Yemen’s food for good

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Yemen’s food for good

While humanitarian agencies cannot be the world police, they are sometimes the difference between life and death. Amanda Fisher learns about the United Nations’ World Food Programme in Yemen, and how aid workers are caught in the 
crosshairs in the unstable country.

By Amanda Fisher

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Published: Wed 25 Dec 2013, 11:39 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 6:15 PM

Yemen is a country on the brink, facing triple threats from a lack of food, jobs and stability - so much so that last year Forbes ranked the country the world’s worst economy.

Nearly 10 million people, out of the country’s 23 million total population, are estimated to be hungry or on the edge of hunger; there are more than 300,000 internally displaced Yemenis (IDPs); and another 240,000 refugees have poured into the country, mainly from the nearby Horn of Africa. The average salary is no more than Dh370 per month.

The political situation is precarious, with an interim government overseeing the transition to elections – intended but not expected to take place in February – after a revolution in 2011, while large parts of the country are under the control of armed militant groups.

Yemen is a hotbed of religious tension, with Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula - variously described as the most lethal wing of Al Qaeda - based in the country, and reportedly behind the shutdown of a number of Western embassies earlier this year. Separately, there is a decade-long war raging in the north of the country between Shia and Sunni sects, which also implicates Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unknown interests are behind a spate of kidnappings of foreigners, while the US government continues a programme of drone strikes in the country to combat what it sees as terrorist forces.

All of this combines to make Yemen both a country in need and one extremely difficult to operate in.

Henning Scharpff is the United Nations’ World Food Programme deputy programme director in Yemen, overseeing assistance to 5 million people each year – including those who are food insecure, those caught in conflict zones and refugees.

He says the Yemeni economy is in no position to prop itself up.

“In the’s amongst the 10 worst countries, it’s really a resource problem and that’s why donors are still providing its resources.”

Yemen is the second worst country for chronic malnutrition. However, it is breaking onto the international radar - even if not for the right reasons.

“Because (terrorism) is a sensitive situation, I think the donor countries don’t want to lose Yemen as a relatively stable place.”

Feeding a country with 50 per cent unemployment

The WFP, which has been in the country since 1967, is aiming to spend $250 million in the country alone this year.

While they are closing in on that figure, it is always hard to ever achieve the full whack, Scharpff says.

“In the WFP, there are not many options that are 100 per cent funded, because donor interest shifts...(donors) need to spend more resources on Syria than Yemen.”

There are about 500,000 less people deemed “severely food insecure” this year than last, he says. But despite a stabilisation in the security situation, people seem to increasingly be buying food on credit.

A Somali boy getting water at Al Kharaz refugee camp, Aden, Yemen. — KT photos: Leslie Pableo

“That’s a negative strategy because if they don’t have jobs and the economy doesn’t change, how do they pay this back?”

Despite this, he says he is confident people who get food aid from the UN are using it for themselves, rather than selling it on. The WFP has an audit army of about 7000 who go and ensure the food is reaching populations in need.

One of the WFP’s feeding programmes is to help children across the country in the crucial early years of life, feeding 325,000 children under two and 200,000 children under five who get nutritional support.

There is also a project providing food to keep girls in school. The programme was covering 34,000 girls, who get food for attending school, but was due to encompass 100,000 girls by the end of the year.

Next year they will start a programme to insulate Yemenis from food shocks. The recovery and resiliance building programmes will help get the population - about 50 per cent of whom are unemployed - into other income generation such as farming. For this, the WFP will team up with other UN bodies, to introduce such industries as growing coffee beans in the Yemeni area of Mocha - where the namesake bean comes from, ripped up decades ago to make way for the ubiquitous amphetamine plants qat.

Scharpff says these will be “relatively small scale”.

“It’s not really in our emergency operation mode....but we want to change with our new programme to make (food aid) conditional.”

This would mean more programmes where school attendance is a requisite, for example.

Scharpff tells me there are about 2 million kids out of school working as labourers, with about 50,000 living away from home.

Snacks and meals at schools to get those children back in education is one tactic – which will have the added bonus of improving their concentration.

A recently-introduced WFP initiative is a cash alternative to food rations, with 57,000 families now getting almost $30 a month to buy food from the local markets, in turn stimulating the economy .

Not only that, the agency is leading a collaboration between different humanitarian organisations working in the country, to ensure the frequent shortages of commodities like fuel do not adversely affect operations. The WFP has built a national network of fuel tanks and storage warehouses that aid agencies can tap, while they charter flights and coordinate transport to ensure uninterrupted movement of aid across the divided country.

It is essential for stability to reign in Yemen, if it is to get back on track, Scharpff says.

“This could lead to ministries being able to focus on the development agenda, and not just trying to keep the status quo - but that depends on how this whole (election) process concludes.”

The elections were due to take place in February, after several postponements prior to the 2011 revolution, but that no longer seems likely after the UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, said last month elections would be delayed due to political obstruction.

But the uncertainty has not stopped the WFP from progressing.

“This year we have done all we want to do. We haven’t stopped distributions, (although) we have been less able to monitor distribution activities.”

That is impressive when you realise the international aid work is being done in a climate where kidnappings are an imminent threat.

Aid workers have faced death threats, had guns pulled on them, and been kidnapped.

“I think it’s important for international people to go out (into the field), but we are limited. We can (only) go to the main towns at the moment.”

‘I can hardly move’

Scharpff rattles off several cases - including one death - that have happened in the past few months alone. One American was kidnapped in front of a supermarket, an Iranian diplomat was snatched, then a Dutch couple, and a Sierra Leonean UNICEF worker was kidnapped after what appears to have been a botched attempt to kidnap the German Ambassador while he was shopping at a supermarket. Instead, one of his security detail tried to defend him, dying in the line of duty.

“I can hardly move, I can go from (work) to my house and back, and once a week we have security forces at a special supermarket where we can go shopping. And aside from that we’re told not to leave.”

The situation has been like this for several months, since the security situation caused five embassies to shut down in Sana’a in August – with the US and UK shutting down embassies further afield.

And Scharpff knows he’s in trouble if he ever does get kidnapped, with many kidnappers setting extortionately high ransom sums and simply handing hostages over to Al Qaeda if they fail to pay.

“I’m German. (My government) would not pay for me and the UN policy is not to pay and in a way it’s right, because you encourage that situation - but if you are in that situation, you want everything you can.”

Hostage-taking has become a big business in the country, and a way for many to earn money in the dire economic situation.

“These people need all the money to buy their weapons and ammunition and to pay their insurgents some money, so they kidnap and they get two million for some time.”

There has been a long history of kidnapping in the region, due to tribal conflicts. However, it used to be a more pleasant experience.

“It’s like you’re on holiday in a village. They let you use their telephone and their computer.”

These hostages were released within a few weeks, as it was costly for the hospitable villagers to fund the stay. These kidnappings have changed, and the villages are now just a transit point.

“It’s these criminals who get money to do this, but I think these cases are not the tribal stuff, they are probably for money for the people in the south (where the Al Qaeda is).”

And it’s getting close to home for Scharpff.

“There was a kidnapping attempt 30 metres from my door.”

A car followed a couple at midday, shooting at them and causing injuries before a car crash.

His family and friends back in Germany worry about his safety.

“Of course I don’t tell them everything, but they see on the news.”

Scharppf, who has more than 20 years’ experience working in the humanitarian sector, has previously worked in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, including Cambodia, Afghanistan (during 9/11), Angola and Indonesia.

“There’s a certain risk here, but then...if I was working in Berlin there’s always a risk, for example with traffic.”

But Scharppf, who during his Afghan stint once had a Taleban member intercept a phone call and ask him to finish it (“he was very nice, his English was very good”), concedes this is the most dangerous situation he’s been in.

“This threat is more serious, I have to say. I wasn’t under a real kidnapping threat and I think we here are, we shouldn’t move around freely. This is not a very comfortable feeling.”

The show must go on

But for now, Schrappf says he is putting his hopes in democracy.

“We hope that the national dialogue (roadmap to elections) will bring some change and initiate a start of a return to normality...if things go smoothly then things will start coming back.”

And all the while the hunt for donors goes on, with some major countries like America and Germany already promising large tracts of funding for next year.

Cracking the GCC funding is difficult though, as many governments like to give support through their own charities, he says.

“The UAE are interested in talking with us. We haven’t received much, but we have tried with private donors and they have provided us with funds.”

The Yemen country director is also planning on visiting countries in the region to drum up support.

“We are hopeful that we will get more support from them next year...we as an organisation need to dig into the funds of governments.”

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