By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – United Nations food chief David Beasley said on Friday he was hopeful that “good Houthis” would prevail to allow the agency to lift its partial suspension of aid in Yemen and prevent the collapse of the entire humanitarian system.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday it had started a partial suspension of aid in Yemen, citing failure to reach an agreement with the Iran-aligned Houthis on controls to prevent food being diverted away from vulnerable people.
The decision affects about 850,000 people living in the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa out of the more than 10 million people in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country who rely on food provided by the WFP.
“We’re hopeful that the authorities in Sanaa will come to their senses and do what’s right for the people,” Beasley, the agency’s executive director, told Reuters in an interview.
He said he and his teams had been talking to and meeting with Houthi leaders such as Abdul Malik al-Houthi and his brother who had been doing their best to find a solution.
“There are hardliners inside the Ansar Allah movement that don’t care about people, they don’t care about anything other than profiteering and destabilisation.”
Beasley said the WFP estimated that at least 10 percent of the $175 million of food aid per month they provided was being diverted in Houthi areas to help fund the conflict.
“We’re hopeful that the ‘good Houthis’ will prevail and we can put our system back in place. If we can get this worked out, and we don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t, we’ll be back on streets within hours,” Beasley said.
A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognised government that was ousted from power in Sanaa the year before by the Houthis, who say their revolution is against corruption.
Both parties in the four-year conflict, widely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, have used access to aid and food as a political tool.
“At this stage, you can clearly say the humanitarian system is funding military and political operations. We are independent, neutral, impartial and if we can can’t guarantee that, we shouldn’t be there,” Beasley said.
“The entire humanitarian system is at stake here.”
The suspension follows a dispute over the control of biometric data that the WFP use to ensure the food was not being diverted from its intended recipients. The Houthis have said the WFP’s insistence on controlling the data breached Yemeni law.
“Biometrics just allows us to make sure the food aid is not being diverted,” Beasley said, adding that they had considered all other options for 18 months but were left with no choice but to suspend distributing the aid.
He said they chose Sanaa as it was where people were the most nourished but where most of the food diversion was occurring. Nutrition programmes for malnourished children, pregnant and nursing mothers will be maintained there.
“This is one of, if not the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life,” Beasley said.
“Yemen is the worst humanitarian disaster on Earth today and it’s being exacerbated by food aid diversion. Let’s just pray and hope we can come to a solution.”
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Hugh Lawson)