Food Security in Yemen: a Constant Struggle
The National Yemen discusses the many challenges Yemen faces in feeding its people with World Food Program representative in Yemen Gian Carlo Cirri.
NY. Would it be fair to say that there is a food crisis in Yemen?
Yes, of course.
NY. What are the causes of this crisis in your view?
Well, it’s a combination of causes. When it comes to cereals, which is the staple food in Yemen, the country is importing between 80-90% of its food requirement.
Yemen is very much exposed to any shock or fluctuation of prices in the international market. The trends are not positive at all. We are approaching the 2008 peak in food prices. The relatively high level of food prices in the international market is one of the main causes.
The dependence on imports and the relatively weak agricultural market, this is not helping, neither is the overall prevalence of poverty. To be food secure as a country, you don’t need to produce; Switzerland is a good example. But the lack of purchasing power in Yemen is a major cause of the crisis.
Also, the gender gap, drought, and water scarcity are aggravating factors.
When you look at markets in Yemen, when it comes to rural areas, you have many places where markets aren’t functioning well.
NY. To what extent do you think that the food issue in Yemen relates to wider unrest in the Arab World, in terms of high food prices, subsidies, and dissatisfaction with governments?
There is an obvious link between high food prices and unrest. We saw this in 2007 and 2008.
It is said that one of the factors in Tunisia was high food prices. In Yemen, there are no food subsidies; these were removed in the nineties I believe. The subsidies in Yemen are about fuel, not food.
But there is a correlation, if fuel prices increase, then you have an increase in the price of food.
NY. Is there anything about Yemen’s geography or demographics that make food security more difficult?
The population growth is definitely an aggravating factor. When you look at the population density, especially in the highlands, it’s extremely high.
The pressure on natural resources is increasing, and the pressure on the land is great.
If you look at the recent Small Arms Survey, they try to document the increase in what they call social violence due to this pressure on water and land. This social violence is increasing, and related deaths and casualties are pretty high.
The death toll as a result, in the Northern conflict and the Southern conflict is a result of these pressures.
NY. Do you feel that the WFP, or the UN in general, is doing a job which the government could, or should, be doing itself?
It’s not a competition, and it’s not a substitution – it’s a cooperation. The government is the main actor when it comes to policies and strategies across all sectors.
For food security, recently a strategy has been approved, which I think is a good one. It is very comprehensive and broad and the government is definitely doing what it can.
Now, we have to acknowledge the fact that because of the relative decrease of oil prices, the capacity of the government is decreasing as well, because their revenue is on the decline.
Oil eevenues are 70-80% of the government’s revenues. Here again, you have the strong exposure of the government to one single element.
What we do is try to support and complement them.
NY. But isn’t there enough food in the world to support the hungry? Are food shortages essentially a question of politics?
That’s not necessarily the issue. The issue is access most of the time. When you study surveys of food security, in many instances, producing areas are often the areas where food insecurity is the highest.
When you talk about food security, there are three levels. The first one is availability; if there is no food, that’s obviously a problem. The availability exists on the international market, but it’s decreasing – that’s why prices are increasing.
The main issue is access: it’s the capacity of the people to buy this food and to bring this food home. That’s where poverty is playing the crucial role.
NY. But surely unfair global trade agreements and even authoritarian governments affect access and affordability of food?
When it comes to agricultural products, of course this is an issue. If there is something in global trade that does not flow freely, it is agricultural products.
Why? Because you have so many interferences here and there. Almost all countries are subsidizing their production. This is an issue for poor countries to market their product. There is a certain level of unfair competition, definitely.
NY. Do you see that as the ultimate, permanent solution to food insecurity and food shortages in the developing world? Or are safety nets like those provided by the WFP adequate?
That’s a complex question, and I do not think I have the answer. When it comes to many developing countries, yes, a system that is more equitable and fair would definitely benefit these places.
One of the problems is that they do not have the same means to subsidize production. Therefore, the end price of their products tends to be higher than the international price.
But the international price is not a reflection of what the price should be, because it is subsidized.
For a poor, producing country, a more equitable system would be beneficial.
NY. How do you regard the role of the private sector in alleviating food issues, and helping those who are starving and also those who are just trying to get by?
First, this is not the private sector’s job. These companies exist to make a profit.
What we know is that the food industry in Yemen is for processing, not production. For many commodities, what these companies are doing, is they are importing food, processing it, then exporting it.
When we look at the evolution of the international prices, and the ones at the national level, it matches. There are no major discrepancies.
However, it would be of some benefit to have a higher level of competition among the companies in Yemen. But again, it’s not a monopolistic situation where a couple of groups can determine the price level.
The main actors are five to seven, if I remember correctly. The World Bank, the IFPRI, and our market survey are all indicating that it would good to have an injection of extra competition, and that this would be good for the Yemeni consumers.
NY. We understand that Sa’ada is a major focus of the WFP’s work, and that you paid a recent visit there. Could you give us an impression of what you saw?
I think our main obstacle is access, definitely. Our first immediate concern is to ensure the regular delivery of food to Sa’ada town. The insecurity along the main supply routes is very high, so there’s a problem there.
The second issue is that the access of World Food Program and our partners beyond Sa’ada town is not sufficient. We are asking for an increase in access to those affected.
We can serve the internally displaced persons – it’s not ideal, but we can serve them from Sa’ada town, but we would like to be able to serve them closer to their place of residence.
Some of them are labeled returnees, even though they are in fact going and coming. Again, the conditions for their return are not yet there – that is the reason that these people are trying to restore their livelihoods. But the situation is not yet good or conducive to that.
We would like to really contribute to what could be the early recovery process.
The feeling is that a ceasefire agreement is really not enough to look confidently into a long-lasting settlement. The parties would need an increased political dialogue on such a settlement. To my knowledge, we are not yet there.
The Qatari mediation is very helpful in this context, but it is a very slow process, and when this translates into our capacity to better reach the effected, it is not enough.
NY. Your literature spoke of funding shortfalls. Is this an especially grave situation for you?
Last year, the first half of the year was very, very bleak. We had to reduce rations and for many months we were fearing that it would at one point have to be completely discontinued.
Luckily, we received support from donors, and now the situation is a bit better, to the extent that we can increase the ration to 75% and we do have some months of supply that are guaranteed, but again, not enough.
This is insufficient for IDPs and basic nutritional requirements. Our assessments are pretty clear on that: the dependence of IDPs on external aid is still very important.
NY. Do you see the cultivation of qat being a major issue with regard to food security?
Again, it’s such a difficult question. Of course, the net effect of qat is not positive. I don’t think it is positive on the nutritional status on the population, it is not positive on the use of water, and after all it’s an addiction.
However, it’s a cash crop. If we look at food insecurity, one result we consistently find, is that qat producers are food secure.
This is logical, if you have a cash crop, you receive revenues which increase your purchasing power. The revenues you could get from alternative crops are less.
It looks like a very difficult issue, and to an extent it compares to coca production in Latin America. What you can offer as a substitute is not really attractive to cultivators.
I think it’s a mix of incentive and regulations that would help, but you have to move gradually. If you look at qat production and consumption as something totally illegal, and cultivation drops significantly, then the first result would be that the poverty rate would increase significantly.
NY. What other challenges are you facing?
The food that we distribute is costing us much more than it was some months ago because of the increase in prices. On the other hand, food prices are increasing the number of food insecure people.
We are getting close to the situation we were in during 2007-2008, where there is this double effect which creates a deeper food crisis.
Also, funding shortfalls are affecting our aviation operations. These measures are crucial to our activities, and they are jeopardy.
The current situation absolutely requires that our safety net is carried out. What we are trying to do with the Social Welfare Fund is to stock up food-deprived people with resources for a seasonal intervention.
It should start sometime in May and continue till October, which is the hunger season. This intervention targets the poorest people in Yemen in the most insecure places.