x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Politics should not eclipse food crisis in Yemen

Rising food prices mean the majority of Yemenis are living on one or two meals a day. Put away the politics - this is the real story that the international community needs to focus on.

analysis

Ashley Clements

The unstable situation in Yemen continues. But for ordinary people, everyday life must go on against a backdrop of protests, rising food prices and increased fuel costs. While attention focuses on the current turmoil, the needs of ordinary Yemenis are being lost in the midst of the political story.

Take for example a mother of five from the north of Yemen, who asked to be referred to as Umm Mohammad. Life has never been easy for her family, but in these uncertain times it is even more of a daily struggle.

Her husband has told her to cut the family's consumption of sugar and grain because food prices are rising. Some days the family even runs out of food - so she borrows from her neighbours, who have little enough themselves.

Umm Mohammad is just one of seven million people in Yemen who struggle to find enough to eat each day.

The unrest in the streets of Yemen has helped to focus international attention on the country. Last week, Valerie Amos, the UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, expressed serious concerns about the deteriorating humanitarian situation. For Yemen's most vulnerable, the crisis of food insecurity and malnutrition that threatens their daily survival is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution.

Over the years, both donors and the Yemeni government have shared a responsibility to tackle the immediate needs of the Yemeni people, yet repeated calls for assistance have failed to achieve tangible results for the country's poor.

Yemen continues to be the Middle East's poorest country, with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world. Oil production - Yemen's main source of revenue, on which it depends for foreign currency to import most of its food - is in decline as reserves dwindle, with experts giving the country as little as six years before it is no longer a viable source of revenue.

Painful economic reforms, water scarcity, a fluctuating currency and multiple conflicts further compound the country's many vulnerabilities.

Yemen is particularly exposed to rises in international food prices because it imports most of its staple foods. As food prices rise, Yemenis are increasingly going hungry. Many families now eat just two meals a day and some days that drops to one. Fuel costs are soaring and will soon become a luxury for some families.

According to the World Bank, Yemen has the third highest rate of malnutrition in the world, and more than half of Yemen's children are stunted because they are so malnourished.

The issues of food security and malnutrition in Yemen need to be addressed urgently by offering immediate assistance to the most severely affected through channels such as the national welfare agency and the United Nations.

Last September at a high-level meeting in New York, donors agreed on support for the government's welfare institutions. Yet little of this promise has been delivered and mothers like Umm Mohammad have seen no change.

With donor support, the Social Welfare Fund - which offers a lifeline to more than one million households across the country in the form of monthly cash handouts - could increase its coverage to provide a safety net for more of those households already identified to be in great need.

Long-term solutions such as these are underfunded but must not be put on the back burner because of the current uncertain situation.

Hopes continue to hang on proposals for a multi-donor trust fund for Yemen. Such a fund would enable significant and predictable investment in tackling the enormous development challenges facing Yemen's people. In spite of the turmoil, now is the time for donor governments to invest in the future of the country through secure channels which will mean the money will reach those most in need. Security priorities should not direct donors' interventions, but rather they should be dictated by the pressing humanitarian needs.

Umm Mohammad says she despairs when she thinks about what lies ahead. "I am frightened about the future. I don't know what will happen to me and my kids."

It doesn't have to be this way. Donors must step up to the plate. With enough well-targeted funding, as well as a long-term commitment to reform, the future of Yemen - and that of Umm Mohammad and her children - will be on a far firmer footing.

 

Ashley Clements is Oxfam's policy adviser based in Yemen