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In Yemen’s Arab Spring, Crucial to Look Beyond Al Qaeda

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Catherine Herridge of Fox News just published a story about the growing threat of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Political instability in Yemen this year, with protesters calling for the removal of President Saleh, has weakened the ability of that government to tackle the Al Qaeda threat.

Herridge’s report quotes Matt Olsen, the new head of the National Counterterrorism Center, telling the Senate about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Olsen says, “Whether Yemen is a safe haven, we are very concerned about the ability of the Yemeni government at this point to sustain any strong counterterrorism efforts, given the governance challenges that it faces. So, AQAP has had the opportunity to recruit inside Yemen and to plan and plot inside Yemen.”

But it’s critical when having the discussion of Yemen to also go beyond Al Qaeda and the political turmoil.

Far less reported are areas where the international community can take action immediately: hunger and malnutrition. Food for hungry Yemenis will be a most crucial oasis of calm in the storm of political unrest and Al Qaeda.

As we speak, millions of Yemenis are being crushed by high food prices. They cannot access basic foods. This was a crisis even before the Arab Spring came along. The political unrest has made it much worse.

A report from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) states that “the price of bread is still 50% above what it had been at the beginning of the year. In light of the fact that many Yemenis already spend between 30% and 35% of their daily income on bread, the inflation of bread prices could prove to be very damaging to the food security of Yemen’s poorest families.”

There are severely malnourished children in Yemen who could be saved with a simple intervention. Because these children are the future of that country, it’s crucial that those in power remember this when making Yemen policy.

The first step the international community can take is to boost the UN World Food Programme’s response to hunger in Yemen. Currently, WFP operations have received low funding and cannot reach all the hungry. Their plan involves emergency rations to help families afflicted with high food prices. But low funding means not all needy families can receive the rations. In addition, WFP is feeding the displaced in Southern and Northern Yemen.

An investment of around $60 million would ensure that full rations could be provided. Spread out over a coalition of nations, this is a relatively inexpensive investment.

Second is support for UNICEF’s work in treating malnourished children. This is most crucial for building the future of Yemen. A full supply of plumpy’nut needs to be shipped to Yemen as soon as possible to cover all the malnutrition cases. Again, this is another relatively small investment in the millions of dollars.

The third phase is to include Food for Work projects to build infrastructure and improve agricultural development. A national school lunch program including a take-home ration element will need to be instituted. This will be an effort with the government and communities working together. For instance, local shop owners and farmers would ideally become suppliers, at least in part of the school feeding program.

Food is a critical component of any peace plan for Yemen. It will strengthen the people of Yemen so they can better resolve these crisis areas. For food is the foundation of all things, whether it is peace, political stability, education, or economic development, all of which will inhibit Al Qaeda’s growth.

It’s very important to look at Yemen through this lens, particularly for those in power who make policy decisions about how to best help Yemen navigate the stormy waters in the Arab Spring.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.