Assessing Structural Damage in Yemen: Five Minutes with Andrea Zanon and Philip Petermann

On March 31, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Andrea Zanon and Philip Petermann from the World Bank Group to discuss the Bank’s recent involvement in Yemen.

GJIA: What is a DNA, and how does it relate to Yemen?

AZ: A DNA is a Damage Needs Assessment. We normally do them in the event of natural disasters or humanitarian emergencies, or circumstances that result in large damages or losses. Yemen is a conflict country in which there is an ongoing disaster. We are doing a live DNA for the World Bank both to stay engaged with the current situation in the country and to begin to prepare, at least at an early stage, for an intervention when pockets of stability form. These assessments help us stay engaged with main industries within the country and encourage the continuation of technical dialogue. This project also allows for a strong and continued presence of the World Bank in Yemen and ensures that the UN, the Islamic Bank, and EU are all working cooperatively toward recovery.

GJIA: What were the key components and findings of the Yemen DNA?

PP: The assessment analyzed four Yemeni cities: Sana’a, Aden, Zinjibar, and Ta’izz. Within these cities, we examined six infrastructure-related sectors: energy, health, education, water, transportation, and housing. We found that around 50 percent of analyzed assets in the energy and water and sanitation sectors, 25 percent in the education and health sectors, and 10 percent in the housing sector were damaged.

GJIA: How did you conduct the DNA?

AZ: It is primarily a remote assessment. The World Bank typically cooperates with the host country on ground operations, but since the Yemeni government was in exile at the time, we had no presence on the ground. Therefore, for this DNA, we used satellite imagery, social media analytics from Twitter and Facebook, and to the extent possible, government sources and civil society groups within the country to validate the findings that resulted from these data collection sessions.

GJIA: To what extent has the World Bank facilitated communication with Yemeni locals and government officials?

AZ: The Yemeni government officials that we are working with, our counterparts, are currently in exile. This obviously poses tremendous difficulties for coordination, data collection, and validation efforts. Despite the current security challenges, there are specific focal points within the country’s technical ministries and agencies with whom we interact. However, we do not maintain constant communication with people on the ground. Electricity access also is another major challenge. Some cities only have three to four hours of electricity a day, so it becomes very difficult to talk by email or any other means of communication.

GJIA: Yemen is a primarily rural country. Why does the DNA focus on cities?

AZ: The World Bank’s comparative advantage is its ability to assess damage to infrastructure. It is therefore cost-effective to do a DNA in Yemeni cities, since that is where most of the country’s infrastructure exists. It is also more expensive to assess the agricultural damages of a rural area because there would need to be a significant on-the-ground presence in order to do so. However, the rural aspect of the Yemeni assessment is something that we are very aware of, and we aim to cover the most significant rural areas in the next phase of the DNA that starts this month.

GJIA: Are the levels of damage to the six sectors examined in this assessment comparable to those found in other conflict countries?

AZ: We have observed the same type of damages in chokepoints in Iraq and Syria, particularly in the energy, housing, education, and health sectors. The comparison gets a bit complicated, however, because this Yemeni assessment was at the city, not national, level. The results must then be looked at holistically in order to get a good understanding of the total damage costs.

GJIA: Why has the World Bank previously shied away from doing DNAs in areas of conflict?

AZ: The World Bank is always very concerned about the security of its staff and its assets; so when there is a war, we evacuate that region quickly. That does not mean that we do not stay involved; however, we tend to intervene only when the security situation allows. Since the escalation of the Iraq-Syria crisis, we have attempted to deploy other tools in those countries in order to assess damages before the cessation of hostilities. We want to be ready the day before the conflict ends and jump in the day after.

GJIA: What is the next step, now that you have the findings of the assessment?

AZ: Conducting a DNA is a process. Phase 1 entails building a general understanding of the damage costs across multiple sectors within the country. This then sets the stage for phases 2 and 3. These go deeper into assessment and data collection, covering cities and rural areas that have not yet been addressed, as well as sectors that the government is interested in and that represent a significant percentage of GDP. It is therefore more akin to a dynamic platform than a single report.

GJIA: Outside of the Yemeni example, where else in the world can similar DNAs be used?

AZ: These types of assessments are applicable to any conflict or security situation. This tool has been previously piloted in Ukraine, as well as in Syria and Iraq. Northern Nigeria is another region where we have analyzed terrorist-type activity. The Ebola crisis, which devastated a lot of the West African economy, was also captured for damage needs assessments by similar tools: marketing science, social media, satellite imagery, and drones.

GJIA: What are the positives and negatives associated with these new assessment methods?

AZ: One of the positive aspects of social media, a relatively new method, is that it can be used in a variety of scenarios for damage needs assessments. For example, the European refugee crisis has provided a new monitoring opportunity through social media platforms that allows countries, such as Italy, to observe problems civilians are facing on the ground and provide ministerial support to more effectively place new immigrants, provide sustainable opportunities, and ensure security. However, we are still in the process of discerning what specific tools we need to address the specific needs of individual countries. One of the challenges of utilizing social media as a tool for assessment is connecting with people—how can we ensure that social media is fully integrated into the communication chain between international organizations and individuals? It is also crucial that we ensure that the recipients of the technological benefits of social media are activated into this new, transparent communication process, and that these social media systems are secure and that data is neither manipulated nor used for secondary efforts.


Andrea Zanon is a Senior Risk Management Specialist at the World Bank and a task team leader of the Yemen Damage and Needs Assessment. He has also built resilience programs in 11 MENA countries over the last five years, generating $2.5 billion in risk mitigation. Phillip Petermann is a Conflict and Risk Management Analyst at the World Bank. He previously worked in the private sector development division of the OECD and for a non-profit that specialized on peace-building issues in Somalia.