In December, Musaeed Al-Taheri received some very good news. The organization he co-founded, Responsiveness for Relief and Development (RRD), heard confirmation that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) approved a five-year strategic partnership.
RRD, based in Sana’a, would receive a significant injection of funding from the UN OCHA Country-Based Pooled Funds (CBPF) for Yemen, enabling the organization to expand the scope of their operations across the country.
Now more than ever, funding for groups in Yemen like RRD is critical. Musaeed explains, “When we ask people about their needs, day by day, the situation becomes worse.”
“I lived their experience:” from capacity building to emergency aid
In November 2011, there was cautious optimism for Yemen following the resignation of Yemen’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Counterpart International began the Yemen Responsive Governance Project (RGP) in 2012 to support Yemen’s emerging civil society. RGP aimed to increase civic participation in the country’s political transition, particularly among women and people with disabilities. Musaeed was part of the original in-country RGP staff.
“I had five positions with Counterpart from the beginning of RGP in Yemen until the close of the project when I was a Monitoring and Evaluation officer,” he explains. Musaeed helped support three networks of civil society organizations working with Counterpart to increase civic participation in the Yemen National Dialogue process and the groundbreaking Yemen National Women’s Conference in 2013.
When Counterpart was forced to close the Yemen RGP in 2015 due to the deteriorating security conditions on the ground, Musaeed and his Counterpart colleague Waleed Khayat founded RRD to continue the civil society capacity building work they started together.
“I lived their experience and the project,” reflects Musaeed. “I took all the learnings, and utilized the organizational development and capacity building tools we provided to RGP partners and built a new organization,” he added.
Then, everything changed.
Adapting to changing needs in “the world’s worst cholera outbreak”
As Yemen devolved into a patchwork of warzones, “We needed to switch from a focus on development to a focus on humanitarian aid,” explains Musaeed.
In recent months, 80 percent of local civil society organizations in Yemen have turned their focus toward delivering humanitarian assistance in what The New York Times calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” More than 10,000 people have died since 2015, and more than three million Yemenis are displaced from their homes. USAID reports that more than 17 million Yemenis are at risk of severe hunger or starvation, while other estimates indicate that nearly 21 million people are in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance. In December, the United States announced nearly $130 million in emergency food assistance to Yemen.
The UN OCHA reports that “the majority of the deaths in Yemen are caused by lack of food, medicine, health assistance, and the inability to afford basic services.” This perfect storm provided the conditions for cholera to reemerge. Now with Yemen’s millionth case of cholera on the horizon, “this is the world’s worst cholera outbreak in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”
Professionals on the ground
With their experience organizing local communities through RGP, Musaeed and his RRD colleagues are well-equipped to deliver supplies and information to help combat this rapid spread of disease.
“We focus now on health, nutrition, food security and WASH interventions,” explains Musaeed. RRD staff and volunteers go to affected neighborhoods to survey families about their status and needs. Volunteers also share helpful information about how cholera spreads and the importance of preventative measures such as using clean water. Armed with this data, RRD staff works with partners like UNICEF to bring jugs of clean water and supplies of medicine directly to the people most in need.
Ellie Valentine, a seasoned international development expert who led Counterpart’s RGP in Yemen as the local Chief of Party, says that RRD’s capacity to adapt to changing needs means they help fill a key gap in providing relief to displaced Yemenis.
“There is quite a push” to find professionals on the ground in Yemen who can strategically deploy resources from large international aid groups, explains Ellie. In addition to distributing supplies including clean water, “restoring infrastructure like wells and installing solar energy devices” are priority interventions that RRD is positioned to lead.
“That will make their efforts more sustainable,” Ellie added.
Musaeed credits his experience with Counterpart for RRD’s strong institutional capacity.
“We founded RRD to be like Counterpart,” Musaeed says. “RRD staff know the requirements and how to adapt our policies to meet standards. We are ready for any capacity assessment.”
“Our partners like Musaeed thank Counterpart for demanding so much of them because that has made them stronger and able to participate in the funds the UN is making available,” says Ellie. “Their practical experience with Counterpart as well as the training and technical assistance is really what has made them strong players in the humanitarian aid network.”
“Eight of the ten top humanitarian local providers in Yemen are former Counterpart grantees from the RGP program,” she adds. “We have built a strong relationship with both the community and with local authorities,” says Musaeed. “We try to use our relationships to get more permission from the security here to identify the needs and to convince the authorities to let us access the people on the ground,” he explains.
“Some areas are high-risk, sometimes we switch from area to area. It’s not easy work.”
Preternaturally calm and even-tempered, Musaeed is a consummate professional, even amid unimaginable chaos. He confesses, “When we send our team to a difficult area, we put our hands on our hearts until they come back.”
“There is nothing reflecting the reality of the suffering”
With just 13 permanent staff, 50 temporary employees, and over 400 volunteers, “we try to do everything we can to support the safety and security of staff and beneficiaries, to provide high quality services, to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people,” says Musaeed. With the new UN OCHA funding, Musaeed hopes to increase RRD’s permanent staff to 50 people.
As RRD’s name suggests, Musaeed and his colleagues still view long-term civil society development as the goal, not just short-term emergency aid. “We would like to expand our program in education and protection against gender-based violence,” says Musaeed. “New funds will help make a big change for the most vulnerable people,” he promises.
Musaeed and RRD illustrate how civil society “can step up and take initiative and still work effectively with government entities at various levels,” says Ellie. Speaking to the RRD team’s resourcefulness, Ellie says, “they just make it work.”
“The more we build the capacity of local organizations like RRD to deliver community services, the greater the likelihood that Yemen will have a strong civil society network in place that is sustainable in a post-conflict period,” Ellie added.
“Local NGOs in the Al Jawf region keep asking me, ‘When is Counterpart coming back? We need more organizational development training, we need more help to make us stronger,’” confirms A., a former senior-level staff member for RGP, who asked not to be named for purposes of security.
“Many of our former Counterpart staff remain devoted to the principles of strong civil society participation in finding the solutions to problems that Yemenis face in their communities,” confirms Ellie.
“War cannot solve any problems,” Musaeed implores. “The most vulnerable people such as children are suffering.” After three years of conflict, “there is nothing [in terms of the international community’s presence in Yemen] reflecting the reality of the suffering of the people,” he explains.
RRD is doing everything it can to address this gap between need and committed resources. With a five-year funding commitment from UN OCHA, RRD can expand its lifeline throughout Yemen at the moment that it is most needed.
New Year’s Eve in Yemen
With reports of airstrikes and severe hunger making international headlines nearly every day, we were thrilled to receive Musaeed’s note of new year greetings on December 31.
“Another year has passed and another round of challenges is approaching, but I am hopeful that we will be able to overcome them as we did with many challenges this year,” he wrote.
“I wish all of you a happy and prosperous new year and hope that it would bring hope, peace and tranquility to Yemen.”