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Woman walking through ruined area of Sana'a, Yemen

Why does the public ignore Yemen?

13 November 2018
Author: Charles Lawley

Chandler: “I’m only going to pretend I’m moving to Yemen, it’s the only way I can get rid of her.”

Joey: “Ohhh, good one! And Yemen – that actually sounds like a real country!”

I was reminded of this exchange from an episode of Friends when I saw the findings of the YouGov poll that we at Human Appeal commissioned. The results showed that 42% of the UK didn’t even know there was a war going on in Yemen. Why is there such ignorance towards Yemen, especially as the country is crippled by conflict and on the brink of the worst famine in our lifetime? 

My initial thought is that we expect to consume news in the same way we consume entertainment. We are used to the Hollywood “good guy” and “bad guy” narrative, yet in this conflict it isn’t clear who the villains are and where the heroes come from. We also expect a clear ending to our movies, yet there is no foreseeable finale to this conflict.

Some in the media have called for action to be taken against the Saudi government, such as suspending arms sales. However, that has potential implications for UK jobs and it is feasible that British public opinion prioritises UK employment over concerns for the conflict in Yemen.

A lack of media coverage

Despite living in the age of 24-hour news, there are only limited prime media slots. When so much of the UK news is consumed by Brexit, foreign affairs stories struggle for coverage and Yemen is forced to compete with issues like Syria. In our poll, 77% of respondents were aware of the Syrian conflict and 63% knew of Afghanistan.

Is Yemen just less suited to the British media than Syria? The official death toll of Yemen (between 10,000 and 50,000) is a lot lower than Syria’s (sometimes quoted as high as 500,000). The refugee crisis of 2015, triggered by the escalation of violence in Syria, also had a very clear impact on Europe. It is geographically much more difficult for a Yemeni refugee to make it to UK shores compared to a Syrian, so we haven’t and won’t ever see a Yemeni refugee crisis that affects the UK on the scale that we saw three years ago. 

Is the British public less inclined to care about Yemen because there is much less obvious impact on us? Or perhaps the public just has a limited bandwidth for foreign affairs and Syria, with its higher death toll, and Afghanistan, with more direct British involvement, take priority? 

A lack of understanding?

Finally, there is the fact that Yemen is a confusing country to outsiders. It doesn’t fit the oil-rich Arab nation stereotype. It has long been the sick man of the Arabian Peninsula, with the worst development indicators.

The structure of Yemeni society is alien to western liberal democracies with competing systems of tribal rules, sharia law, the state and rebels. The media may try and place the conflict within the parameters of “Sunni vs Shia” or “Iran vs Saudi” but it doesn’t quite fit those narratives. 

For a long time, the country was split into North Yemen and South Yemen, yet its reunification didn’t receive the fanfare German reunification did or Korean reunification would. Yemen is hard to get your head around, so most just don’t bother.

Time for a change

There are many reasons why we don’t care about Yemen, but with 75% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, a healthcare system crippled by conflict and cholera and an imminent famine the likes of which we have never seen, we need to start ensuring that the public takes more of an interest in the crisis. 

Get inspiration and tips for how to engage with the public on our public support page. You can also read more about the crisis in Yemen here [PDF], part of Bond's 2017 report The state of the world's emergencies.

About the author

Charles Lawley
Human Appeal

Charles Lawley is the UK media and external affairs coordinator for Human Appeal, a Bond member. He has worked at Human Appeal since 2016.