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Stealing from the mouths of babes in Yemen

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The Houthi militia in Yemen is stealing massive amounts of food aid, much of it financed by American taxpayers. As the United Nations (UN) World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley noted recently “This conduct amounts to the stealing of food from the mouths of hungry people. At a time when children are dying in Yemen because they haven’t had enough food to eat, that is an outrage. This criminal behavior must stop immediately.” UN colleagues have reported privately that up to 60 percent of the food in Sanaa is being diverted to Houthi controlled sources instead of feeding vulnerable families. 

To put these diversions in context, the United States Agency for International Development reports that Yemen is the largest food security emergency in the world. Nearly 16 million people — approximately 53 percent of Yemen’s population — are food insecure. The American taxpayer, yet again, has been generous to Yemen’s most vulnerable households by providing nearly $850 million in food since 2017.  

At the end of June, WFP began a partial suspension of food delivery to 850,000 people in Sanaa. The move resulted from a dispute over control of biometric data between the WFP and the Houthis. The WFP discovered in December 2018 that donated food in Houthi areas was being “systematically diverted” — diplomatic speak for stolen. The Houthis have said the WFP insisted on controlling the data in violation of Yemeni law. The biometric system — using iris scanning, fingerprints or facial recognition — is already used in areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government and quite broadly throughout the world of complex crises and humanitarian disasters.

Stealing food from the poorest, most vulnerable is reprehensible. Yet, these Houthi actions have larger-scale, second-order consequences. The Houthis are trading bread for guns, power and control — and further funding their war effort. Also, Houthi actions to manipulate food aid will seed grievances and foster corruption which may drive more radicalized behavior.

Collectively, these Houthi actions continue to perpetuate the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — with hardly any comment from Capitol Hill.

There are a few ways forward to help the most vulnerable, restore integrity in the assistance programs, and create better opportunities for a political solution to end this tragic conflict. 

First, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team in Riyadh at the Yemen Affairs Unit should encourage negotiators to put the use of WFP biometrics in perspective. The UN has used biometrics for more than 15 years. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was the first humanitarian organization to use iris scanning biometrics to verify Afghan returnees from Pakistan in 2003. WFP made its first use of biometrics in 2014 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, using a beneficiary information and transfer management platform in the run up to the Rohingya crisis. Most notably, in 2016, WFP partnered with UNHCR to introduce an iris scan payment system allowing Syrian refugees in Jordan to purchase food from shops using a scan of their eye instead of cash. From this perspective, Yemen represents the continuation of a 15-year biometrics system designed to protect the integrity of assistance to the most vulnerable. During this time, UN backed biometrics have become more sophisticated and targeted while maintaining the highest standards for data protection and privacy.

Second, regional diplomats and the international community need to push back against Houthi action and call out their ill intent to divert food aid. The Houthis of course do not admit to stealing food but instead argue that biometrics contravene both Yemeni law and present a national security risk. Further, Houthi-aligned clerics have reportedly issued fatwas against WFP for using biometrics. In response, diplomats and aid workers should cooperate closely with Yemeni religious, tribal and community leaders to advocate for better integrity and efficiency for humanitarian assistance. Iris scans in particular require no touching as with fingerprints, no DNA, no facial photography, and the woman’s abaya can be worn the entire time. Biometrics in the Syrian response have worked successfully, blunting malnutrition and child mortality. Islamic principles of zakat — charity — provide a clear moral basis for biometrics to help alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable in the Yemen conflict.   

Third, American diplomats on the ground should support the WFP suspension and keep others in the international community from acceding to Houthi demands to provide aid outside of any biometric reporting system. Any erosion of the WFP suspension will only undermine UN credibility and perpetuate the war. In fact, the U.S. Administration should double down on biometrics and encourage the UN to offer new technologies to help pay salaries to teachers, healthcare providers and sanitation workers and eliminate the huge numbers of ghost workers on the employment rolls. Finally, as in Syria, biometrics for the unbanked could lead to more inclusive access to micro-finance and broader household liquidity so desperately needed during a time of crisis.  

WFP chief, David Beasley has it right, denying the hungry Yemeni people food is criminal behavior. The prospects for a political settlement in Yemen seem remote. Outside of a negotiated ceasefire, effective humanitarian and economic opportunity may help foster a more positive, less corrosive political environment that one day may provide a path for a Yemen not at war.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises.

Tags Biometrics David Beasley Famine Houthis Mike Pompeo World Food Programme Yemen Yemeni Crisis

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