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Yemen’s priorities: feed the starving children or security?

At the beginning of Ramadan 2012, recognition of the urgency of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is welcome, despite being so badly delayed. But who needs help most?

Helen Lackner
24 July 2012

Good news, Yemen is in the news again.  Better news, it isn’t because of al Qaeda.  Now for the bad news: it is that finally, after months of hard work from NGOs and the humanitarian community, the media are showing some interest in the desperate humanitarian crisis faced by the Yemeni population. 

Unfortunately for them, Yemenis are not in the habit of setting off on roads to nowhere carrying what little possessions they have and heading for borders or other places in the hope that somehow help will come to them in camps run by the UN and humanitarian organisations.  So the world has easily failed to notice the poverty and starvation which have worsened dramatically in the past year and have now reached the point of extreme crisis with pictures familiar from African famines of starving and dying children too weak to cry and desperate parents whose distress is only too visible in their eyes. 

In recent times Yemen has featured in the news usually because of the activities of Al Qaeda and associates, or thanks to the revolutionary movement which has brought about fundamental but more gradual change than in more prominent Arab countries. Always the least noticed country in the Middle East, Yemen’s revolution is not often recognised as such for its transformational potential.  But now, at the beginning of Ramadan 2012, recognition of the urgency of the humanitarian crisis is welcome, despite being so badly delayed.

Poverty in Yemen is not new:  the country has a history of outmigration going back centuries, due to its inability to provide sufficient income for its population largely due to its limited agricultural potential and water scarcity. Most recently, prior to the uprisings in January 2011, Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab World.  It had a rural poverty rate of 50% and a national one of 43%, both of which were increases over the previous few years and both considered underestimates by many Yemenis and other close observers. 

Why the current widespread hunger? 

As well as the ‘occupy’ movement which started and grew throughout the country in all the major cities and some towns, the simultaneous power struggle between the ruling Ali Abdullah Saleh clique and its rival Al Ahmar group contributed to reducing the majority of the population to destitution.  While foreign involvement focused primarily on ‘the war against terror’ and secondarily on addressing the internal political struggle, the country’s already dire economic situation was allowed to deteriorate.   This went alongside a number of events which seriously worsened the overall economic situation: 

-     drought which affected the survival of all rural households (over 70% of the population still lives in rural areas), as rain-fed agriculture produced less than ever

-     frequent and major fuel shortages combined with the multiplication of fuel prices by up to 4 times meant that farmers could not afford the diesel needed to operate their irrigation systems for vegetables and other high value crops

-     the economic crisis reduced the limited earning opportunities for casual labourers in building and elsewhere;  the majority of rural families are nowadays dependent on the earnings of their young men in towns and cities;  this has become their number one source of income

-     widespread and lengthy urban power cuts reduced work opportunities in factories, in trade and throughout the economy, 

-     insecurity and lack of policing ensured that men were very reluctant to leave home and their families without protection

-     fighting at different times in different places discouraged further movement; moreover the economic situation being dire throughout the country, there was little point in moving from one place with zero potential to another one with the same potential  

-     reduced operation and even sometimes complete stoppage of welfare payments

-     with the simultaneous rise in price of basic foods on the international market, retail prices of cereals and vegetables reached levels which were way beyond the reach of the majority of the population.

Current humanitarian aid situation

While some elements of the UN system and NGO humanitarian agencies continued throughout to try and raise the concern of the ‘international community’ to the seriousness of the humanitarian situation, their cries mostly addressed deaf ears.  The UN’s Consolidated Appeal Process which tried to raise just under USD 600 million for 2012 had only received 43% of the needed funding by July 2012[1].  These funds are not primarily intended to address routine poverty and hunger in the country; 45% of this is allocated to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.  After various other costs, this leaves significantly less than half to address the needs of the 5 million poor, food-insecure population living at home. 

The prime beneficiaries of this aid are Somali and other refugees, as well as Yemenis displaced by the fighting. Both of these groups deserve a few words. There are about 210,000 Somali refugees in Yemen.  While many of them are officially based in the large Kharaz refugee camp in the southwest of the country, the majority live and work in the cities. Their main advantage over Yemenis is their access to regular supplies of food and other basic necessities through the UN.  In addition, those living in the camp, as well as the small villages surrounding them, have access to a level of social infrastructure which is far superior to those of the rest of rural Yemen. Other official refugees in Yemen are Palestinians and Iraqis who are integrated into Yemeni society and economy. 

There are two main groups of Internally Displaced People [IDPs]:  about 200,000 in the north west of the country, most of whom are in Haradh, near the Saudi Arabian border, living in and out of UN camps. These people have been displaced by the conflict between the central Government and the Huthi movement in the Sa’ada governorate, a conflict which has seen a series of wars since 2004.  The second group are those displaced for just over a year by the fighting between the government forces and al Qaeda in Abyan Governorate:  a further 200,000 or so people have been affected, the majority going to Aden where they live in schools and other buildings with others joining relatives and friends in al Baidha governorate. 

Who needs help most? 

While these groups are assisted by the UN humanitarian system, mostly through contracts with international and local NGOs, the vast majority of Yemenis, and particularly rural Yemenis, have been left out of what humanitarian support loop operates. Their conditions have deteriorated to the point of desperation which they have now reached.  With the estimate of 10 million food-insecure and over 5 million ‘severely food-insecure’, ie hungry and with no access to cash or food, the UN appeal only proposes to address the  needs of about 6 million people, still leaving many in desperate need and without any planned, let alone actual, assistance. Indeed, with a funding shortfall of 57% for the CAP, even these 6 million are hardly likely to see a solution to their problems.  Hence scenes of emaciated children close to death are likely to be repeated throughout the country, in towns and villages alike; the fact that we don’t see them on our TVs doesn’t mean they are not happening and people continue to suffer and die.  There is no doubt that CAP priorities need to be reviewed to give priority attention to the mass of ordinary rural and urban Yemenis whose needs have become more than urgent and whose lives are now at stake, particularly in the case of the most vulnerable, young children and the elderly.

Yemen has a history of food shortages and famines. The country’s culture means that the majority of those suffering retreat to their homes, close the doors and wait for death.  Public admission of poverty and destitution are perceived as shameful, so people do not advertise their desperation.  Scenes such as those portrayed in last week’s BBC news[2] are examples of a situation which is replicated throughout the country, and most extreme in remote rural areas where there are no medical services, let alone any emergency supplies.  

The ‘international community’ and the emergency 

The main international financiers, in the west and in the Gulf, all claim that money is available for Yemen, so one is left to wonder why the CAP is not fully funded, why the urgency of the situation is not being addressed? Why are other basic development needs not being addressed? Why are health services and emergency supplies not being distributed? There is little doubt that aid for the fight against terror is available, as was shown by the recent most welcome victories of government forces over al Qaeda associates in Abyan.  But to retain popular support, the new regime needs to address the needs of its population.  Abyan has now been re-taken but its 200,000 IDPs cannot go home until the area is cleared of mines and their houses, schools, health centres, water supplies and roads restored to a usable condition.  This emergency reconstruction aid should be a priority for the ‘donors’.  What are they waiting for? 

The BBC news item, meanwhile, ended with an interview with the well-fed General Yahia Mohammed Saleh, second in command of the Central Security Forces[3] who asserted with a broad smile that the fights against al Qaeda and ‘security come first’[4]


[1] UNOCHA Yemen, Humanitarian Response plan, Mid year review July 2012

[2]  BBC 2 Newsnight 19 07  12

[3]   He is also one of the nephews of the former president who are still in positions of power

[4]  Ibid.

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