all our current education curriculums incorporate peacebuilding as a cross cutting topic.

We use peacebuilding approaches to encourage local communities to create activities that strengthen communication between conflicting parties, be they between different ethnic or religious groups or between communities and local authorities. We create safe spaces for local actors to address issues that affect local peace using participatory techniques, and provide specific funding for follow up discussions that outline concrete joint action.

We know from these first hand experience there will be no development without peace. But we also know that there will definitely be no effective humanitarian relief without a focus on building peace. Peace is a journey- not a status, and this journey in Yemen needs to start now.


Photo: Children in an IDP camp in Hajja Governorate. Credit: UNICEF Yemen