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Food Aid Shortfall Threatens Yemen

Hugh McLeod in Thulla, Yemen

Thousands of displaced Yemenis who escaped fighting in the northern Saada province relied on United Nations assistance programmes for food and tent shelters. (AFP)

At a UN-sponsored distribution centre in Thulla, a picturesque but
dirt poor village 50km north-west of Sanaa, 30-year-old Jamila Ali
al-Mohn gathered with a few dozen pregnant women and young mothers to
collect a two-month support bag of grain, oil, sugar and salt.

The distribution of such food necessities is the culmination of an
effort by the World Food Programme (WPF) working in tandem with the
Yemeni health ministry to ensure these pregnant women and young mothers
have enough to feed themselves and their babies.

"We haven't eaten meat for a year. If there is money, I go and buy
eggs and vegetables from the market, but other than that all we have is
bread and tea," said Jamila, a mother of four.

Her husband was at work, the first day's labour he had seen on the farm for two months, she said.

When there is no farming to be done, he travels to Sanaa with a
bundle of narcotic qat leaves to sell to the many addicts of the city.
All together he makes around $30 a week.

But al-Mohn and other needy Yemenis may soon find that they will
have to look elsewhere for food assistance as the WFP says it may no
longer be able to continue aid deliveries.

Lack of funding

As the international community focuses on defeating al-Qaeda in
Yemen, millions of ordinary people in the country on the south-west tip
of the Arabian Peninsula are quietly starving as vital deliveries of UN
food aid are severely cut due to a lack of funding.

By the end of June 2010, analysts predict, the WPF will have no food to distribute to Yemen's millions of hungry.

There are fears that this will debilitate the nearly one in three
Yemenis - over seven million people - who struggle daily to find enough
food to live a healthy and productive life, leading to rates of
malnutrition that are the third highest in the world.

A recent survey by the WFP estimated that of those going hungry each
day, 2.7mn Yemenis are classified as "severely food insecure" meaning
they spend one third of their meagre incomes just on bread.

"They are in a total poverty trap," says Gian Carlo Cirri, thw WFP country director.

"Most of the time they are illiterate, they have no access to land
or water. The children are not attending school and the probability of
having a malnourished child in the family is extremely high."

Dangerous journey

WFP estimates it requires $103m this year and next in order to feed
over three million of Yemen's poor and hungry, including up to 350,000
people displaced by the recent war in the north and the boatloads of
Somali refugees continuing to pour into the country.

There are fears that a sudden cut in food aid to those displaced
people living in camps such as Mazrak could spur families to return to
areas in and around Saada, damaged by the sixth round of war between
the army and Huthi rebels, before they have been properly cleared of
unexploded ordnance and mines.

Already local reports say at least 20 people have been killed or injured after triggering booby traps left over from the war.

So far this year WFP has received just one donation from the US
consisting of food and cooking oil worth $4.8mn. According to Cirri,
the US donation equals the $4.8mn internal loan the agency was forced
to take out to continue its operations until the end of June.

A further $3mn to WFP from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund is
due to be received by the end of the month, but will do little more
than cover the needs of refugees.

Traditional donors to WFP Yemen, including Germany, Saudi Arabia and
Britain, have yet to pledge assistance, a move seen by some observers
as reluctance to write blank cheques for the government of Abdullah Ali
Saleh, the Yemeni president, without seeing concrete political and
security reforms that would help ease his country's acute instability.

"Donors are still two years behind the humanitarian community.
Politics is irrelevant in a humanitarian situation. Feeding people is a
moral issue," said Andrew Moore, head of Save the Children in Yemen.

Foreign investment

A meeting at the end of March in Abu Dhabi brought together Yemen's
Gulf neighbours and Western countries, building on January's
discussions in London on how to spend the $5.7bn of investment pledged
in 2006, but of which to date less than 10 per cent has been disbursed.

Most of the shortfall has come from the at least $3.7bn of
assistance pledged to Yemen by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council

Yemen's Deputy Planning Minister Hisham Sharaf Abdullah presented
the 'Friends of Yemen' meeting with a five-year development plan which
he said would need $44bn in funding.

Yemen has long suffered the neglect of the international community:
In 2006 the country received just $13 per person of Overseas
Development Assistance (ODA), about one-third of the average for Least
Developed Countries.

The UN's first ever humanitarian appeal for Yemen, launch in
December and totalling $177mn, was, as of late last month, 80 per cent

The massive humanitarian intervention in Haiti, which has received
pledges of $9.9bn - more than double the amount requested by the
Haitian government - is known to have had a direct negative impact on
relief aid to Yemen.

"On the edge"

Meanwhile, the 'Triple F crisis' - rising food prices, falling fuel
revenues, and cuts to remittance flows due to the financial crisis -
has increased poverty here by nearly 25 per cent since 2006, wiping out
decades of development.

"People are really on the edge. The slightest shock will put their lives in danger," said WFP's Cirri.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the lead
agency providing shelter to Yemen's refugees and displaced, has less
than one-fifth of its required $39m budget, according to spokesman
Andrew Knight. "It is crucial we receive funding soon. The humanitarian
needs are huge and growing," he said.

UNHCR has submitted funding proposals to Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.

The agency is now applying for its third internal loan of up to $4mn
this year in order to continue providing tents and services, a
situation which Nabil Othman, the deputy representative, said was
unprecedented in the 20 years he had worked for UNHCR in Yemen.

"Some donors believe the GCC can contribute more and we have to hope
we see a positive response in the near future," said Othman.

UNICEF, the UN fund for children, is likewise struggling to meet
basic needs. Yemen has the lowest average birth rates in the world,
according to Dr Kamal Ben Abdullah, head of the Young Child Survival
and Development project at UNICEF Yemen.

While its regular development programme remains well-funded,
UNICEF's appeal for emergency projects such as feeding thousands of
severely malnourished children, those who are in immediate danger of
starving to death, remain substantially under-funded.

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