In Yemen, another kind of terror

HODEIDAH, Yemen — Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi arrived in New York on Monday to co-chair the “Friends of Yemen” donor conference, which takes place Thursday.

Yemen’s government desperately hopes the meeting will result in more promises of aid alongside the $6.4 billion that was pledged to counter Yemen's growing humanitarian crisis in September.

Last year’s Arab Spring revolution in Yemen made worse an already deadly climate of inflation, currency failure and disruption to the supply of basic goods that has punished the poorest and those farthest away from Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.

Baby Anas is one of the 267,000 children the United Nations says are at risk of dying from malnutrition in the country. GlobalPost found Anas clinging desperately to his mother as he was placed meekly on a set of scales amid the chaos of Beit-Al-Fakih’s children’s clinic, in the far southwest corner of the country.

The child’s skin was course and sat limply on his ribs. His shoulder blades jutted out at an awkward angle from his neck. He weighed less than half of what an average American baby of his age would.

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Anas’ father Mohammed is a casual laborer who makes about $4 a day in a village 20 kilometers away.

It cost Mohammed three days' pay to get his son to the clinic on the back of a motorbike taxi, a sacrifice he said means the rest of his family would have to go hungry for the next few days. The scene is reminiscent of the Horn of Africa.

Mohammed and his family’s situation is typical of many people in the Tihaman plains, some of the poorest in the region, who are paying one of the heaviest prices for the stalled revolution that ended the 33-year-old presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

For Anas, the dusty highway, and unforgiving scrubland that surrounds Beit-Al-Fakih must feel like a lifetime away from the relative prosperity that pervades the nation’s capital.

Rising fuel prices not only cost malnourished children the chance of reaching the clinics and hospitals they desperately need, but increased the cost of bread by more than 60 percent in 2011.

Nearly all the country’s agricultural water supplies rely on diesel pumps to irrigate crops from underground aquifers, a situation that has accentuated the crisis in a region that used to be the breadbasket of Yemen. For many here, the cost of growing food as gotten so high, they have simply given up.

Even outside the scorching Tihama, the country suffers a disastrous 70 percent unemployment rate and, according to the International Monetary Fund, in 2011 the economy contracted by 10.5 percent, while inflation rose to 17.6 percent.

The last time the “Friends of Yemen” met in September, donors pledged $4 billion in aid to help the impoverished state. But a significant portion of that money has not arrived yet. Joy Singhal who directs Oxfam’s humanitarian response in the country, has urged caution toward pledges made at the conference.

“Significant portions of the aid are likely to be spent on political reforms and security. The humanitarian response, allowing agencies to urgently address emergency needs, is still severely underfunded; Oxfam itself only has half of the funds it needs for emergency programming.”

The country has also long suffered a history of broken promises of aid. In 2006, $5 billion was promised to Yemen, but by February 2010, less than 10 percent had been disbursed.

Ginny Hill, who writes on behalf of the London think tank Chatham House’s Yemen Forum said, "The previous failure to disperse funds lay both in the capacity of the Yemeni government to administer funds and factional politics paralyzing the government, as well as capacity issues — and declining confidence in Yemen's ability to spend the money — among the Gulf donors.”

For the people of the Tihama plains, delays caused by wrangling on preconditions for the aid could be a matter of life and death.

“People cannot survive on empty promises, however generous,” Singhal said. “Promises of help need to be quickly translated into money on the ground, to help desperate families who are struggling to get by from day to day.”

“In practical terms, funding shortfalls mean that we will only be able help a fraction of the one million people we had hoped to reach with aid by the end of the year. We are being forced to make some very difficult decisions.”