Conflict, Civil Strife and Corruption: The Greatest Influences of Starvation in Yemen

Yemen’s political turmoil and violent insurgence had, a few years ago, totally dwarfed the fact that more than half the country’s population were under starvation. Attention was highly focused on the war and conflict that regular citizens who have nothing to do with the massacres were the ones bearing the brunt of the country’s violence. 

Yemen’s situation has not changed much from years past. More notably, any slight reprieve the country had experienced has now fallen back into a worsened state of relapse. Left out of the scope by the media, the government and the law, nearly 80% of Yemen’s civilian population is in need of some type of humanitarian aid. While 12.9 million people (more than half of the country’s population) are on the brink of starvation, another reported 6,000 people may have contracted dengue fever. 

“Yemenis are living under dire conditions and it pains me to witness this ongoing suffering,” stated United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, during a June 25 public announcement by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), to offer Yemen $25 million in emergency funding to accelerate relief efforts to its starving, war-trapped citizens. “Food is running out and basic services have collapsed,” added Stephen O’Brien, Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for OCHA. “Innocent civilians are paying a terrible price.” 

Funds will immediately be released by the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to support lifesaving projects such as nutrition programs, clean water, and more to Yemenis in this emergent situation. So far, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has shipped 3,000 tons of food from Abu Dhabi to Yemen. "This is to ease the suffering of the people of Yemen. In view of the economic blockade that affects all the people, the arrival of this emergency aid is a welcome development," said Antoine Grand, who heads the ICRC in Yemen. "The food and generators will make a difference for tens of thousands of people directly affected by the armed conflict." 

The World Food Program (WFP) has also sent 5,700 tons of food including wheat, pulses, vegetable oil and since more than 850,000 children under the age of five are acutely malnourished a large amount of micronutrient powder, which is used to protect young children against malnutrition and anemia was also shipped over. This food supply complements the 11 air trips carrying 350 more tons of rice, flour, sugar, dates, oil, tea, salt, tuna, beans and other items and is hopes to be enough to feed around 60,000 people for a month.  

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is fueled by conflict and widespread insecurity, large-scale displacement, civil strife and political instability – along with many other issues, chronic food shortages being one of the daunting. Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of prayer and fasting, which began on June 17 is also pushing up prices in markets as citizens have complained of facing difficulties with the extreme rise of food costs. Restrictions on shipments into Yemen causes only a fraction of commercial imports to enter the country, therefore people across the country are struggling to access food. Drastically reduced imports limit the availability of other commodities, including fuel. And with the ongoing fighting and insecurity available supplies are prevented from being distributed to those who need them most. “We have repeatedly called for the resumption of commercial imports at pre-crisis levels to avoid even more serious hunger and shortages. I repeated my call in my statement to the Security Council yesterday. Commercial imports are currently at an estimated 15% of pre-crisis levels; clearly this is insufficient in a country that imported 90% of its goods before the current crisis,” remarked O’Brien. 

Also aggravating Yemen’s crisis is the recent outbreak of health infrastructure. Deadly communicable diseases such as dengue and malaria have already been reported via a recent analysis from the World Health Organization (WHO). The UN health arm reported more than 3,000 dengue disease cases across the country, but some health care non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have flagged more than 6,000 cases. WHO spokesman, Christian Lindmeier, at an emergency session at the UN headquarters in Geneva stated, “Part of the funds must go toward medicine and emergency supplies.”

Since fighting in Yemen worsened in mid-March, the UN has been urgently seeking a political solution amidst the increasingly desperate humanitarian situation on the ground as the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has increased by 33% from 15.9 million to 21.1 million people, bringing the total of Yemenis in need of various types of dire assistance to 80%. Yemen’s conflict stems from an ongoing issue between two parties, along with their supporters and allies, in their struggle to gain regional supremacy. Those loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, often called the Sunni, and the Houthis, a rebel movement from the north of Yemen who are followers of the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, caused the country to be in uproar after the Houthis forced President Hadi to flee the country’s capital, Sanaa. The overthrow allowed extremist groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS to expand their influence in the country. A coalition of nations led by Saudi Arabia has launched a military campaign against the Houthi rebels by sending in an attempt hinder the so-called ‘Iran-backed group’ Shiite militia from advancement. 

The conflict has spread to 20 of Yemen’s 22 governorates causing a rapid reverse of gains made in recent years to bring about some stabilization or recovery, and to end poverty and poor governance. Before the recent escalation of conflict, nearly 50% of Yemenis lived below the poverty line and basic social services were on the verge of collapse. The ‘Global Emergency Overview for the week of June 17–23’ report from Assessment Capacities Project is that 2.3 million more people are food insecure in Yemen than in March. This current pandemonium, though, is not the beginning of it all. The conflict has only rapidly compounded Yemen’s pre-existing crisis, which stemmed mainly from years of corruption in the governing system, human rights violations and other abuses such as exploitation and gender-based violence (GBV). 

Given the country’s deplorable conditions, the revision of the 2013 Yemen Humanitarian Response (YHRP) was decisively shifted last week toward a more robust approach on emergency relief and protection as well as the transition into recovery and development for civilian populations. The aim of both strands of intervention is to rapidly build the capacity of institutions and deliver humanitarian action, as conflict and strife are not the only causes of Yemen’s woes. 

Corruption at the civil service has produced an alarming amount of ‘ghost workers,’ that cause intense pressure on the state budget while unemployment rates among youth remain high.  An independent global coalition which fights against corruption, Transparency International (TI), uses its own research tool called the Corruption Perceptions Index to rank countries. Scores range from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) and in 2014 Yemen ranked 19 (or 161 out of the 175 countries surveyed). In the previous year, Yemen earned its lowest Corruption Perception Index score in the 11 years that TI has been measuring the corruption rates in countries. Additionally, the UN Human Development Index ranks Yemen one of the poorest countries in the world ringing in at 154 out of a survey of 187 countries. 

“The high levels of corruption Yemen is experiencing are characteristic of transition periods where you’re going to have people take advantage of the chaotic atmosphere to benefit,” said a spokesperson from TI. “Such issues affect the security and well-being of communities, and can also induce local authorities and businesses to find inappropriate ‘quick fixes’ and turn to corruption or the informal or criminal economy.” 

Corruption in the governmental system had afforded the country’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh who stepped down from government in 2012, to rack up a net worth of $60 billion and is currently in fifth place on the Forbes list of the world's richest people. “With the help of at least five prominent Yemeni businessmen, Saleh was able to avoid the correct measures,” the Forbes report said. In a Yemen Polling Centre survey, 42% of respondents said they felt corruption was worsening post-Saleh. Due to the risks involved, the TI spokesperson highlighted the fact that many (including medical workers, donor organizations and citizens) are not keen on denouncing corruption. “So they make the decision to ignore the problem. Colleagues of Yemeni officials say they doubt that blowing the whistle would accomplish anything, given the legacy of impunity military commanders and government employees continue to enjoy,” he concluded. 

Still, Yemen’s current absorptive and disbursement capacities can contribute to significant delays in delivering pledged resources to crisis situations, leaving donors in something of a ‘Catch-22’ position. While corruption helps bureaucrats survive financially, the country’s reputation hampers aid funding. Yemenis did answer Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s invitation and participated in initial consultations for a ceasefire in the country. “The personal presence of the Secretary-General is an indication of the primary importance attached by the UN and the international community,” said Cheikh Ahmed. Despite that, hopes of a Yemeni peace deal quickly evaporated as it became clear that the gaps between the warring parties were far wide. One issue that seemed to be nowhere near the top of Yemen’s priority list was the stopping of abuses against civilians in the conflict. Thus the peace talks in Geneva last week have ended with no agreement, with the special envoy commenting, “I deeply regret the deep division between the parties and lack of compromise which prevented an agreement that was within reach.”


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