Foreign aid is vital to helping needy people in Yemen but a cash injection alone will not solve the social and economic problems that blight the country, the World Food Programme’s representative has said.
In an exclusive interview with The National at the start of a Gulf tour to meet key donors, Richard Ragan said that the funding shortfall has left the UN with immense budgetary pressures that are hurting its efforts to help feed the Arab world’s poorest country.
The humanitarian shortfall, he said, was forcing the WFP to make hard decisions about how to distribute food aid fairly.
“We take from the poor to feed the hungry. If I have a limited amount of budget, then I have to focus on the people who are the hungriest. And that's often taking resources away from the poor,” said Mr Ragan.
“The majority of people in the country are poor. They've either been displaced by conflict, affected by conflict, or are just poor.”
The UN official, who relocated to Sanaa when he assumed his post in February, said one of the hardest decisions he has to make is when to cut food rations for each family because of scarce resources and a limited budget.
“There are people who are hungry and there are people who are hungrier, who are going to die if they don't get food,” he said.
“I didn't really understand it until I had kids, that the worst thing you can experience is being unable to feed your family.”
Mr Ragan, who has also worked in Bangladesh, Libya and North Korea, gave an example: “We may cut it from 75 kilos of wheat flour, per family, to 50 kilos. And when you talk to people, you feel it, you feel the tension. They're angry, they're desperate and it's not a good situation.”
Yemen has been wracked by war since 2014, when the Houthi rebels seized Sanaa and forced the government out. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia entered the war in March 2015 to restore the government.
About 400,000 Yemenis have died since the conflict began — but roughly 60 per cent of those died as a result of indirect causes including hunger, lack of safe water and disease, UN figures show.
Hunger and disease, Mr Ragan said, are taking a tremendous human toll in Yemen, accounting for most of the deaths registered in the country last year.
With its economy and local currency shattered by seven years of conflict, Yemen is heavily dependent on foreign aid and imports more than 90 per cent of its food.
The UN says that nearly four million Yemenis are already in an “emergency” stage of food shortage.
Despite the urgent need for humanitarian assistance, the WFP and other UN agencies struggle to raise the estimated $200 million a month needed to feed the country’s vulnerable population.
In March, international donors again fell short of meeting Yemen’s needs at a pledging conference.
The UN raised $1.3 billion, about 30 per cent of the $4.2 billion needed to alleviate the suffering of more than 17 million Yemenis.
This is the sixth year that Yemen’s humanitarian response plan has not been fully funded.
The war in Ukraine has also exacerbated Yemen’s woes, he said, turning media attention away from the worsening humanitarian crisis.
But it isn’t only Yemen that has been affected by the war in Europe.
Russia’s invasion, Mr Ragan said, “has a huge impact on the region”.
“Obviously, not just Yemen, but it has an impact on other countries like Lebanon and because of the dependence on food sourcing, sunflower oil, wheat, flour, beans — everything comes from these two countries [Russia and Ukraine]. So, that's a problem.”
But Mr Ragan said the biggest threat to food security in Yemen is the ongoing war there.
A two-month truce was agreed to by the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-backed Houthis on April 2 and is the first nationwide truce since 2016. The ceasefire can be extended if both sides agree.
“The war has to stop because that's the only way the country is going to progress,” he said.