Last month I was interviewed by Nadia al-Sakkaf, publisher and editor of the Yemen Times . This week Nadia was on PBS Newshour discussing the crisis unfolding in Yemen, whether President Saleh will step down, and deep concerns over what might follow.
Regardless of what happens on the political front, Yemen faces massive challenges going forward. Chief among these is the hunger and malnutrition which impacts millions of Yemenis. This silent threat of food insecurity is the topic of my interview in the Yemen Times.
Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Yemen Times: Where did you first hear about Yemen and in what context?
William Lambers: Yemen was one of the countries profiled in my book Ending World Hunger. The World Food Program was operating a take-home ration program which is described in the interview.
Some time after the book was published, I received word that the Yemen program had been suspended because of lack of funding. The World Food Program depends on voluntary donations from governments and private citizens to fund its operations.
Rations had also been reduced for the victims of the Sa’ada War.
It was about that time that I started to include more coverage of Yemen in my columns and that gradually increased in 2010 as I began to receive regular information about all aspects of the hunger relief mission which includes: 1.) rations for displaced war victims in Northern Yemen 2.) relief for families suffering from high food prices 3.) nutritional support for mothers/children and 4.) aid to refugees from Somalia.
To this day, the WFP hunger relief mission in Yemen remains low on funding.
Yemen Times: What can you summarize is the problem of food in Yemen?
William Lambers: With the history of conflict in the north and the damage it causes to families and their communities, which is obviously going to disrupt food supply networks and nutrition. People have lost their livelihoods.
Yemen has to import a lot of food as it cannot feed the whole population through its agriculture. So with food prices being high globally, that causes great harm to Yemen. Right now, families in Yemen are spending about 30 percent of their monthly income on bread alone. With so many families living on about 2 dollars a day, this is devastating.
There are natural disasters like flooding and drought which occur and cause setbacks to agriculture. The World Food Program has a Food for Work plan to help make improvements to agriculture in Yemen. You will hear more about this in the coming months. The Yemen project will focus on “protection of agricultural land, reclamation of land and repair of roads and irrigation systems.” WFP does a lot of work around the world to help small farmers so this can be the case in Yemen as well. Even something as relatively simple as better storage facilities can save more of the food that is grown.
Yemen Times: The WFP has not been able to continue with the school feeding program in Yemen due to shortage in funding. What other programs have you heard of are happening in Yemen that could compensate for this?
William Lambers: The purpose of the school feeding was to provide a ration and encourage attendance at school. Without the program, attendance at school drops and a ration for the whole family is lost. I am not aware of any other programs that are taking its place at least in terms of accomplishing both of those objectives. Now UNICEF has programs for developing child friendly schools and Save the Children is doing this as well. So there are efforts underway to help Yemen build its education system.
What needs to happen is a full system of school feeding and take home rations for every child in Yemen.
Yemen Times: At least 40 percent of Yemeni children are malnourished. Is it because Yemen does not have any natural resources? What are your views on this issue?
William Lambers: It really seems to be a combination of many factors, whether it’s the high food prices, lack of education and literacy, conflict and poverty. That seems to be the case with many countries. One thing leads to another. It’s hard to break the cycle. If you live in poverty, you struggle to get the right foods and children can suffer malnutrition and have less resistance to disease. In some cases, mothers are not educated to look for the signs of malnourishment, and treatment may be delayed. There may not be health facilities close by.
Yemen Times: How do you compare Yemen to other countries you have surveyed?
William Lambers: Yemen has more of a variety of challenges than some of the other countries. But it also is receiving a lot more media attention than other countries, although not necessarily in the food security area.
Yemen Times: Why do you think food insecurity and malnutrition in Yemen don’t make headlines compared to protests or conflict? What can be done about this?
William Lambers: A protest is a sudden, dramatic event right out in the open, whereas hunger and malnutrition are often a hidden condition in small family units. In many cases, malnutrition is a slow process occurring over months and years.
Of course, the protests in Egypt were driven in part by the food insecurity of high prices. So food problems can get coverage in that way if it’s connected to another story. Most people probably did not know Egypt was suffering such high food prices until that story developed.
Also, news editors and reporters themselves may not be aware of the hunger crisis in the country, or at least the extent of it. So it’s important that they learn more to make their coverage more comprehensive.
Georgia Warner of WFP had an idea of getting more journalists in Yemen to cover hunger issues. One way might be for a news publication in Yemen to have a food security section where journalists in Yemen could have an outlet for their work. This would encourage the sharing of knowledge about agriculture in Yemen, foster exchange of ideas on how to improve food production and allow some journalists in Yemen to get a start on their careers covering the issues facing their country.
Yemen Times: Anything you like to comment on?
William Lambers: If you look at the United States and Yemen it’s so easy to see the many differences. But there are some interesting and lesser known similarities. Take for instance the conflict and displacement that has taken place in Northern Yemen. In the United States many years ago, along the border area with Canada, people were also displaced from their homes by war. Towns were burned to the ground. A treaty ended that war and subsequent treaties eliminated some of the weapons of war in the area and settled other border disputes. Otherwise, how could those U.S.-Canadian border areas develop if there was a constant state of warfare. And today Yemen needs its own treaty to end the conflict in the North once and for all. People need to return to their homes and livelihoods. They need to clear mines and weapons from the area.