Last Friday, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) threatened to withhold more food aid to Yemen after discovering incidents of corruption. Much of the aid that the WFP provided did not reach the hungry Yemeni people, but was instead diverted to front line soldiers or sold on the black market.
Food shortages have been a major consequence of the continuing conflict in Yemen, with the UN warning that 14 million people are at the tipping point of extreme famine. This problem will be further exacerbated if the mismanagement of food aid continues. In a study conducted in December, it was found that despite the volume of food being delivered to the country, more than half of Yemen’s population are not receiving enough to eat.
Herve Verhoosel, WFP spokesperson, has demanded that a biometric registration system be introduced to ensure food aid is being given to the right recipients. This system already exists in Aden, a government-controlled region of Yemen, and according to the WFP it has successfully diminished the amount of food theft in that region. It has also ensured that food assistance has been going to those who are truly in need. However, WFP would like to extend this program to Sana’a in northern Yemen, which is controlled by the rebel forces known as the Houthis. The biometric system uses personal data like iris scans and ten-finger prints to identify legitimate registered beneficiaries. Verhoosel believes that this will be the only way food assistance can be properly managed in Yemen. Due to the pressing nature of the food crisis, this may be the quick and simple solution to food theft.
This food theft problem has also calls into question the UN’s effectiveness in Yemen. In 2018 the UN, United States, and Saudi Arabia contributed $4 million in aid for Yemen, to be spent on food, shelter, and medical care. These figures are projected to rise in 2019. Despite the amount of support being injected into Yemen, the WFP has stated that they can only monitor 20% of the food baskets which have been delivered. The Associated Press also found that there have been some months where the UN has sent enough food to Sana’a to feed twice its population, yet the latest figures have shown that 65% of its residents are facing food shortages and 7,000 have reached famine level. So, it is possible the UN has known about the problem for a long time now, but has been reluctant to speak out against the Houthis for fear of retaliation by either seizing aid trucks or denying access to starving people.
The Yemen conflict began in 2014 after the Arab Spring, when Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi led the Houthi armed movement against Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Yemeni government. Since then, Yemen has been ravaged by continuous violence. The lack of food reaching civilians in need has typically been attributed to intense fighting coupled with bureaucratic obstacles. For example, port cities like Hodeidah have been strategic points of conflict, which has barred imports from entering Yemen. At the end of 2018, peace talks were held which have minimized the fighting in the region, yet we have not seen much relief to the food crisis. However, the news of the ongoing food theft in Yemen indicates that even if peace talks allowed more food to be bought into the country, there is little chance it would make a difference to the Yemeni people.
The corruption was first revealed by Associated Press in December last year, after a lengthy investigation and interviews with more than 70 aid workers. They found that there have been ongoing incidents in Houthi-occupied territory of purposefully blocking food from getting to civilians and instead diverting it to front line men or selling it on the black market. In a literal sense, the Houthis have been directly feeding the source which has caused this terrible humanitarian crisis. As long as the fighting continues and the combatants themselves are well looked after, the food shortage will continue to affect the Yemeni people. Geert Cappalaere, the middle East director for UNICEF, stated, “This has nothing to do with nature. There is no drought here in Yemen. All of this is man-made. All of this has to do with poor political leadership which doesn’t put the people’s interest at the core of their actions.” Despite the cynicism of Cappalaere’s statement, is there is hidden hope within his words, because unlike a famine caused by natural disaster, the solution to a man-made crisis is entirely achievable by man too.