Starvation in Yemen: Aid Blockades leave Yemeni Families in Peril

By: Allison Lee

In the midst of the five-year Yemeni Civil War, more than 24 million civilians are in need of relief. The crisis caused worldwide concern and prompted the largest humanitarian relief effort in the world. However, major barriers due to dangerous warzones and endless political paperwork prevent current relief efforts from reaching civilians, causing tension and fear for all involved and fueling the disease and starvation running rampant throughout the country.

The war in Yemen dates back to 2011, when riots forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign and give control to Deputy Adbrabbuh Mansour Hadi. President Hadi’s failure to successfully address multiple challenges in the poor country, including corruption, political tension, and violence between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces, caused the country to weaken further. In 2014, a Houthi Shia rebel movement attacked and gained control of the northern Saada province as well as the capital, Sanaa, driving President Hadi to flee the country. In March 2015, a task force of Saudi Arabia and eight other nations, with support from the United States and United Kingdom, planned to restore President Hadi’s government and began air strikes on the Houthis. In December 2017, Houthi fighters cut ties with former President Saleh and murdered him. The stalemate that followed continues to endanger the lives of starving citizens in need of aid while the country simultaneously battles one of the world’s largest cholera outbreaks.

In an attempt to save the lives of Yemeni civilians, countries and private donors are contributing massive amounts of aid. While millions of dollars worth of food and aid are pouring into Yemen, the majority of it sits untouched in warehouses. Statistics from the UN show that “39 percent of all projects that NGOs submitted to SCMCHA for approval in 2019 are pending, holding up aid worth an estimated total of $130 million that is meant to reach 3.2 million people.” The urgency of the need, combined with the lack of distribution is causing significant frustration for both Houthi representatives and humanitarian organizations. The lengthy process of paperwork, agreements, and proposals causes many items to expire before they are able to be distributed, causing great frustration in the humanitarian organizations. The Houthi’s designated body controlling humanitarian efforts is the Supreme Council for the Management and Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or SCMCHA. When tearing open a bag of flour in a warehouse, Alaan Fadayil, the senior SCMCHA official in Hajjah, remarked “When you see worms and insects in these bags, is this edible for humans?” Due to situations like this, the goods needed to sustain the population are sitting within reach as people die waiting for them. These issues are causing suspicions about whether the aid is being purposefully withheld. Even if the food is authorized to be distributed, barriers such as the dangerous warzones, bureaucratic red tape, and intervention from both sides of the war make it difficult to allocate to needy groups. 

Despite the SCMCHA’s frustrations with distributing aid, many of the underlying challenges are internal and political. The most recent tension resulted because “SCMCHA issued a decree late last year that would require two percent of all NGO aid budgets to go to the authorities.” Theoretically, the Houthis proposed the tax to cover the costs of transporting aid to civilians. However, humanitarian aid organizations argue that the tax may likely instead be used as funding for the war. In response, Mane al-Assal, head of SCMCHA’s Department of International Cooperation, stated “We don’t want any disagreements with aid agencies. We informed them that if we work together towards a common goal to help people in need then we will not disagree, but not if they bring in political considerations.” The unsettling demands are causing global aid organizations to grow weary, putting the humanitarian mission at risk of shutting down.

Between the American and British governments, $1.6 billion was supplied to Yemen in 2019, summing to about $3 billion in total aid from both countries. Considering the SCMCHA decree and the massive amounts of waste resulting from aid left untouched, the U.S. is threatening to “suspend its contributions to the aid program.” Further, Herve Verhoosel, Senior Spokesperson for the World Food Programme, stated that “our greatest challenge does not come from the guns,” but instead, “the obstructive and uncooperative role of some of the Houthi leaders in areas under their control.” However, despite the frustration from contributing nations, suspending aid is far from ideal. For this reason, supporting countries hope to develop ways to overcome the many barriers that prevent Yemeni citizens from receiving food and medical supplies. 

Meanwhile, with political conflict rampant, millions of citizens are trapped in their homes with no source of food or healthcare. Take, for example, 12 year old Fatima Qoba, who weighed just 10 kg when she arrived at the Yemeni Malnutrition Clinic. Dr. Makiah al-Aslami stated that, “All the fat reserves in her body have been used up, she is left only with bones. She has the most extreme form of malnutrition.” Unfortunately, Qoba is not alone. The UN stated that nearly 10 million people in Yemen are on the brink of starvation. The political tug-of-war currently preventing an entire population from receiving the help they need is unacceptable. Regardless of how much money is poured into the conflict, an agreement must be reached in order to ameliorate the crisis at hand.

On Thursday, February 14th, aid agencies and major donors attended a meeting in Brussels to discuss the many challenges of aid dispersion in Yemen. The meeting was centered on the issue of the Houthi’s demands for taxes as well as their interference within aid distribution. The conversations prompted the SCMCHA to deliver a letter to the UN declaring that it would delay the taxing “and not apply it for this year 2020.” This success, as well as the ongoing conversations, motivated donors to continue to fund humanitarian aid and protect the lives of millions of Yemeni civilians.

There is no time for political debates and demands. With millions of lives at stake, it is crucial that the aid supplies be delivered to citizens promptly. In a time of civil war, the first and foremost priority must be the people and lives that are being fought for. The future of Yemen and its children relies on the cooperation of world leaders to ensure their safety. Until an agreement is reached, children, parents, and people living in unfathomable situations will continue to pay the price.