Ukraine and the ongoing food crisis in Yemen

Summary: while the Yemen truce has largely held and there is hope it will be renewed, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated food insecurity with prices soaring for wheat and other commodities even as ordinary Yemenis, hit hard by rampant inflation, are already lacking the money to buy food.

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and writes about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant and is a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. She is the author of Yemen in Crisis, the Road to War published by Verso. It’s a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it and a revised edition with additional material is coming out shortly. On 15 July Routledge will publish her new study Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast ‘Yemen, a ceasefire and reason to hope’ is available here.

Yemen has finally lost its ‘title’ as ‘worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ due to the even worse situation in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While the two-months truce brokered by UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg should have an impact on the humanitarian situation, this will not be immediate and is largely countered by the side effects of the Ukraine situation with the dramatic increase in international oil, fertilizer and wheat prices. Another significant change which will similarly be countered by the international crisis, is the improvement in the exchange rate of the US dollar resulting from the renewal of the US$ 2 billion Saudi contribution to the funds of the Aden-based Central Bank of Yemen (CBY); by the end of April, this had already led to a 25% appreciation in the areas under government control, and of 8% in Houthi-controlled areas.

Under the UN-brokered truce the second commercial Yemen Airways flight arrived in Sanaa Intl. Airport last week, coming from Jordan [photo credit: Yemen Airways Facebook page]
Some of the improvements, in particular the easing of restrictions on ships docking in the Red Sea ports significantly increase the fuel supply situation as well as the arrival of other basic goods, but in view of the extreme shortage due to years of insufficient supply, the situation remains dire. While in the first four months of this year, 289,000 metric tons (mt) of fuel arrived, this is far from the estimated monthly 400,000 mt needed by the people living in Houthi-controlled areas, even though April saw a massive increase to 171,000 mt, less than half the monthly need. This goes a fair way to explaining why retail fuel prices throughout the country are still vastly higher than they were at the end of December 2020 and shortages are ongoing.

By contrast food imports have been adequate for most of the last two years, clearly indicating that prices and household cash availability are the main reasons for continued hunger and malnutrition. A collapsed economy and reduced incomes combined with high inflation are major causes. The monthly cost of the minimum food basket per person has risen from YR 5500 in mid-2018 to YR 15,000 in government controlled and YR 9000 in Houthi-controlled areas in April 2022. In some parts of the country, it increased by 119% in 2021. Meanwhile official civil service salaries are still in the range of YR 50,000 per month; so a public sector employee with a nuclear household of 7 people would not even be able to pay for food, let alone other costs. That is in a country where most households are extended and the few employed people are only paid for about one month in four or five.

Although access to health, education, protection and other services are major daily constraints for Yemenis, food remains the main focus of the humanitarian crisis. It is now a world level problem because of the reduction in wheat, fertilizer and oil exports from Russia and Ukraine. At the 18 May UN New York Food security meeting, Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated that this could “tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity” with “malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years”. At the same meeting, the World Bank announced an additional $12bn in funding to mitigate its “devastating effects” but this will only be a mild palliative. Wheat is the main basic staple for Yemenis and 90% of it is imported, 42% of which comes from Russia and Ukraine. The recently published 2022 Global Report on Food Crises lists Yemen as the 4th country with the highest number of people in crisis situation or worse.

In Yemen, the UN humanitarian agencies have spent the extraordinary amount of about US$ 15 billion between 2015 and 2021. However, despite its high cost, this programme has been significantly underfunded since 2020. For years now, the UN has supported about 5 million people fewer than those it estimated to be in need of assistance.  Moreover, since 2020, millions of those on lists for emergency support have received half the rations planned by the World Food Programme (WFP). In the second half of 2021 and early 2022, this has risen to 8 million of the 13 million people targeted. Put simply, the UN targets about 5 million people fewer than those it assesses to be ‘in need’ and then a further 5 million are left out due to insufficient funding, and many of these only receive half rations much of the time.

The extent of underfunding is particularly acute this year when needs are greater than ever. In March the international community pledged less than a third of the annual UN appeal. As we reach the end of the fifth month of the year, only 25% funding has been contributed. Although half of this amount has gone to the WFP, this won’t allow a return to full rations for its beneficiaries. The Yemeni humanitarian operation depends on imports from the private sector, one of whose leading members at last week’s UN food security meeting called for ensuring that it has ‘access to wheat supplies and new financing mechanisms – such as an emergency food import finance facility – to secure stocks’. As he pointed out ‘time is running out for Yemen. According to the UN, 161 000 people in Yemen will face extreme hunger levels by next month. But this figure might be optimistic.’

This situation is worsened by a number of implementation problems. Some are due to the difficult relationship between the UN and its funding agencies on the one hand, and the rival Yemeni authorities on the other, focused on control over the humanitarian operations. In most emergencies, the international community agrees that state institutions are best qualified to implement programmes in the best interests of those in need. This policy assumes that there is a shared understanding of the basic principles of humanitarian assistance: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. This is not the case in Yemen where both the Houthis and the IRG related authorities have attempted to enforce their authority over humanitarian assistance in the interests of their financial and political strategies, in particular by controlling the lists of beneficiaries for food aid. In addition, the leading UN agencies are constrained by excessive ‘bunkerisation’ policies, which prevent their staff from supervising and managing the work of their national and international partners.

Despite hope that the truce will be extended beyond its 2 June deadline, and progress on the political front thanks to the work of the Special Envoy, the current international situation suggests that the hunger crisis will continue to cause suffering for Yemenis throughout the year.

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