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Paola Tamma

Yemen's Houthis announce food rationing system to appease protests

More than half of Yemen’s population is food insecure and needs humanitarian assistance [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 April, 2017

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The Houthi-controlled ministry announced plans to pay civil servants in food rations, amidst frequent reports of aid capture.
The Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Yemen's Houthi-controlled Sanaa issued commodity cards allowing government employees to buy basic food items from two shops in the capital on Wednesday. 

“The card requires a number of suppliers so that the consumer can compare and choose between the goods, but a limited number of suppliers creates a near-monopoly that employees will be subject to,” said an economic analysist interviewed by local media.

Since the internationally-recognised President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi transferred Yemen’s central bank to Aden in August 2016, 1.2 million civil servants have not received their wages. Nearly 30 percent of Yemenis depend on government salaries and pensions according to the UN.

When the Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa in 2014, they captured state revenues from tax and customs, and set up their own state and military apparatus. But whereas fighters have been on Houthis’ paycheck, civil servants haven’t been receiving their salaries for nine months.

Civil servants including teachers and medical professionals are being forced to defect from their jobs and seek alternative livelihood options to sustain themselves and their families, further paralysing state-run services.

The commodity card entitles civil servants to 50%
of their salary in food rations [Image via Twitter]

Government employees have been protesting in Sanaa for a resumption of their salaries, but protests have so far been met with repression.

Recently protesters have become more vocal, supposedly influencing the Houthis’ decision to create a cash-free rationing system.

Humanitarian organisations are hampered in their work both by a naval blockade by Saudi Arabia who deny them access to Hodeidah port and by Houthi forces who block and seize aid cargoes directed to territories they do not control, reportedly selling it on the black market.

Recently Houthi forces seized two hundred trucks of UN food relief and appropriated the cargo.

Local citizens and NGOs are frustrated at this cat-and-mouse game which leaves civilians starving. They are urging the UN Organisation for Coordinating Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA) to seek alternative means to deliver aid to avoid blockades and appropriation.

“The problem is not that there is no food, but that only a very small part of the population is able to afford it,” says Baraa Shiban, a caseworker for the NGO Reprieve currently living in London.

He thinks that resurrecting Yemen’s social welfare system would have a better chance of relieving poverty and hunger in Yemen.

“[The social welfare used to cover] 1.2 million people. It was only 100$ per month, but you would be amazed at what this can buy in Yemen, and many families were dependent on it.”

The UN recently hosted an emergency pledging event for Yemen where member states contributed $1.1 billion, with Saudi Arabia contributing the most at $150 million.

Saudi Arabia is one of Yemen’s key donors, and is also leading a coalition of nine Arab states against the Houthis and ousted President Saleh.

Hence pumping money into a welfare system which is partly under Houthi control is not an option the Saudis would allow.

More than half of Yemen’s population is food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly 2.2 million children are malnourished, half a million suffer from severe acute malnutrition and are at imminent risk of death if they do not receive urgent care and specialised treatment, warns UNICEF.

But warring parties’ denial of access and capture of aid for their own means thwarts relief efforts, further precipitating an already dire humanitarian situation.


Paola Tamma is a freelance investigative journalist who recently graduated from City University, London. She is currently researching Yemeni issues and society. Follow her on Twitter: @paola_tamma

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