The World Food Programme (WFP) has announced to tentatively pause its food aid activities in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. This decision follows failure to reach an agreement with Houthi affiliated fighters to introduce control measures which should prevent the diversion of food away from the most vulnerable Yemenis.
In December 2018, the WFP received strong indications that officials linked to the Houthi regime were systematically diverting food aid supplies. This suspicion was further confirmed when WFP teams were denied access to people in need, convoys were not allowed to pass and local officials interfered in the distribution of food. The Houthi authorities have refuted the WFP’s allegations. In the meantime, the WFP and Houthi representatives negotiated the use of a biometric system in order to prevent the diversion of food assistance.
This system uses fingerprints, iris scanning and facial recognition to ensure that food aid reaches the intended recipient and is already widely employed in government controlled areas. The Houthi regime considers this system a threat to the Yemeni population as large amounts of data are collected by an institution to which Saudia Arabia is a large financial contributor.
In addition, they argue that the gathering of this kind of data by the WFP is a violation of Yemeni law and propose that the biometric registration of the population should be done by a local Houthi-run NGO instead.
Yet, the WFP fears an ethical disaster when an organization closely related to the Houthi authorities is responsible for the registration of the Yemeni population and the allocation of food aid is no longer executed by an impartial and independent institution.The WFP currently provides more than 10 million Yemenis with food, such as wheat flour, pulses, vegetable oil, sugar and salt, each month. The majority of the people that require food aid the most, live in Houthi-controlled areas. The suspension affects around 850,000 people, but the WFP has assured that food assistance programs for children, pregnant and nursing mothers will be continued.
The city of Sana’a has been chosen as the initial site of suspension, both because people in this area are relatively well-nourished and diversion of food occurs here the most. If both parties fail to reach an agreement, the WFP will face a difficult dilemma on how to extend the suspension of its food aid operations to other regions while still protect those who suffer from extreme famine.
Written by ESGC Research Associate, Mijke Rietbroek - 2 July 2019