Biometrics disagreement leads to food aid suspension in Yemen

A World Food Programme employee arranges aid at the Sanaa International Airport. REUTERS / Mohamed al-Sayaghi

WASHINGTON — An impasse over use of biometric data led the World Food Programme to partially suspend its delivery of food aid in warn-torn Yemen last week, raising questions about the use of such technology in humanitarian contexts.

“Both before and after this decision, civilians have been on the losing end.”

— Elizabeth Dickinson, analyst, International Crisis Group

The Houthis, who control the capital of Sanaa where WFP had to suspend its operations, were opposed to using biometric data from food aid recipients, claiming it was against Yemeni law for the United Nations food aid organization to control the data. WFP, which seeks to provide 12 million people — nearly half of the total Yemeni population — with food aid this year, said it had negotiated but was unable to reach an agreement over the issue with the Houthis.

“The integrity of our operation is under threat and our accountability to those we help has been undermined,” WFP said in a statement announcing the partial suspension. “WFP has repeatedly appealed to the Sana’a-based authorities to grant us the space and freedom to operate according to the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and operational independence, which guide our work in 83 countries around the world.”

WFP said 850,000 people would be impacted by the partial suspension, with nutrition programs for pregnant and nursing mothers and malnourished children continuing.

Due to the challenging operational environment in Yemen, WFP must work through partner organizations to carry out its aid distribution. This means little opportunity for oversight of its supply chain and lots of opportunity for different factions to divert food aid and use it as a political tool, said Elizabeth Dickinson, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

“Monitoring is an enormous challenge, since the UN has very limited visibility on distribution,” Dickinson told Devex via email. “Both sides of the conflict have had clear issues with aid diversion — using the UN supplies for their own benefit rather than allocating it to the neediest beneficiaries.”

Using biometrics is one solution to this problem: WFP can use it to confirm that the appropriate beneficiary has received their allotted ration. Dickenson said that WFP has been negotiating with both the Houthis and the government of Yemen to agree on how the technology can be used, but negotiations with the Houthis, which began in December 2017, have been “arduous.”

“WFP found further evidence of diversion and unserved beneficiaries in recent months and started to telegraph that they may have no choice but to start cutting supplies,” Dickinson said. “Both before and after this decision, civilians have been on the losing end. Many of the neediest beneficiaries had failed to receive aid in Houthi controlled areas, while the group diverted assistance to their own fighters or to sell for profit.”

The situation poses tough questions for NGOs when operating in environments as complex as Yemen while trying to stick to their humanitarian mandate of helping populations most in need and saving lives.

“There are all these people in need, but if your judgement is that without using a system like this nothing is going to get through to them anyway, then it’s not an answer to say ‘don’t use the system,’” said Alan Gelb, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “The correct thing to do is not to provide aid.”

But Gelb said the situation is more complicated if some aid is making it to the correct recipients.

“Let’s say half of the aid that you’re providing is getting through to the population,” Gelb said. “If you refuse to provide the aid, it means it will have an impact on the people you’re trying to help, but you would have to accept the fact that half of the stuff is being diverted and stolen.”

The rules of humanitarian negotiation

Reaching people in need of aid often involves negotiating with those who control access to them — whether that is a government, rebel groups, or armed fighters. Devex meets the experts training aid workers in frontline negotiations.

Humanitarian organizations must keep a range of questions about biometrics in mind, Gelb said, when considering using the technology to monitor their aid distribution. If they do consider using the technology, they must be sure they can collect the appropriate biometrics data — whether it be fingerprints, iris scans or facial recognition — in all areas where the population lives. People who need assistance could otherwise be excluded from receiving benefits, he said, because rolling out biometric systems can be logistically challenging and time-consuming.

Organizations must also consider the type of data they are collecting, where and how long it will be stored, and who will have access to it. These sensitivities are particularly heightened during crisis situations: Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh expressed reservations over data privacy, for example. They staged a hunger strike over the UN Refugee Agency’s attempts to create a biometric registration in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in 2018.

“One issue that arises about biometrics is, ‘who holds that information?’ Is there a guarantee that those information is not turned back to authorities in Myanmar?” Gelb said. “If they are turned back to people in Myanmar, then there is an automatic record that people can be verified against in the future. So you have some of the same issues with refugees and populations in very fraught situations. They’re concerned that this kind of information — which they cannot change, they cannot run away from — might be turned over to some entity that is going to hurt them.”

Sikandra Kurdi, an associate research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, said using biometrics makes sense in a context like Yemen where many people already lack a national ID card that could be used to track distribution of social benefit programs. In conducting research on nutrition interventions in Yemen before and after the war, Kurdi found that that system was not always up to date.

“I see why there is a push to get the biometric IDs,” Kurdi said. “The main reason that the humanitarian aid is not as effective as it could be comes back to the politics. It’s not so much a question of not having the solutions. We know what can be done, we know how food distribution works, we know how to do the cash transfer system … We have solutions that work really well and it’s mostly about the different regional actors who are involved and their interests.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was 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.