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Yemen war: Corruption stops food aid reaching us, say desperate families

Millions of people are in need of food aid in Yemen - but not all of it is reaching the most desperate
Saeed Abdul Hamid tries to cook in his makeshift home in al-Shimayateen district (MEE)

TAIZ, Yemen - Desperate Yemenis have complained that international food donations are failing to reach those most in need in the war-torn nation, forcing them to buy free supplies from market stalls.

Saeed Abdul Hamid, 35, an unemployed father of five children, has lived with his family inside a tent in Taiz's al-Shimayateen district since January 2017. He depends on his children to beg for food, either at the nearest market or else from house-to-house.

I tried to look for aid from organisations, but they declined to help

Saeed Abdul Hamid

Abdul Hamid is one of more than 200,000 displaced people in al-Shimayateen district, the centre of operations for international NGOs in Taiz province. He fled there in the belief that aid organisations would be able to feed his family.

But what he discovered, he told MEE, shocked him. "I tried to look for aid from organisations, but they declined to help."

Abdul Hamid said that the local World Food Programme (WFP) committee in al-Safia told him that no new names could be added to the list of aid recipients.

"But the committee could not stop three armed men entering the store and taking six baskets by force," he recalled of his visit in October.

What the WFP does

The WFP has played a critical role for millions of Yemenis during the conflict, which is about to enter its fourth year and has left at least 8,500 people dead and millions more hungry and impoverished.

Before 2015, almost half of all Yemenis lived below the poverty line. Now an estimated 3.3 million children and pregnant or breast-feeding women are acutely malnourished, including 462,000 children under five who face severe acute malnutrition, according to the UN. That's a 57 percent increase in just over two years, threatening the lives and life-long prospects of those affected.

The WFP has classified seven of Yemen's 22 provinces, including Taiz, as being at "emergency" level. This is only one level below "famine," the most severe classification on the five-point Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale. A further 10 provinces are classified as being at "crisis" level.

In August 2017, it said it and its partners distributed more than 80,000 tonnes of food items to seven million people through some 3,000 distribution points.

The WFP's monthly aid packages consist of 75kg of wheat, 10 litres of vegetable oil, 10kg of pulse beans, 0.5kg of salt and 2.5kg of sugar per person per month.

But the method of their distribution has drawn anger and accusations. Throughout 2017, protests frequently broke out in Taiz's central Jamal Street, as groups of poor people and activists demonstrated against what they say is a corrupt system.

WFP provides rich people with food, and they sell it to markets, while we have to beg this food from people

- Fatima Saleh

Abdul Rahim said that aside from gangs taking food by force, richer Yemenis with contacts among the aid committees have also benefited.

"WFP provides rich people with food, and they sell it to markets, while we have to beg for this food from people. Usually they help us with some wheat from WFP."

Fatima Saleh, a 40-something widow with six children who lives in Taiz city, values the monthly deliveries – even if she does not receive any herself. "My rich neighbour receives three food baskets from WFP each month, and he sells them to the market, while I do not receive anything." Sometimes, she said, she is fortunate enough to receive free food from her neighbours.

Saleh said she did not want to rely on her neighbours and should be a main beneficiary of the WFP but, like Hamid, was told her name could not be added to the list. She said aid supervisors regard the parcels as gifts and often earmark them for their contacts.

Just a couple of kilometres away, there are reports of local families who own cars, homes and land that are receiving WFP deliveries.  

Beneficiaries receive their assigned aid at a WFP distribution centre in Taiz' al-Shimayateen district (MEE)

There is no suggestion that they have acted in any way illegally or sold on the food they have received. One of the wealthier recepients said the aid was for everyone and those who need assistance should get it.

Where the aid sometimes goes

Some of the WFP aid appears at markets in Taiz and other locations, as traders buy it from wealthier homes and then sell it on to the poor.

Moatasem Haidar, 45, a resident of Taiz city, suffers from heart disease and has not received any monthly aid. He said he has to buy that very same aid from the market, sometimes with WFP branding stamped on the side.

A woman cooks amid discarded vehicle tyres at the al-Safia makeshift camp in June 2017 (MEE)

Haidar, like many others, tried to persuade the  international NGOs to add his name to the list of beneficiaries but without success.

"On 19 December, we protested in Jamal Street against the corruption of the aid's distribution to make the organisations, including WFP, take this issue into consideration and help needy people," he told MEE.

After the protest, he said, WFP supervisors promised to add his family's names to its list of beneficiaries. "Protest is the only way to demand your rights amid war. I think the supervisors will keep their word because they do not want us to protest."

He said that he believes the international NGOs do not know about the issues with distribution, including alleged corruption, as they depend on local partners, including government, for distribution.

Ruba Yassin is founder of the "We Love You" initiative based in Taiz, which collects money from philanthropists to help buy food for the poor. She called on people to protest against corruption and for the authorities to do more.

"All of us know that favouritism and corruption of aid distribution deprive needy people from aid and end up with registering the names of some rich people who do not need aid as beneficiaries."

A supervisor of WFP aid distribution in al-Shimayateen district, which has a population of around half a million, told MEE that there had been some irregularities in aid distribution in the past and they were going to be resolved in the coming months.

"We are aware that there are some rich people who receive the aid of poor families and there are some poor families do not receive aid in Taiz, but we will solve this problem in 2018," he told MEE. "There are only 65 centres of aid distribution in one district, so it is normal that some irregularities happen, and we do our best to stop them."

A spokesperson for WFP based in Yemen told MEE it was targeting the 6.8 million Yemenis who suffer severe food insecurity but that the situation would only deteriorate as the war continues. Government salaries, on which 30 percent of the population depend, are now only paid irregularly, if at all, increasing the numbers of those who need support. The spokesperson said the WFP had scaled up its operation significantly since April 2017.

But, the spokesperson said: "There are, however, residual risks that in some cases, due to collusion of local authorities, some people who should not receive assistance end up being registered for food assistance. WFP takes these issues very seriously and takes immediate action when such instances come to our attention through our monitoring systems."

Abdul Rahim wants representatives from the WFP see for themselves the suffering of locals in Taiz province and monitor more closely how aid is distributed.

"I hope the leadership of WFP knows my suffering and provide people like me with monthly food. Then my children will go to school instead of begging."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.