U.S. Strategy in Yemen Should Fight Hunger

A report in the New York Times said the United States is launching attacks against Al Qaeda in Southern Yemen. But while the U.S. is stepping up the pressure militarily, it also needs to help Yemenis fight hunger and malnutrition.

The conflict between President Saleh and those seeking his removal has made food prices skyrocket. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says that “prices of main food commodities have increased from April to May 2011: wheat flour, sugar, vegetable oil and rice prices have increased by 10%, 4%, 13% and 8% respectively. Since January 2011, the prices for these commodities increased by 26% on average.” The domino effect of hunger is fast-moving.

WFP just sent teams to the four most food-insecure governorates (Rayma, Amran, Hajja, and Ibb) in the country to see what toll the price increase is taking. This is the silent war in Yemen, the one against hunger that often unfolds behind closed doors, out of sight, and particularly in rural areas.

WFP found “that food prices are higher in rural areas when compared to the prices in urban areas” and “that the poorest have now opted for negative coping mechanisms, such as reducing number of meals, no consumption of meat/fish, and even fasting.”

A hungry, desperate population will make Yemen that much more unstable and dangerous. It will aggravate existing political tensions. It can create the kind of chaos that allows forces like Al Qaeda to thrive.

Even before the recent political unrest and violence, food prices were high for many Yemenis. A large portion of their monthly income would go toward buying basics like bread. This has long been the poorest country in the impoverished Middle East.

Last year, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) devised a strategy to distribute food rations to 1.8 million Yemenis. The plan was to operate in 14 governorates where hunger rates were the highest.

However, low funding from the international community means the hunger rescue initiative is only working in four governorates, and the number of needy Yemenis may be even higher now than when the plan was originally devised.

Not only is the strain of high food prices present, but fighting in Southern Yemen between the government and suspected Al Qaeda militants has displaced thousands who need aid. The World Food Programme says that “fighting in the Abyan governorate resulted in influx of IDPs to Aden city and Lahj governorate…and reports suggest that more IDPs are on their way, likely to reach 30,000 IDPs in total.”

Herbert Hoover once referred to hunger as a force more powerful than armies. In Yemen, hunger is gaining strength. We are taking action against Al Qaeda, but we also need to act against hunger. With U.S. leadership, a coalition of nations can help fight hunger in Yemen.

It’s urgent that action be taken. Malnutrition among children in Yemen will cause stunted growth both physically and mentally. When you do not fight child hunger, you cede the future.

A system of child feeding will have to be ensured throughout Yemen. It is one of the main ingredients for restoring order and peace. This can be done in the interim by providing enough foods like plumpynut to handle the severest cases of malnutrition. For older children, a system of food distributions at schools or feeding stations will contribute to efforts to build the education and health systems.

This is the kind of assistance we know can make a difference for a country. There is no reason why that should not happen in Yemen.

Article first published as U.S. Strategy in Yemen Should Fight Hunger on Blogcritics.