President Obama, speaking at the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Summit, said helping impoverished nations is essential for national security. Obama emphasized that “progress in even the poorest countries can advance the prosperity and security of people far beyond their borders….When millions of fathers cannot provide for their families, it feeds the despair that can fuel instability and violent extremism.”
His words will be thoroughly tested in Yemen, where hunger and poverty afflict millions of people. At the very moment of Obama’s speech, thousands of Yemenis have just been displaced by their government’s offensive against Al Qaeda. In Northern Yemen, another 300,000 Yemenis have been displaced for months because of a conflict between the government and rebels. These are hundreds of thousands of people, many already impoverished, who have to start over.
Low funding for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has caused ration cuts for war victims, as well as infant feeding and Food for Education programs throughout Yemen. The Food for Education program has only had one distribution since June, 2009. None are on the horizon either because of the WFP funding shortfall.
For Yemen, there is talk of pumping in about a billion dollars of military aid to counter Al Qaeda. What about talk on helping to support food programs that are key for Yemen to develop as a nation? It starts with infant feeding, and meals and take-home rations for school children. These programs build up nutrition and education, the heart of development.
Yet, because of the low funding for WFP, these programs have faced cuts and in some cases complete suspension. The White House admitted earlier this summer that the humanitarian relief operation for Yemen is “woefully underfunded.”
That can easily be fixed. A small fraction of the 1 billion proposed for military aid could breathe life into the feeding programs and restore hope. Most importantly, it has to establish consistency in funding.
Georgia Warner of WFP Yemen said: “We have absolutely nothing in our pipeline right now for the Food for Education operation and we’re watching a drop-out rate of nearly 60% as families can no longer afford to keep their children, of course mostly daughters, in school.”
Warner added, “I’ll take anything at this point to get our school meals program up and running again! Although I fear what will happen when/if our pipeline breaks again and we have another round of drop outs. Would we be able to get them back a third time? This inconsistency and unreliability cannot be good. I just fear the unsustainable assistance projects.”
Sustained school feeding in Yemen is what Obama referred to as the right kind of development. Obama said today, “Development that offers a path out of poverty for that child who deserves better. Development that builds the capacity of countries to deliver the health care and education that their people need.”
It’s time to put words into action. For Yemen this starts with food, the very basis of all things. The U.S. and international partners should work together on ensuring universal infant feeding and Food for Education throughout Yemen. Full rations should be provided for war victims.
It’s all about striking a balance in U.S. policy toward Yemen. President Obama recently wrote in a letter to Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh, “We are also committed to helping Yemen achieve a future that builds upon the extraordinary talents of its people and the richness of its history. … I am convinced that the people of Yemen can do more than overcome the threats that they face – they can build a future of greater peace and opportunity for their children.”
For more information please visit the World Food Programme Yemen page.