By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Lisa Barrington
DUBAI (Reuters) – A dispute over control of biometric data between the World Food Programme and Yemen’s Houthi group is straining humanitarian efforts and threatens to disrupt aid distribution in a country already on the brink of famine.
In an unusually strong statement the U.N. agency, which feeds more than 10 million people a month across the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest nation, said last month it is considering suspending deliveries due to fighting, insecurity and interference in its work.
The WFP has said the Iran-aligned Houthis, who control the capital Sanaa, were hampering the rollout of a WFP biometric system to identify those in most need.
The biometric system – using iris scanning, fingerprints or facial recognition – is already used in areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognised government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states.
Sources familiar with the discussions said Houthi leaders asked the agency to stop the registration process in early April after realising the new system bypasses Sanaa’s supervision.
The Houthis said the process should be run by the Yemeni Social Welfare Fund (SWF), a Sanaa-based agency which coordinates with international aid groups.
Since discovering in December 2018 that donated food in Houthi areas was being systematically diverted through a local partner connected to Houthi authorities, the WFP has pressed the Houthis harder to implement a biometric registration system used globally to combat corruption in aid distribution.
“The continued blocking by some within the Houthi leadership of the biometric registration … is undermining an essential process that would allow us to independently verify that food is reaching … people on the brink of famine,” WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, told Reuters the WFP insisted on controlling the data in violation of Yemeni law.
“We have proposed many solutions including to distribute cards exclusively to the beneficiaries and to use cash instead of food aid… but they refused,” he said.
He called for an independent investigation because the WFP receives money from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who lead the anti-Houthi alliance. The agency says it remains independent regardless of its source of funding.
Another point of contention between the WFP and Houthi authorities has been 51,000 tonnes of U.N. wheat — inaccessible since September and at risk of rotting — stored in Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah.
Both parties to Yemen’s four-year conflict have used access to aid and food as a political tool, exacerbating what the United Nations have called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis where cholera has already killed thousands.
Aid agencies operating in Yemen have told Reuters that food and medical supplies can be held at ports and frontline borders for up to six months due to bureaucracy from both warring sides.
Verhoosel said 8,200 tons of wheat was recently prevented from unloading at Hodeidah port by Yemeni food quality monitors, even though there was no indication of problems.
He also said that in April 160 trucks carrying food aid from the southern port of Aden to the Houthi-controlled north were detained at checkpoints between government and Houthi territory. They have since been released but another 21 WFP trucks have been detained in Houthi areas.
Other agencies say the problems, including harassment of staff, interference with distribution list, difficulties getting visas and restrictions on movement, have deepened in Houthi areas in recent months.
“We share the frustrations described by the WFP … and we reiterate calls for authorities in Yemen to allow humanitarian agencies to do our jobs,” said Suze van Meegen of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Lisa Barrington, Editing by William Maclean)