If you see a news story about Yemen, it’s usually about the Al Qaeda threat. The Middle Eastern country, with U.S. military aid, is battling the terrorist group within its borders.
What most news coverage misses though is an even more powerful force confronting Yemen — hunger. It is this hidden story of suffering that affects the entire country.
One in three Yemenis struggle to access basic foods. The country has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the world. Children suffer, die, or face stunted physical or mental growth because they cannot get the foods they need to thrive. When the White House talks about developing a “comprehensive strategy” for helping Yemen, it has to include food.
Until now, this has tragically not been the case; the Obama administration even admitting this summer that relief operations for Yemen have been “woefully underfunded.” It is because of funding shortfalls that the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has been forced to reduce rations for persons displaced by the war in Northern Yemen. This conflict, between the government and rebels, is in need of a final peaceful settlement.
To say a major reconstruction process awaits Northern Yemen is putting it lightly. Georgia Warner, a WFP officer, recalls speaking to a displaced person who is expecting a very long stay for his family in a refugee camp. Why is that? They cannot go home and live with the unexploded rocket in the front yard.
There is a whole host of challenges to meet, from clearing mines, rebuilding houses, to restarting local economies, etc. But at the heart of all this reconstruction is once again food.
Of course, this crisis in the North is only one part of the story. If you take Yemen as a whole, child feeding for infants and school children has faced cuts or suspension because of low funding for WFP. Special foods like Plumpy’nut cannot be delivered to infant children because of this deficit.
Providing rations at school for children is a way to boost nutrition and class attendance at the same time. If the current suspension of this program continues, many Yemeni children will be denied the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.
How might these food shortages affect the war against terrorism and Al Qaeda? A hungry and desperate population weakens the government of Yemen and its ability to resist extremist forces. In addition, a discontented population can prove to be fertile ground for terrorist recruiting. Al Qaeda needs the support of the population to thrive in a country.
U.S. leadership and international cooperation could get food programs restored. Once this happens, you have a platform for starting Food for Work projects that can improve infrastructure in Yemen. Some of these projects could address agricultural production and extremely crucial water conservation and distribution.
It boils down to balance when dealing with U.S. policy toward Yemen. We can fill the country with military aid but if hunger, poverty and development are neglected, no strategy will succeed. Food is the foundation of all things for a country, and for millions of Yemenis it is what they need right now more than anything.
Visit the CARE 2 Petition to Support Yemen.
Visit the World Food Program USA page on Yemen to learn how to help.
Article first published as More Powerful Than Al Qaeda: Hunger in Yemen on Blogcritics.