Yemen finds itself in the midst of a deteriorating humanitarian crisis, its people having to deal with rising poverty, a breakdown of social services, diminishing resources, internal conflict and political instability.
According to Bishow Parajuli, World Food Program’s country director in Yemen, food and fuel prices — as well as long-term food security — are also significant concerns. “Forty years ago, Yemen was self-sufficient in food, now it imports 90 percent of it. I wouldn’t say that the country can return to self-sufficiency any time soon, but there is a chance to improve,” Parajuli said.
Devex spoke with Parajuli on the sidelines of his visit to EU institutions to discuss funding for lifesaving support in Yemen. In 2013, the European Commission's humanitarian aid and civil protection department, known as ECHO, was the fourth-largest donor to WFP Yemen, providing some $10 million in funding. And in July, ECHO announced a further donation of $8 million to provide food assistance to displaced families and food distribution for the most vulnerable and poorest Yemenis.
Further funding, Parajuli said, was particularly needed for the WFP’s two-year Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation, which was launched in July. The PRRO program, he said, aims to support a gradual shift from relief toward recovery and resilience in Yemen to help people overcome socio-economic barriers to food and nutrition security and manage the consequences of conflict and natural stresses.
“We have now shifted the focus of our program from purely relief, toward recovery and resilience,” Parajuli said.
According to the WFP official, although Yemen faces a humanitarian crisis it is crucial to encourage the international development community to introduce a “development element” into the aid model.
Here are some highlights from our conversation with Parajuli:
You previously mentioned that Yemen has strong potential for growth. Which sectors would prove most attractive to investors?
The areas that could be expanded … and that have potential for development are, in particular, agriculture, fisheries and livestock. Various opportunities could be also introduced in the production of goods such as honey and coffee. In the 1950s and 60s, [a] lot of people who were involved in the agricultural sector left as migrants to Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. As a consequence, the whole sector has been neglected for a long time. Forty years ago, Yemen was self-sufficient in food, now it imports 90 percent. I wouldn’t say that the country can return to self-sufficiency any time soon, but there is at least a chance to improve.
And how is the humanitarian situation evolving in Yemen? Do you think that the country could soon find itself on the brink?
The situation in Yemen is like a perfect storm. At the moment, the country is still holding on because the politicians have been talking and trying to move forward in a reconciliatory manner. On the one hand, there is the political reconciliation process — the new constitution and the national dialogue — supported by the United Nations Security Council delegation. On the other hand, there is a major challenge related to humanitarian and development issues. Yemen has the worst malnutrition among children and 43 percent of the general population is food-insecure. In addition, 72 percent of the youth is unemployed and in the past six years the country has been rated the worst on gender disparities globally … Nevertheless, after the Arab Spring, there has been a rising pressure for social changes and people have big aspirations to improve their lives and their futures.
So what are the next steps the WFP is going to take to tackle the situation?
Our role in the U.N. is to support the government, both from the social economic side and the food insecurity [side]. The WFP is involved at the moment in helping to address food insecurity. Last year we reached about 5 million people in Yemen.
We have a good capacity on the ground, we have six offices and nearly 225 staff — in spite of all the security challenges. We are shifting our focus from just food handouts to working toward a conditional transfer of resources to these people, in order to improve their own livelihoods. For that purpose we provide incentives for girls to attend schools and meals for children in the school; we improve rural infrastructure, such as through water catchments; and we support children and mothers, by addressing malnutrition and teaching about nutrition and better practices of looking after the children.
Is insecurity currently an obstacle for children attending school? If so, how does this affect your work and what steps are you taking to tackle the problem?
Insecurity is a problem more for foreigners. Locals, they are leading their normal lives, except in the areas where al-Qaida is present. Even then, WFP’s local staff can travel there. We deliver food through the private transporters directly to these schools. So far, we have not had any problems with that. The security of children going to school is not a problem and life continues [as normal] for the Yemenis. Insecurity is for the foreigners.
Including international staff, I suppose? How does the instability affect them?
To be honest, the nonlocal staff has been seriously affected — especially the international staff — but we do take security measures to travel. Sometimes there are places where the international staff cannot go because of the security problems, so we use our national team instead. We have 225 staff members and 190 of them are locals. In addition, we also hire complementary staff, usually some young volunteers, in order to assess the situation and update us on a regular basis. We train them and then send them to check [the situation] in terms of what the food security situation is like, what the project impact is, how deliveries are going, etc.
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So from your perspective, what would you say was the biggest challenge or obstacle to improving the situation on the ground?
From our side, funding is the key. We aim to reach about 6 million people in the next two years. We have mobilized $140 million so far in 2014 and we need $80 million more to meet our needs for the coming years. If we have the funding we can do what we have planned without any problems.
A challenge for the Yemenis is to get fuel supplies and electricity, because the pipes have been blowing up or because of the scarcity of fuel available on the market. There is a huge fuel shortage in Yemen lately — in spite of being located in the middle of a fuel-producing place and neighboring fuel-producing countries — because they sell fuel at a highly subsidized price and so they can’t afford to sell on the market because they are selling it at a cheap price. Therefore, there is scarcity, which results in an impact on food prices and could also impact on agriculture and other fields.
And are you talking with nontraditional WFP donors?
We are appealing to various donors, traditional [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries and at the same time also neighboring countries [that] are generous supporters to Yemen but have not been involved in these activities so far — like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait.
We work very closely with governments, because we want these activities to be part of the government priorities. We engage with them and support them to build the capacity … The PRRO program is partially a continuation of previous 2013 activities, but some aspects are new. For example, the school meals program for children, which targets the most vulnerable population in food-insecure areas with poor education.
Having seen the U.K. Department for International Development’s decision to pilot multiyear humanitarian programming in Yemen and five other African countries, could we be witnessing the start of a trend for the planning of mid- and long-term humanitarian aid?
The best methodology for us in a context like Yemen is not just to provide emergency support but to link to long-term foundation elements such as education, nutrition, livelihood programs and so on.
In the past we provided principally lifesaving help that did not have any long-term element. Under the PRRO, we have elements of lifesaving plus we have a long-term recovery and resilience part, where our effort promotes and enhances agriculture, like the rehabilitation of terraces, rural employment through rural infrastructure work, and at the same time attracts children to school, particularly girls and particularly to primary school.
At the same time, we are targeting nutrition. The problem of nutrition in Yemen is a combination of factors: poverty, the lack of food and mothers who are underweight when they are pregnant. We teach nutrition education to mothers as well as sanitation. Making such a trend shift depends on the country’s context. I think it is really important to make the shift happen, otherwise we go year after year on relief and we don’t find a solution. Relief doesn’t bring a solution, after all. When you move to recovery and resilience you look for a solution. It’s also about avoiding dependency of [the] general population on aid and helping them to build their own pride.
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