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Adapting a resilience improvement programme in conflict: Experiences from Yemen

By Mustafa Ghulam and Mohammed H Alshama’a

Lisez cet article en français ici

Mustafa Ghulam is a Food Security and Livelihoods Progamme Manger with Save the Children, based in Yemen. He has 20 years of experience in programme design and implementation in both natural and man-made disasters.

Mohammed Alshama’a is MEAL Technical Advisor with Save the Children, based in Yemen. Mohammed has extensive experience in emergency and development programming in different contexts. He is experienced in programme design, programme monitoring, research and assessment in complex emergency responses in fragile state contexts.

The authors would like to acknowledge Karl Frey, Save the Children and Brian Kriz, Consultant for their technical input and contributions to this article.

A more detailed version of this article will be prepared for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Location: Yemen.

What we know: Emergency response in fragile state contexts is complex; Yemen is currently in a state of acute crisis against a backdrop of long-term political and nutritional volatility.

What this article adds: A three-year Save the Children programme in Yemen was designed to strengthen household resilience and improve infant and young child feeding (IYCF) and care and hygiene practices in an insecure (though stable) context. Two years of programming involved a food-for-assets scheme (vouchers in exchange for community-identified assets development) and mother-to-mother support groups. Community feedback mechanisms and impact monitoring were established. Communities reported high coverage of benefits from roads and water projects (assets). Deterioration to a crisis situation in year three led to needs reassessment and adaptation to an unconditional voucher programme that served almost twice as many beneficiaries compared to the conditional transfers. Household Dietary Diversity Score rose and Household Hunger Score fell. The electronic food-voucher programme, established in the community assets scheme, was key to the feasibility of scale-up.


In 2013, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace (FFP) provided three years of funding to Save the Children International (SCI) to implement a programme with the objectives of strengthening household resilience and improving infant and young child feeding (IYCF) and care and hygiene practices in Dhamar and Sana’a governorates. The original programme strategy sought to layer and integrate activities so that the short-term food security needs of vulnerable households were met with conditional food vouchers, while establishing long-term resilience through rehabilitating or improving community-level assets and improving IYCF practices at the community level.

However, with the outbreak of fighting in March 2015, the project was forced to adapt to a rapidly changing context. As a result, the programme adjusted its programme objectives and activities to meet immediate humanitarian needs. This article recounts how a resilience-building programme successfully adapted to a rapidly emerging humanitarian crisis.

Programme rationale and design

When the programme was designed in 2013, Yemen was facing a different set of challenges to the one it faces today. While the political and security climate was still volatile and pockets of humanitarian need existed in the country, development policies were focused on resilience-building programmes. The focus of many development agencies and funders was on solving issues of dwindling water resources, child health, nutrition and education and seizing opportunities for livelihood security. In that context, this programme was originally designed with two immediate results (IR) in mind. The first IR focused on improvement of community-level resilience through food-for-asset (FFA) activities. The second IR focused on the adoption of key IYCF, care and hygiene practices in the community.

The project targeted a part of the country where communities were largely rural and scattered across mountain tops and valleys, with limited market access. Most households relied on various seasonal labour options for income, supplementing these incomes with the sale of small animals and/or support from the government social protection programme. The project sought to work with 150 communities over three years. To optimise operations, clusters of villages and households took part in asset-improvement activities for six months, after which the programme would move on to another village. In its first two years, the FFA programme benefitted 7,350 households and built or rehabilitated 436 community assets in Dhamar and Sana’a. But in the third year alone, the programme drastically ramped up operations and managed to nearly double the number of households served.

IYCF and hygiene-promotion activities were expected to continue across all programme areas for the whole three years of the programme. The programme also organised training for Ministry of Public Health and Population staff (MoH) on referral systems and nutrition services at health facilities. With the support of the MoH, SCI established 169 mother-to-mother support groups (MTMSGs) in target villages. These are groups of women helping new mothers care for their children through model-optimal breastfeeding practices and sharing information and experiences, and by offering support to other women in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Group leaders create awareness among members about exclusive breastfeeding practices and complementary feeding for infants and young children during regular meetings.

Mobilisation and targeting

The mobilisation and targeting process took place in partnership with district-level leaders. It began by ranking districts based on vulnerability criteria, including proximity to markets, income options, access to water and access to previous assistance. At the sub-district and village level, another round of mapping, ranking and targeting using the same set of criteria was completed with local authorities and community leaders. The geographic and administrative targeting process not only ensured that vulnerable communities were targeted, but also enabled community buy-in before the village and beneficiary selection process.

Box 1: FFA Beneficiary Targeting Criteria

1.      Households with two or more children under the age of two years

2.      Households with more than seven members

3.      Households with no livestock

4.      Households with no or small parcels (maximum 0.5 acres) of arable land

5.      Female-headed households

6.      Households with a high number of school dropouts

Community Resilience Committees (CRCs) were formed in each village and acted as the primary interface between the programme and the community. Their key responsibilities were to advise on community-specific programme decisions, identify target beneficiary households, and communicate programme messages to the community (i.e. work and distribution schedules). A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) outlining roles and responsibilities was signed between SCI and CRC before the start of the asset-improvement project. Village committees included men, women and youth. CRCs were less involved with the IYCF activities, but helped communicate the intention of this part of the programme to the community.

The CRCs were trained on targeting criteria and generated lists of beneficiaries that met the criteria developed by SCI (see Box 1). SCI would audit the list by randomly selecting 15% of households on each list to visit and verify eligibility. If there was evidence of systematic errors in targeting, CRCs were required to start the process again. In addition, beneficiary selection criteria were displayed throughout the village, which also helped make the process transparent.

Targeting vulnerable households to participate in the FFA project was conducted with the aid of village poverty-ranking indicators in addition to SCI-developed criteria. Roughly 80% of households were selected from each village. Unconditional transfers were provided to those who were very poor and had no labour to enable them to participate in the asset-improvement project. About 10% of the total beneficiary list was made up of this group. Typically, women from female-headed households did not work on the FFA activities, instead sending male surrogates in their place, or were included in the unconditional food-assistance transfers. In some cases, women assisted in providing food and water during workdays. This practice was in line with local traditions and customs. Roughly 18% of beneficiaries were women (see Table 1).

FFA and skills development

Assets built or rehabilitated by the programme were identified through broad-based community meetings facilitated by CRCs and SCI staff. Each asset-improvement project, which was endorsed by a majority of the participants and was in line with the programme’s mandate, was documented in a village resolution.

One family member from each of the 7,350 households was engaged in the asset-improvement project. These family members worked for ten days a month (four hours a day) to receive a monthly food voucher for their family. Many of the target population were rural, dependent on local, temporary, seasonal incomes; the asset work was another income strategy available to them. The value of the voucher was designed to provide a food basket to cover approximately 70% of an average-size family’s food needs and could be exchanged with vendors at the local market at a time of their choosing. For some difficult-to-reach villages, vendors would hold a market day at a designated distribution site in the village. The cash value of the voucher was between US$66 and US$72, depending on the exchange rate and local commodity prices. Every registered household was entitled to six transfers, as per the design of the programme. The six-month period of FFA activities coincided with the seasonal lean period, a time when income-earning activities are limited; therefore the effort required of participants to receive assistance added to income-earning strategies at a time when the household had excess time to participate.

In the first year, the project utilised paper-based commodity vouchers, which were exchanged for a predetermined food basket by vendors in local markets. These vendors were vetted and entered into an agreement with SCI prior to the distribution. In the second and third years, the programme took part in a pilot MasterCard e-voucher solution. This provided a chip-enabled card loaded with a token that allowed beneficiaries to access the same predetermined food basket as the paper vouchers from local vendors. Vendors were equipped with and trained in the use of tablets and dongles that worked much like a point-of-sale system. Once beneficiaries satisfied their work requirements under the FFA programme, a token was deposited in their account that could later be exchanged with a vendor for their food items at a time convenient to them. A back-end accounting system reconciled the token exchange, which informed quantity of payment to vendors. The system was designed to work on or offline, though most of the time data was synched offline. This consisted of SCI programme staff travelling to vendors to synchronize the transaction history with another device before returning to the field office to upload. The pilot started with 100 households and scaled up to 6,050 households per month. If necessary, the e-voucher programme could add other tokens with different vendors to meet the need of other programmes.

With the support and guidance of CRCs, SCI engineers designed asset-rehabilitation specifications. Once the project’s specifications and work plan were finalised, a bill of quantity detailing necessary materials and labour requirements was signed with CRCs. While the asset project was underway, SCI engineers provided technical backstopping to the CRCs, who monitored attendance and quality of work performed.

Quality monitoring

To ensure programme quality, the SCI Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) team followed the project and measured progress against pre-identified output indicators. The use of Indicator Performance Tracking Tables (IPTT) and Budget versus Actuals (BVA) management tools allowed the programme to take corrective action when projects veered from their plans.

Accountability to the beneficiaries was a key component of the SCI monitoring and quality assurance system. It involved giving beneficiaries the opportunity to influence key programme decisions and highlight problems with programme activities. In addition to participating in CRCs, beneficiaries could provide feedback to SCI on any aspect of the programme through a complaints mechanism. This initially consisted of comment boxes, which were promoted during the community mobilisation process. In the third year, SCI introduced a national, toll-free hotline to the complaint mechanism that allowed beneficiaries another avenue to provide feedback. Each method allowed a person to provide input anonymously if they so wished. These mechanisms not only enabled SCI to deliver a quality programme; they also empowered the communities to participate and address their concerns with the programme at any time. The complaint mechanism produced three key issues: inclusion errors, request of information for date and time of distributions, and concerns about food quality. Because these mechanisms were in place, the SCI team could quickly learn about beneficiary complaints and rapidly find a resolution to the issue.

In addition to complaint mechanisms, SCI also conducted Post Distribution Monitoring (PDM) surveys for all target villages. The surveys inquired about beneficiary’s perception of the distribution process, security concerns, and knowledge of complaint mechanisms. Each PDM also measures the Household Dietary Diversity Score (HDDS) and Household Hunger Score (HHS). In order to ensure quality in the delivery of programme outputs, SCI developed quality benchmarks that drew on international standards, such as Sphere, as well as the organisation’s global expertise. Regular field visits were conducted to measure the project’s performance against these standards.

Adapting to a changing context

With the outbreak of fighting in March 2015, Yemen faced large-scale displacement, civil conflict, food insecurity, high food prices, diminishing resources, and an influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs). In addition to airstrikes throughout the country, ports, which are crucial for importing key commodities such as wheat, cooking oil and petrol, were blockaded by the Saudi-led coalition. As a result, market supplies quickly dwindled, pushing food prices higher.

After the conflict began, Dhamar governorate was categorised as Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) level 3 (crisis). Nearly half the population in Yemen was food-insecure prior to March, and the situation significantly worsened as a result of the conflict. At the time of writing, it is estimated that more than 21.4 million people, including three million IDPs, are in need of humanitarian assistance in Yemen. Emergency food assistance became a top priority in the programme area.

The deteriorating situation in the second and third year of the programme posed massive operational challenges. First, the security situation required senior leadership for most international organisations to evacuate to Amman in Jordan, which slowed decision-making processes. Yemeni staff were regularly forced to shelter in place and unable to visit programme areas due to safety concerns. With staff periodically immobile, there was a limited flow of assessment information for decision-making purposes. Finally, field operations were challenged with shortages of fuel and other commodities and destabilisation of the Yemeni currency, the rial.

Despite these barriers, rapid assessments were still able to take place in accordance with security advisories. Once gathered, information was compiled and disseminated in Yemen and Amman. Information was regularly shared within the United Nations (UN) cluster system. Field teams were frequently tasked with following up on information related to their area of operation. Management provided remote technical backstopping and addressed all issues as quickly as possible to ensure the programme moved forward.

It was clear from the assessment information that the programme would need to shift its focus towards addressing immediate humanitarian needs and away from resilience-building activities. In order to adapt to growing food-assistance needs and the changing operational context, the community asset projects were dropped. It was determined that continuing the FFA portion of the programme would put staff and beneficiaries at risk. As a result, the programme was redesigned to scale up unconditional food assistance to meet the growing need. SCI planned to reach IDPs and local host communities to address their immediate food needs through electronic voucher transfers. The resources saved by dropping the FFA component of the programme allowed the beneficiary caseload to increase by about 75%; from 3,500 households per year to 6,050 households in the third year alone. Figure 1 shows the number of households that were assisted before and after the decision to change the design of the programme was made, in consultation with the donor.

Cash transfers were considered, but the programme retained the e-voucher scheme because it was considered more appropriate with sharp fluctuations in market prices, supply chain disruptions and depreciation of the rial. To facilitate food assistance in the target programmes, SCI began to negotiate directly with national food distributors to ensure local vendors were provided with the required food and timely delivery. The programme continued to use the MasterCard system, which proved to be agile enough to meet the demands of a rapid scale-up of beneficiaries. In fact, having an established electronic food-voucher programme in place was key to the programme’s ability to scale up assistance.


Through paper and electronic vouchers, 13,400 households (around 93,800 individuals) were able to receive wheat (50 kg), beans (12 cans), cooking oil (4 litres) and rice (20 kg) on a monthly basis for at least six months. Perhaps the most interesting insight from the programme endline survey is how household vulnerability and hunger changed during the course of the programme. Endline data showed that the mean HDDS, which is used as a proxy measurement of household socio-economic status, increased by 31% compared to the baseline. Using the HHS, households with no or little hunger increased by 76%, while severe hunger fell to zero. These improvements in food-security outcomes came despite a major conflict and disruptive markets.

The mean HDDS trend throughout the third year of the programme clearly illustrates how the emergency assistance supported beneficiary households during the course of the programme (see Figure 2). At the time of the baseline, mean HDDS for the beneficiaries in the third year of the programme was 3.88. While households received food assistance (January to June 2016), HDDS scores temporarily elevated to between 47% and 51% of the baseline. The endline HDDS measurement, which took place one month after the last distribution in July 2016, fell to 5.07. It is unknown how far the HDDS has fallen since the end of the programme. While there is no clear cut-off for this measure, the increase in mean HDDS while households were receiving assistance and some lingering effects of elevated HDDS after the assistance stopped indicates that the food assistance relieved economic pressure and reduced vulnerabilities for the target households.

It is important to note that each measurement was taken with a new cross-sectional random sample of the beneficiary population; therefore some changes in mean HDDS between each round of measurements are likely due to sampling variance. Additionally, the programme was unable to capture non-beneficiary HDDS scores to understand the likely impact of the programme. Despite those limitations, a Welch approximation test showed that mean HDDS between the baseline and endline were not equal: t (1074.4) = 13.285; p = 0.001. The boxplot in Figure 3 shows the difference in the HDDS distributions between the baseline and endline. It is clear from this plot that the central tendency for the endline measurement of HDDS shifted upwards and the variance was reduced. Levene’s test indicated the variance was not equal between the two groups; p<0.001.

In the first two years, prior to the outbreak of conflict, the community asset-improvement projects contributed to increased access to water assets, improved market access through repaired roads, and improved water harvesting through repair of agriculture and rehabilitation of terraces. More than 430 asset projects were successfully implemented (see Table 2).

During years one and two of the programme, 80% of year one beneficiaries and 95% of year two beneficiaries sampled indicated they benefited from the community assets projects, especially those related to water and road projects. Surprisingly, some beneficiaries from the third year of the programme who were not in villages that directly benefited from the FFA activities also reported that they benefited from the community asset-improvement projects from previous years. This most frequently happened when roads were able to link multiple communities to markets and highways. Eighty-six per cent of those who were provided with some type of road asset saw an improvement in travel time. All those who received some type of water asset saw improvements in agricultural and livestock production. Some beneficiaries asserted that working on community assets gave them an opportunity to recognise the value of cooperation and that they can replicate similar activities in the future. Finally, both hygiene and breastfeeding education were mentioned as an intervention with lasting effects; 77% of the respondents expect the MTMSGs to continue to function.1


In March 2015, the conflict in Yemen forced SCI’s USAID-funded, resilience-strengthening programme in Dhamar and Sana’a governorates to reassess beneficiary needs and adapt the programme design to meet a growing humanitarian crisis and changing operational environment. Key challenges during this period included a deteriorating security situation for programme staff and beneficiaries, rapidly increasing prices, limited commodity supplies and devalued local currency. Further, the outbreak in violence required senior management to evacuate the country and limited field staff movement within operational areas.

In the face of these challenges, there was still a window of opportunity to adapt the programme to the context and provide much-needed food assistance. As a result, the community asset-improvement activities were replaced with an emergency food-assistance programme that served almost twice as many beneficiaries. Monitoring data collected throughout this period showed a measurable increase in HDDS for target beneficiaries and a decrease in the HHS.

Key to the programme’s success was the field staff’s willingness to leverage its experience and community network to mobilise and gear up beneficiary selection. The use of MasterCard’s electronic food-voucher programme in the first two years also provided the infrastructure that allowed for new activities to easily scale up to meet the programme’s need.

For more information, contact: Mustafa Ghulam, email:




1While baseline and endline IYCF assessments were made, different methods were used, which has limited comparison.











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Reference this page

Mustafa Ghulam and Mohammed H Alshama’a (). Adapting a resilience improvement programme in conflict: Experiences from Yemen. Field Exchange 53, November 2016. p47.



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