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“They are heroes:” Oxfam partners in Yemen are saving lives

By Elizabeth Stevens
A boy fills a water can in the city of Taiz, where one of Oxfam’s partners in Yemen is running the water, sanitation, and hygiene program. Abdulnasser Al-Sedek/Oxfam

In what may be the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis, local organizations play a crucial role. 

It is hard to face what’s going on in Yemen. A brutal war, a deadly cholera epidemic, near-famine conditions, and suffering on a scale that’s almost unimaginable. Oxfam is working on a range of issues around protection, disease prevention, and access to food, and so far we’ve reached 2.8 million people with aid.

But we haven’t done it alone. We’ve joined forces with local Yemeni organizations who from early on have been delivering clean water, distributing hygiene materials like soap, educating households about cholera prevention, and helping families get access to the money they need for essentials. Before the conflict, these groups had other missions, like promoting democracy and good governance. But the war created a new imperative—saving lives—and local groups of all stripes have transformed themselves into humanitarian responders.

Who could have foreseen that an organization focused on reducing drug use (Generations without Qat) would end up running a water, sanitation, and hygiene program in Taiz—a city so dangerous that in many cases international aid providers can’t even get access? But there it is.

“They are heroes,” said Bassim Assuqair, Oxfam’s partnership manager in Yemen.

I called up Assuqair and our communications officer Ibrahim Al Wazir the other day, to learn more about our work with local groups. They painted a picture of what our partners are up against, working in some of the most dangerous places in the country, where shelling and air strikes are commonplace, travel is hazardous, food is scarce, disease is raging through the communities, and medical facilities are nonexistent.

“Oxfam works side by side with partners where we can,” said Assuqair, “but there are times and places where a community is in desperate need of help and only local groups can reach it.” Authorities that might delay issuing operating permits to international groups for weeks, he explained, sometimes offer them to local organizations almost immediately.

So—especially where Oxfam can’t be present on the ground—we provide supplies, equipment, training, and funds, and local groups fan out into the communities to deliver aid.

But, said Al Wazir, “We don’t just say ‘get the job done and goodbye.’ We don’t see our partners as contractors or service providers.” We’re investing in them, providing training in humanitarian work and support for improving their internal systems, to help them thrive as organizations and attract future funders. Plus, rather than work from an Oxfam blueprint, our partners learn to design their own projects. Our goal: make sure that when partners are done working with Oxfam, they’re stronger than ever.

“This is a dangerous environment for learning how to become a humanitarian responder, but our partners are very brave, very committed, and they have become very capable,” said Assuqair. “How do I feel about working with them? I feel honored.”

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