Yemenis go hungry as UN-rebel tiff disrupts aid

The United Nations' World Food Programme says 850,000 Yemenis will be affected by its partial aid suspension in Sanaa as the UN and the Houthi rebels argue about food quality and black market resale.

al-monitor Workers stand on a vehicle carrying food and medical supplies provided by the World Food Programme in Sanaa, Yemen, June 23, 2019. Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images.

Jul 16, 2019

SANAA, Yemen — As the United Nations' partial suspension of aid to Yemen’s capital Sanaa enters its fourth week — with no hope of resumption — Um Ahmed, 60, sees little hope of feeding her two sons and providing them with the medical treatment they need. The aid suspension across Sanaa has left parents like Um Ahmed destitute and perplexed as they watch their children waste away.

“I have two sons suffering from health problems. One has cancer and the other suffers from a mental illness,” Um Ahmed told Al-Monitor as she drove on a minibus June 28 in the Shoob district.

All passengers on the bus blamed both the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Houthi government for doubling their suffering.

Um Ahmed received a bag and half of flour per month along with peas or lentils before the WFP aid was suspended. She would sell either the half or the whole bag to buy cancer medication for her son. Following WFP accusations that Houthis were selling food aid on the black market right in front of schools where the organization would distribute the food, people stopped selling them. 

The Houthis denied the WFP accusations but the rebel-run Ministry of Interior tasked police forces to join WFP staff at schools’ gates to prevent people from selling the food and organize the distribution process. 

Um Ahmed was undeterred. She said, “I showed the officials at the school’s gate the hospital documents proving that my son has cancer, and they allowed me to sell the food so I can buy medication.”

On June 20, the WFP partially suspended aid to 850,000 people, in a country where 14 million people are “facing pre-famine conditions,” according to the UN.

“WFP will maintain nutrition programmes for malnourished children, pregnant and nursing mothers throughout the period of suspension,” the agency said in a statement.

The WFP and the Houthi Sanaa-based government continue to trade accusations over alleged misuse of food aid, which the WFP says is being diverted to fuel the conflict in Yemen while the Houthis accuse the WFP of sending spoiled supplies. The WFP has called for independent identification of beneficiaries and a biometric registration system.

Al-Monitor reached out to the WFP via email, but it declined to comment on the ongoing dispute.

Tareq Qutafi, a flour mill owner in Sanaa, claims very few beneficiaries of the WFP aid sell him their food for money. Rather, he said, the poor exchange the WFP flour — which is of low quality — for his own high quality flour mix. Others sell him their food baskets so they could pay their rent. 

“Beneficiaries ask me to exchange their WFP Australian-produced red flour for white flour,” Qutafi told Al-Monitor as he sat on a bag of flour marked WFP in Arabic. “Some give me sugar or oil [also from the WFP food basket] in exchange for my white flour so they can mix it with the red WFP wheat to make bread.”

Qutafi said that some people sell him their food so they can buy medication, but he refused to say whether Houthi loyalists had sold him large amounts of food.

Al-Monitor visited two schools in the Shoob district, where the WFP distributed the aid. The school’s guards told Al-Monitor people visit the school in the afternoons and evenings asking if there is any news of the aid distribution resuming.

When the WFP did distribute the aid in public schools in the Houthi-run capital, recipients would receive a text informing them that the aid had arrived at a specific school. Their names would be included on a list, and with a show of ID, they would receive the aid. 

The head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, told Reuters June 4 that the WFP's insistence on controlling the data of the beneficiaries is a breach of Yemen's sovereignty.

Since early this year, and most recently on June 25, the Houthis have blocked four ships carrying food aid at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah after the WFP threatened to suspend aid, claiming the food was spoiled. 

Faisal Mudhesh, a senior official in the Houthis' National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Response, said the dispute with the WFP is over the body's insistence on sharing the data with donors.

“WFP is asking to take the fingerprints of all beneficiaries, including children and elders. It also wants to take their photographs and conduct an iris scan,” Mudhesh told Al-Monitor via phone June 29.

“WFP wants the database to be at its disposal and to have the right to share it with the so-called donors including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US, i.e. the aggressor countries,” he noted.

Mudhesh said his organization has offered the WFP alternatives such as a biometric registration system that does not violate Yemeni law, or an electronic ID system with a national number for all beneficiaries.

“We even told the WFP that the Department of Civil Status and Civil Registration can cooperate with it to carry out field registration. The DCSCR would save the data, while the WFP would have full access to check and supervise the data,” he said, insisting, “No one has the right to share citizens’ personal data with foreign countries.”

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable in Yemen will continue to pay the price of this dispute.

“We expect a surge in food prices,” Qutaf said. "Without food assistance, a bag [50 kg] of high quality wheat may reach 15,000 Yemeni riyals" — $60 at the black market rate or $30 at the official exchange rate.

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