Yemen is very much a forgotten country, but it currently has one of the largest humanitarian emergencies in the world. It has the largest presence of al-Qaida, a crumbling government, a strong independence movement in the south of the country, and an increasing reliance on tribal systems. Additionally, it has a mixed Shia-Sunni Muslim population and in recent months the power balance between these two groupings has changed as Shia rebels have swept down from the north of the country.
The International Medical Corps has been here for three years. Most of our work has been on nutrition; providing food for children and looking at the long-term causes of malnutrition, such as inadequate access to health facilities and sanitation. We work across the country, always trying to target the most vulnerable regardless of who controls an area. People here – especially children – are dying of the consequences of malnutrition. It’s a long term problem that will take time to turn around. They have an inadequate health system and poor access to clean water. Sana’a, the capital, might run out of water before the end of Obama’s presidency. Education levels are low and so is people’s understanding of the best types of behaviour; normal food, for example, is introduced too early into babies’ diets, causing illness and then malnutrition. In addition, 72% of men and probably 50% of women are regular users of khat (a leafy plant that acts as a stimulant when chewed), which takes up a great deal of daily expenditure.
The risks are increasingly high for us in Yemen now. Kidnapping of international staff is seen as a very easy way to make money, and getting people safely released is difficult. There are more US drone strikes going into Yemen than any other country at the moment. Being perceived as an American or being associated with the US enhances risk in some areas of the country. Western staff in general – but not exclusively - are often seen as people for whom their governments will pay a great deal of money to have released if they are kidnapped, although this is frequently not the case. Even if no payment is made, criminal gangs can sell hostages to groups like al-Qaida who will exploit them for political reasons anyway.
There are less and less international staff here as the threat has risen, so the risks of being kidnapped have increased for those of us who remain. There are also increasing risks of assassination, being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and of open conflict. It has a profound effect on the way you work and the way we think about our work.
Over the last 15 years – globally - the lines of who is responsible for what have become increasingly blurred. As an example, you have occupying military forces building classrooms, the UN – frequently accompanied by an armed escort – building a classroom in the same school, and then NGOs trying to do work there as well, obviously unarmed. For locals, they see very little difference between us in many cases – except that one is better armed than the other. Coupled with the reputation of some western countries in places like Yemen, it is increasingly hard for NGOs to be seen as independent and neutral inside the places they work. We work really hard, not always successfully, to try and ensure this.
Most of the established international NGOs such as International Medical Corps have, with time, been able to develop security protocols required for operations to continue. In Yemen, we employ an expatriate security manager to help keep staff safe. This is something that in the other countries I have worked (with the exception of Iraq) I normally do myself, but in this environment the risks are higher and the effort required to keep staff safe is more significant than elsewhere.
We currently manage to do about 80% of our planned activities – which I think is a pretty good figure in today’s environment – because we do have strong security arrangements in place. It doesn’t mean we are impregnable; there is always a risk in the work we do and I don’t think we should underestimate that. I’ve been doing this job for 18 years, and I’ve lost quite a few colleagues in that time.
My wife worked as a humanitarian worker for a long time, but now stays at home in France with our daughter and has a more normal job. Her background means that she is more informed than most people; she knows where the dangerous places are, and where it is not really that dangerous. Obviously I hope that someday my daughter will be proud of me. For the moment she doesn’t really understand too much apart from the fact that daddy goes abroad and helps people who are sick or hungry, and she misses me.
There are still parts of coming home that are a shock. The sense of liberty and the chance to do simple things is sometimes quite overwhelming. You can feel quite lost. Just being able to walk outside without any need to look over my shoulder is a really big thing for me, and I can waste hours in supermarkets struggling to make choices.
There is always a feeling that I don’t want to carry on doing this, particularly in these insecure places. But it is a fundamentally good job, and the rewards are there in the faces of the people you help and the lives you change. This keeps me motivated. I am not alone, I have support – not only from the in-team such as the security manager, but also from the wealth of experience that I can draw on within International Medical Corps globally.
Jon Cunliffe was speaking to Katherine Purvis.
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From Guardian Global development network newsletter