The population of Yemen is one of the most under-nourished in the world. The World Food Programme (WFP) ranks Yemen as the 11th most “food insecure” country. The statistics are shocking: one third of Yemenis are estimated to be acutely hungry, with malnutrition the underlying cause for 80% of fatalities amongst those under five years of age. For many Yemenis, especially in rural areas, hunger is part of day-to-day reality.
While in recent years the gravity of Yemen’s food crisis has been increasingly brought to light by international aid agencies, the situation remains chronic, with hunger levels barely improving over the past three decades. Much of this is a result of the intrinsic link between food insecurity and the wider political situation in Yemen. Although food supplies and other assistance provided by NGOs and aid agencies have been vital, there are limits to what can be achieved in the absence of broader political reforms. As on-going mass popular protests continue to push Yemen to the brink, the chances of a new political order that could address the country’s nutritional needs has become increasingly possible.
Causes of Malnutrition and Food Insecurity
The immediate causes of Yemen’s hunger crisis are clear. The country ranks 133 out of 169 on the Human Development Index, and many problems associated with underdevelopment have contributed to malnutrition, including poverty, disease, lack of access to clean water, illiteracy, and low levels of breastfeeding. Many Yemenis live on the brink, with volatile food prices and conflict pushing large segments of the population into a state of acute hunger. In addition, because Yemen is resource-poor, the country is heavily dependent upon the importation of basic staples, like wheat, such that the price of many food commodities is subject to exchange rate fluctuations.
A complex combination of social and political factors also contributes to the country’s food instability. Qat – a mildly narcotic leaf chewed by many Yemenis, especially in social settings – remains the country’s primary cash crop, using up to 40% of the country’s annual water consumption. Water is a precious resource in Yemen and is fast running out, with the unregulated drilling of wells – especially for qat agriculture – aggravating the water shortage. The politics of hunger in Yemen remains poorly understood, particularly the role played by patronage networks, as well as monopolies and oligopolies of grain supply in inhibiting market mechanisms. For instance, because land ownership is poorly defined, farmers face great difficulties in using their land as collateral for loans, a situation that is complicated by the frequent disputes over land ownership that result from land gifts given to maintain patron-client relationships.
Impediments to Action
While the causes of food insecurity may be daunting, consensus exists over the need for action. Nonetheless, despite recent renewed focus by the Yemeni government and aid agencies on tackling malnutrition in the country, frustration is growing over the lack of change. Ongoing disagreements between humanitarian actors and the Yemeni government about next steps have hindered progress on the issue. Tensions have been exacerbated by funding shortfalls, which have created a pressing need to prioritise the most important interventions from the laundry list of issues in need of resolution.
There has been a widening gap in expectations between Yemen’s international partners and its government. The country’s Ministry of Health has developed the National Food Security Strategy, a comprehensive and widely praised program that has received approval at the highest levels of government, but the recommended list of interventions remains far beyond the Ministry’s limited budget – the government’s existing nutrition strategy only receives an allocation of $30,000 a year. Government officials argue that donors must fund implementation of the Strategy, that its success is purely a matter of budgetary support and technical assistance, while the donors take issue with this diagnosis of the problem.
In order to tackle the root causes of the food crisis, it is increasingly clear that a much greater degree of political commitment and leadership is required from the government. The government must make politically difficult decisions in a number of sectors, from enforcing the water law and implementing land reform to raising the minimum age for marriage. These are just a few examples of difficult political decisions that budgetary support and technical assistance from donors will not solve. In addition to these, the question of food security requires that the government tackle fundamental economic issues at the heart of the problem, including poverty, unemployment and underinvestment in public services.
A Stalled Reform Process
For years, indications have emerged from a number of different sources that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government was running out of time to implement desperately needed reforms. In 2008, a group of young reformers within the Yemeni government developed a “10 Point Plan” recommending various reforms, including the reduction of oil subsidies, streamlining the bloated civil service, and implementing measures to tackle unemployment. In August 2010, the IMF approved a $369.8m loan to Yemen and has since been advising the country on the implementation of much-needed economic reforms. In January 2010, the “Friends of Yemen” group, which includes the United States, the UK, and a number of EU and GCC member states, was formed to coordinate the international community’s policies towards Yemen, aiming to both support and challenge the government in its handling of domestic issues.
While economic reforms such as these are urgently needed to improve the situation of ordinary Yemenis, little progress has been made in terms of implementation. Reforms tackling the economic situation and addressing the complex, multifaceted issue of food security require political commitment at the highest level, which has thus far been absent from Yemen. Analysts argue that political structures in Yemen – specifically the concentration of political power in the hands of the President and his small inner circle – have inhibited the possibilities for change, political, economic, or otherwise. The elite has benefited from the status quo and has resisted reforms that are against its interests.
What Lies Ahead?
As the political situation spirals out of control it seems that Saleh’s government may have finally run out of time. Civil unrest – erupting into insurgency in some of the northern governorates – has been commonplace in parts of Yemen for a number of years. However, recent developments, such as a united movement amongst young Yemenis in all major cities (including Sana’a) centring around the slogan of “the people want the fall of the regime”, have brought the political crisis to a head. These unprecedented demonstrations are a testament to the belief amongst ordinary Yemenis that their government is either incapable or unwilling to respond to their needs.
Apparently refusing to accede to a peaceful transition of power, Saleh has increasingly opted for the violent repression of the protests. As his allies continue to desert him, the likelihood of high levels of violence has increased. The UN’s top relief official has already expressed concern about the worsening humanitarian situation. Predictions that political power in Yemen will become increasingly fragmented may be coming true, with tribes and rebel groups such as the Houthis appearing to control a handful of provinces, including Sa’dah, Abyan and al-Jawf. Although humanitarian and development actors have already been working in partnership with Yemen’s tribes to deliver aid, international efforts to support food security in Yemen have historically been significantly dependent on government cooperation and partnerships with various ministries. However, as the political crisis deepens, aid agencies will likely find that the government has less and less capacity to act, even on urgent issues.
Nevertheless, with the regime’s days appearing to be numbered, this period could represent an opportunity for positive change, particularly if the international community provides proper support to the protestors. While the outbreak of civil war may be a very real possibility, hope for a relatively peaceful transition still exists. Yemenis have clearly demanded that the government eschew corruption and work to meet their basic needs vis a vis jobs, food, education, and healthcare. The international community can support the Yemeni people in realising these demands, such as by ending the external support for Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government (particularly in the form of billion dollar aid transfers from Saudi Arabia and military aid from the United States) that has historically been a factor in reducing the regime’s accountability to the people.
International legitimacy is a powerful currency, and the international community needs to make sure that it sends firm and consistent signals to the Yemeni government about the necessity of a peaceful transition, and the unacceptability of human rights violations. External actors must refocus their aid to support development projects in Yemen rather than narrowly-defined security goals. While the causes of hunger in Yemen are deep rooted and cannot be solved in the short term, a more legitimate and accountable government is a necessary part of tackling the country’s food crisis.
*Leonie Northedge is a graduate of the Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies Program at Oxford University. She was recently involved in running a workshop for UNICEF and the Chatham House Yemen Forum on ‘Malnutrition in Yemen: Developing an Urgent and Effective Response’. You can follow Leonie on Twitter @leonieleonie.