Back to Yemen: Enabling life-saving work through connectivity in Al-Hudaydah
The invigorating smell of sea salt washes through the air as the VOS Apollo creaks, rolling gently in the water. Due to the lack of accommodation on dry land, the World Food Programme (WFP) — chartered vessel, anchored here in the Red Sea, is the temporary home to humanitarians conducting missions to Al Hudaydah.
One of them is Jalal Shah, Global Coordinator of the WFP-led Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), who first joined WFP in his native Pakistan in 2000. Looking out from the deck, the enormous Al Hudaydah port rises like a mountain in the background, dwarfing the city — Yemen’s fourth largest. The port is a crucial lifeline as the entry point for all types of goods — historically coffee, cotton and dates but in recent years, life-saving shipments of food and medicine. Al Hudaydah lies north of Bab Al Mandeb (Gate of Tears), a major landmark on the global trade map. But today, despite a United Nations (UN)-brokered ceasefire negotiated in December, the port — a hulking mass of steel and mechanics — is largely deserted.
“Even the day we arrived, the port was empty, not even one ship. The silence in the air was almost palpable,” Jalal explains. Coming from frantic Rome, he found the eerie silence of the city was what had the biggest impact on him. “When you first enter Al Hudaydah, even approaching the outskirts of the city, you see the effects of war: blockades and ruined buildings. The city, normally bustling, is so quiet, with barely any people on the streets… in some parts it feels like a ghost town.”
As you enter the city, there is a shocking sense of disconnect from the outside world. “We’re so used to constantly checking emails or Whatsapp and being on our mobile phones, so the first thing that really hits you when approaching Al Hudaydah is that you lose all connectivity. Inside the city, there is no fibre or any other landline connection at all. You suddenly realize you are going somewhere that is completely cut off.”
In response to this, the ETC has established four Internet ‘hubs’ where UN and non-government organizations (NGO) staff can access critical Internet connectivity. The ETC is the sole Internet provider in the city,enabling the entire humanitarian response in the area.
Jalal is clearly impressed: “The impact of what the ETC has done is amazing. In one hub, we’re providing connectivity to NGOs from all over the city who come to get online and check their emails. You really see the effect. You are the ones that are connecting people.” He pauses. “But when it comes to Al Hudaydah, there’s just no other option.”
It’s not Jalal’s first time in Yemen. He was one of the first ETC staff to deploy to Sana’a in 2015 after the conflict struck. The ETC mission in Yemen is close to his heart. “I was deployed here in 2015 as one of the first humanitarians to start the emergency operation. Since then, the ETC has really scaled up its response and is providing services in many locations despite numerous challenges including the importation of equipment, daily security concerns and the movement of personnel. In places like Al Hudaydah, you realize how you take connectivity for granted, and yet — it is an absolute basic need. Without it, nothing works.”
The ETC has had to rely on national capacity to provide connectivity in 11 hubs across five operational areas. In terms of local personnel, it struck gold. “The ETC team here is highly motivated, working in an extremely difficult environment, providing services that are really needed and going above and beyond to assist people,” Jalal says.
Jalal is in the somewhat unique position of having knowledge and experience of both the chaos and rush of the field as well as the corporate corridors of headquarters (HQ). With characteristic diplomacy, he concedes that most people favour one working environment over the other. “Headquarters and field offices can sometimes feel like two different silos that speak different languages. But if you can experience both, you can understand each reality better, exchange different points of view and ultimately help advance what we are trying to achieve. It can be painful, but it’s worth the effort.”
When asked which he prefers — field or HQ — diplomacy kicks in again. “It’s always great to be back in the field as here is where we connect to the people we support,” he says, smiling. “In the field it’s very easy to see the impact of what you’re doing, which might not be as directly visible from the global level. The operational insights of people with field experience make it easier to understand how things work, what the problems are, what support is really needed.”
While Jalal clearly loves being back on mission — he spent 13 years deploying to countless emergencies around the globe with WFP’s Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST) — he seems to genuinely enjoy his role in HQ, not least because it fulfills his childhood dream of a career where he could solve complex problems. “HQ is where you look at the bigger picture and can start to drive change. The best part is when the strategy is being implemented, when you can see the impact on operations in the field. We are changing the way we are working and how we respond to emergencies, going beyond traditional connectivity services towards helping affected populations, governments and preparedness efforts.”
“This is the future of emergency response, but we need to keep moving. The ETC still needs to evolve more. How can we further enhance our role? How can we better use data tools for preparedness so we are ready for disaster? How can we use drones in emergency preparedness and response? We are driving this change and this is what makes the job interesting. And coming from the field, you can drive the change because you know what helps,” he says. His rapid-fire voice reveals the excitement he feels looking back at what has been done and projecting what lies ahead.
Dusk begins to fall, waves lapping at the side of the VOS Apollo. As he watches the blinding lights of the deserted port suddenly flick on, casting Al Hudaydah city into the shadows, it would seem that the small boy who daydreamed of becoming a scientist to grapple with the world’s most urgent problems has kept his vision.