Assessing the impact of war in Yemen: Pathways for recovery


Written by Taylor Hanna, David K. Bohl and Jonathan D. Moyer


The protracted conflict in Yemen has led to urgent, widespread humanitarian and development crises and resulted in significant damage to the economy, physical infrastructure, service provision, health, and education systems, as well as social fabric. It has also caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. While many of these are the result of war’s direct violence, others are due to the war’s indirect effects, including a lack of food and degraded living conditions.

By comparing the current reality in Yemen to a scenario where no conflict ever occurred, we can provide an estimate of the total death count – the number of deaths caused both directly and indirectly from the conflict. By doing so, we found that by the end of 2021, Yemen’s conflict will lead to 377,000 deaths – nearly 60 per cent of which are indirect and caused by issues associated with conflict like lack of access to food, water, and healthcare.

These deaths are overwhelmingly made up of young children who are especially vulnerable to under and malnutrition. In 2021, a Yemeni child under the age of five dies every nine minutes because of the conflict. This is a significant increase since our 2019 report, Assessing the Impact of War on Development in Yemen, that – through the same assessment – found this to be approximately every 12 minutes.

The impact of the conflict continues to be devastating. When comparing Yemen’s current situation to a scenario without conflict, the country has lost a cumulative US$126 billion in potential gross domestic product (GDP) since 2015. In addition, 15.6 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty and 8.6 million more people into undernutrition.

If conflict continues, it will become even more destructive. If war in Yemen continues through 2030, we estimate that 1.3 million people will die as a result, with more than 70 per cent of those deaths being from indirect causes. Most of these indirect deaths are children under the age of five. By 2030, a child will die because of the conflict every five minutes. Compared to a scenario without conflict, 22.2 million more people may potentially be forced into poverty and 9.2 million more people may also experience malnutrition.

The cost of the conflict for all parties has been great. While the road to peace is likely to be difficult, the consequences of continued war are clear, and hope remains that effective Yemeni, regional, and international leadership can achieve a lasting and inclusive political settlement. In the spirit of that hope, this report examines a set of possible futures for Yemen’s recovery, beginning with a peaceful end to the conflict.

The first possible future path is that of a Fragmented Recovery. This scenario represents an end to fighting but paints a difficult road to recovery that is characterized by a lack of coordination and ineffective governance. Reconstruction initiatives are slow and fail to address fundamental underlying challenges that existed prior to conflict, leaving Yemen highly vulnerable to falling back into conflict.

In this recovery scenario, GDP per capita rebounds and reaches its pre-conflict level by the 2040s. Poverty and malnutrition are reduced, though slowly. In this scenario, the lack of access to food, water, and healthcare kills between 45,000 and 62,000 additional people annually between 2022 and 2030 as compared to a No Conflict scenario.

Using the Fragmented Recovery as a baseline, we then constructed five recovery scenarios that explored the use of careful planning and concerted effort to accelerate Yemen’s recovery. Each focused on a specific aspect of post-conflict recovery and development and were assessed across core development indicators through 2050 to help frame and understand the inter-related policy choices in Yemen’s post-conflict recovery. These can be thought of as ‘building blocks’ of post-conflict recovery. These include:

  1. Agricultural Investments: Focusing upon improving access and reducing food insecurity.

  2. Economic Development: Concentrating upon boosting investment and productivity while utilizing diverse sources of finance.

  3. Empowered Women: Demonstrating the effect of improving women’s health, education, and participation in the economy and society.

  4. Human Capabilities: Addressing human development, especially population health and education.

  5. Governance Quality: Modeling a more secure peace, greater transparency and government effectiveness, and effective public-private partnerships in infrastructure development.

And finally, we combine the interventions in the five building block scenarios to form an Integrated Recovery scenario. This scenario models a future in which:

  • Policymakers solve problems by including women in political leadership and the economy.

  • The international community is an active and engaged partner with Yemen and supports the recovery efforts with significant financial resources.

  • There are effective and trustworthy partnerships between public and private resources and investments flow into the country.

  • Significant investments in infrastructure, agriculture, education, and health put the country on a new development trajectory.

This scenario simulates a world in which a continuous cycle of investment and planning results in outcomes beyond pre-conflict levels within a decade and eventually erase many of the conflict-attributable losses to human development.

Figure 1 on page 14 shows scenario results in terms of distance away from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. Constructed from a weighted average of the distance from SDG achievement, we used indicators from SDGs 1 (No Poverty); 2 (Zero Hunger); 3 (Good Health and Well-being); 4 (Quality Education); 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation); 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy); 10 (Reduced Inequalities); and 17 (Partnerships).

Yemen has clearly reversed progress toward the SDGs since conflict began. And while the Fragmented Recovery begins to make up some lost progress, in 2030, the country would still be behind where it was at the beginning of the conflict. All the recovery building blocks improve progress even further beyond the baseline Fragmented Recovery, but only the combined Integrated Recovery scenario fully makes up for lost SDG progress by 2030.

By combining the scenarios – each addressing different challenges and barriers to development and recovery – it is possible to set Yemen on an accelerated recovery pathway. In terms of GDP per capita, the Integrated Recovery scenario not only catches up with, but even surpasses, the No Conflict scenario by 2050.

Figure 2 shows the difference in key variables between the Fragmented Recovery and each recovery building block scenario. All the scenarios show some improvement, though result in different benefits. For example, Agriculture Investments results in an immediate and significant reduction in malnutrition.

Economic Development has the greatest effect on poverty, which can be seen both in the medium term (by 2030) and the long term (2050). Empowered Women has significant effects in the medium term through reducing poverty and improving the Human Development Index (HDI). Population education – which tends to change very slowly as children must grow through the education system – is most significantly impacted in 2050, by both the Empowered Women and Human Capabilities scenarios.

Across variables, the Integrated Recovery is the most successful scenario. In terms of extreme poverty, the Integrated Recovery results in greater poverty reduction by 2030 (5.8 million as compared to the Fragmented Recovery scenario) than Economic Development does by 2050 (5.5 million).

This research suggests the following recommendations for post-conflict recovery in Yemen:

  • Prioritize a sustainable and lasting peace. The most important determinant of successful recovery is sustained peace. This pertains both to the terms of any negotiated settlement as well as to the pathway of post-conflict recovery, emphasizing improvement in governance and strengthening institutions. To prevent conflict recurrence and open the opportunity for a better future, Yemen cannot return to the previous status quo.

  • Coordinate international, national, and local recovery efforts. Recovery will require immense resources and coordination to maximize efficiencies and effectiveness.

  • Invest in human health and education for long-term sustainable development. Human development has been set back two decades already. But focusing on building human capabilities now can begin to make up for that loss and result in significant improvements in the future.

  • Invest in women’s empowerment to unlock significant potential through inclusive recovery. Yemen ranks last globally in the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index. This problem has been exacerbated by the conflict but represents an opportunity in recovery.

  • Focus on food security within the constraints of Yemen’s agricultural limitations. With a growing population and numerous geographic challenges, Yemen will likely be reliant on imports for food in the future. However, actions can be taken to address acute hunger now while developing a more secure and sustainable agricultural portfolio to support Yemen over the long run.

  • Leverage the private sector to generate growth, employment, and funding. With limited government resources, the private sector will be especially important in supporting post-conflict recovery.

  • Take an integrated approach to post-conflict recovery. Development works through systems, so a systemic approach is required to institute lasting change. An Integrated Recovery unlocks synergistic improvements and mitigates tradeoffs resulting from limited resources.

These recommendations are broad and considerable work remains to determine what policies can produce these outcomes; without a peace settlement, it is not possible to know the specific steps that must be taken for recovery.

The report is not meant to be a policy programing document that outlines specific measures for achieving recovery in a post-conflict Yemen. Rather, it is meant to be a strategy document that explores the effects of Yemen’s conflict on development, the general development outcomes associated with pursuing alternative policy strategies, and a framework for understanding what is possible in a post-conflict country. The report also serves as an advocacy document, as it both highlights the costs of ongoing conflict in Yemen and the importance of coordinated and integrated recovery strategies.

The 2030 Agenda is organized around five pillars referred to as the Five Ps: people, prosperity, planet, peace, and partnership. Yemen’s future envisioned in the Integrated Recovery scenario will only be realized with attention to all five pillars of sustainable development. This report incorporates that framework and emphasizes the importance of understanding development as an interconnected system.

A successful recovery will improve outcomes for Yemen’s people first and foremost. It will build prosperity through transforming systems and the economy and reducing inequalities. It will attend to the planet as the country must improve food security sustainably and within the constraints of considerable water scarcity. It will recognize that peace is both a prerequisite and not to be taken for granted – sustaining peace through continued improvements to security, living conditions, and inclusiveness will be critical at every step. Finally, a successful recovery will not occur without partnerships, including not only considerable international support but also the promotion of partnerships between the public and private sector and within civil society.

While this is an ambitious recovery agenda, it is also what we should collectively aim to achieve. Our research shows that most of the suffering from this conflict has been heaped on the shoulders of the country’s most vulnerable. While achieving the Integrated Recovery will be both costly and complicated, it can support improvements to development to place the country on track to exceed the trajectory it was on prior to the conflict. This does not erase the pain and loss that has been suffered so far but can help ensure a prosperous future for all Yemenis going forward.