* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Humanitarian assistance has a vital role to play in bringing peace to Yemen, the World Food Programme's country director in the Middle East's poorest country argues
Today politicians and humanitarian actors are meeting to discuss a country in the midst of a crisis. Sitting on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is trying to work out a deal that will somehow reconcile southern separatists, minority Shi’a in the north, and supporters of Al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula. Below, Country Director of the World Food Programme, Bishow Parajuli, explains why humanitarian assistance has such a vital role to play:
This is a critical time for Yemen. After the conclusion of the National Dialogue Conference in January, the country is taking concrete steps to establish a new, democratic, federal state with powers devolved to the regions. A panel tasked with drafting a new constitution has started its work; the new constitution will then go before the electorate for approval by referendum before elections in 2015.
As a non-political, humanitarian organisation, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has no direct role to play in this process. Yemen’s future is, it goes without saying, for Yemenis to decide. That said, we cannot and should not isolate ourselves entirely from a political process aimed at bringing peace and stability to Yemen. Indeed, we have a responsibility and duty to support these efforts.
Let me clarify: WFP’s mandate is to provide food assistance to save lives in emergencies, improve the nutrition and quality of life for the most vulnerable, help build assets and promote self-reliance among food-insecure households. So far, so non-political. We do not take sides, nor favour any one political grouping over another. Our interventions are based purely upon humanitarian needs.
At the same time, we need to ask ourselves: how to we help to achieve peace and stability in a country where almost half the population is food insecure? Where half of the children are affected by chronic malnutrition and almost one-eighth by acute malnutrition? Where the large-scale exclusion of women from social, economic and political processes means that Yemen ranks lowest in the global gender equality index?
Since WFP started operations here in 1967, we have been working hard to address these issues. Over the years, working with the government and a range of other partners, we have provided food assistance to millions of Yemenis, supporting the social welfare system through our emergency safety nets for the most vulnerable communities, assisting the internally displaced, preventing and combatting malnutrition among young children and pregnant and nursing mothers. In 2013, WFP provided assistance to some 5 million people in Yemen.
A TURNING POINT
But this year, we have reached a turning point. From 1 July, we will be starting a new, two-year Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO), worth nearly half a billion dollars, which will support a gradual shift from simply providing relief activities to interventions aimed at promoting recovery, creating assets and building resilience. This is not to say that we will be abandoning relief; saving lives will always remain our top priority, as it is for WFP in every country where we work around the world. But for lasting, sustainable solutions, we need to think about helping people to help themselves, about meeting the food needs of the most vulnerable today, while building livelihoods and resilience to secure the needs of tomorrow.
In practical terms, what does this mean? First of all, it will involve a change in emphasis from unconditional assistance – often disparagingly described as hand-outs – to conditional assistance, meaning that people will receive food or cash in exchange for their participation in work projects to create assets – such as rain-harvesting ponds or agri-farm gardens – and build sustainable livelihoods. Or for joining training courses to provide them with marketable skills.
By the end of the operation, we expect up to one million children regularly attending school to be given a daily snack, to encourage attendance, promote their ability to concentrate and learn, and contribute to their nutritional needs. We are already providing 100,000 girls attending school with a take-home ration as an incentive to promote female literacy and discourage early marriage. Their numbers are expected to more than double during the PRRO. Take-home rations will also be offered to children currently involved in child labour, to get them into school and off the streets.
To add to Yemen’s problems, the country is engulfed with refugees, hundreds of thousands of them from the Horn of Africa. Here’s one story:
Amina fled Somalia with her family in Somalia when their village was ransacked by militants and her husband Mohammed was seriously injured. After packing all their belongings into only a few bags, they made the treacherous journey across the Gulf of Aden and landed on a Yemeni beach.
Although Mohammed was the breadwinner, he was unable to work due to his injuries. Amina struggled to find employment having little work experience, but eventually found a cleaning job in a factory. However, despite working up to 14 hours a day, her salary was barely enough to provide enough food for the family of six. Mohammed and Amina grew increasingly anxious that their children were no longer receiving an education as the family could not afford school fees and were suffering from a lack of food.
Amina’s family learned about WFP activities in Kharaz refugee camp. The following week, the family was registered in the camp and the four children were enrolled in a WFP-assisted primary school. There, they benefitted from on-site hot meals at school whilst Amina collected full monthly food basket rations for the family from WFP.
After nine months of receiving assistance and having access to a healthy diet, Mohammed recovered from his injuries and the children completed one school year. After receiving news that their village in Somalia was safe, the family decided to return home. And now they are on their way.
CASH RATHER THAN FOOD DISTRIBUTION
Another aspect of the new PRRO will be a growing emphasis on cash disbursement, rather than food distributions. Market surveys will provide us with the ability to determine in which areas this would be most appropriate, depending on the availability of commodities in local retail outlets.
Cash has the advantage of greater flexibility for the recipients, in that they have a greater choice over what food they buy and in what quantities. We also plan an electronic voucher system to ensure that the WFP assistance is used exclusively to meet food needs.
Partnerships are crucial to the success of the work we do. Our nutrition interventions – which are also conditional, in that women and children need to attend health clinics in order to receive special supplementary foods – are closely coordinated with UNICEF. We are also planning joint projects with other sister agencies – such as FAO, IFAD and UNDP – to promote agricultural production, rural development and livelihoods. And most importantly of all, all our interventions are planned and coordinated with government ministries.
Moreover, given our increased focus on resilience, partnerships become even more important. Resilience building has to be multisectoral. For households to be resilient, food security has to be combined with access to healthcare and education, sustainable employment and adequate housing and services. Only through working together can we make a real difference. WFP has 225 staff in Yemen, working in six offices, bringing assistance to more than 4,000 villages across the country.
It is now almost exactly a year since I arrived in Yemen. During that time, WFP has made considerable achievements, but this is not a time for complacency. The demands of the upcoming PRRO are undoubtedly challenging, and with 6 million Yemenis targeted for assistance, many of them through the innovative projects I have briefly described above, we have a lot of work to do. A lot depends on the continuing generosity of our existing donors and the emergence of new donors with fresh contributions. But I am confident we will succeed.
Over the next two years, we are going to see some major changes in Yemen’s structures and the way it is administered. I remain optimistic that although it is likely to be a bumpy ride, with plenty of obstacles and setbacks on the way, these will be changes for the better and that people’s lives and the hopes of their children will be improved by the end of the process.
As I said at the start of this article, only Yemen and Yemenis can ensure that this positive outcome is realized. But I can assure you that WFP will do all it can to provide the necessary support along the way.
Bishow Parajuli is country director and representative of the United Nations World Food Programme in Yemen