As Senate votes on Yemen, WFP says it can't meet country's need

World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley. Photo by: Mattias Nutt / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Senate made a largely symbolic vote Thursday to cut off support from the United States for the war in Yemen, World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley said that his agency will not be able to meet the country’s spiking humanitarian need with 16 million on the brink of starvation.

“16 million people on the brink of starvation, a child dying every 10-11 minutes — what else do you need to know?”

— David Beasley, executive director, WFP

Beasley said that the man-made war, which has been marked by sustained bombing campaigns of civilian areas and port blockades of desperately needed food aid, has gone on for so long that the country’s economy is in shambles and the number of people who are able to meet their basic needs without help continues to shrink.  

“These are not 16 million people who are going to bed hungry. These are 16 million people that are literally marching toward the brink of starvation. Now, what you’ve got to ask today is “what’s happened in the war in the last few months that’s caused that spike?’” Beasley said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “There’s no liquidity in the economy. Everybody’s exhausted their resources.”

WFP is spending $100 million per month to feed 8 million people, Beasley said, but with the increase in hungry people, the organization will now need roughly $160 million to feed 12 million. This still leaves approximately 4 million people with needs unmet by WFP.

In previous years, the regular economy was active enough to support those who were not receiving assistance from WFP, but now, any available food is prohibitively expensive due to inflation. Beasley said 90 percent of food and supplies in Yemen are imported and no one can afford to pay commodities suppliers.

“Once you’ve reached famine, it’s too late. This is where we don’t need to be technical,” Beasley said. “When you look at the technical definition of famine, it’s real technical. And so 16 million people on the brink of starvation, a child dying every 10-11 minutes — what else do you need to know?”

He did welcome news that United Nations-mediated peace talks in Sweden resulted on Thursday in a ceasefire in Hodeida, a port city through which vital food aid must travel. WFP is prepared to manage the port if necessary, he said, to ensure food aid is able to get into and distributed within the country.

Beasley said the hospitals he visited on a recent trip to Yemen did not have capacity to treat all the starving patients that needed care, and many were sent home to die. He recalled tickling the feet of one small child, hoping to elicit a smile.

“It was like tickling a ghost,” Beasley said.

Thursday’s Senate vote cutting off U.S. military aid was a rare step and a rebuke of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the war in Yemen. The joint resolution was approved by a 56 to 41 vote, with several Republicans joining Democrats to oppose the war that has created one of the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophes.

Opposition to support for the Saudi war against the Houthis in Yemen has been building in Congress since the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident. While some senators argued that a partnership with Riyadh is necessary to counter Iran in the Middle East, others saw the killing of Khashoggi as a human rights violation that could not go unpunished, even by an ally.

Senator Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana who authored an amendment to the joint resolution that would prohibit U.S. refueling of Saudi jets being used in air campaigns in Yemen, argued that the U.S. should be leveraging its relationship with Saudi Arabia to end the humanitarian crisis.

“We realized these are real people, real human beings … who are starving to death because of obstacles to humanitarian assistance and the continuing civil war,” Young said at the event. “In short, these children are dying not because of a lack of food because of natural disasters, but because of the acts of man.”

The House of Representatives used a procedural measure earlier this week to prevent that body from taking up the joint resolution passed by the Senate before the session ends this month.

Young said this doesn’t mean the congressional effort is over.

“Let’s set aside politics and think positively. We have a number of fresh new faces coming into Congress, people who will be looking to make a difference,” Young said. “What more significant [thing] could they do than become actively involved in the worst humanitarian crisis in the world?”

About the author

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.