THE BLOG

Kick Starting Yemen's Future

16/07/2013 16:37 BST | Updated 15/09/2013 10:12 BST
Getty Images

The children wanted to play football. But there wasn't one to hand. So an older boy was dispatched on a motorbike to find one. Then after a long wait a battered ball arrived and two hundred men and boys chased a ball around a dusty patch in the middle of the village. The game was not football but a mixture of handball, rugby and football - it made me think of depictions of football games in 18th Century England - no rules, free for all, lots of effort and little to show for it.

The temptation is to think that this description - of an incident that occurred when I visited an isolated community in the sand-blasted Tihama of Western Yemen recently - might be equally applied to the work of the international community in Yemen. But when I reflect further, I realise that this would be wrong. It is true that this country's desperate humanitarian crisis has been largely ignored by the world's media.

It is true that almost half of the 25million population go to bed hungry each night. It is true that the international effort to feed the malnourished infants and support their hard-pressed uneducated mothers looks more like the Horn of Africa than the Arabian Peninsula. It's also true that Yemen is the poorest Arab country and is in the middle of a fragile political transition where there is little security and the government is not present in perhaps 70% of the country. But unlike some of the afflicted countries across the Bab Al Mandab straits, Yemen potentially has a bright future. And international NGOs, such as Oxfam, are providing essential life maintenance, which should within a few years show real results.

Earlier this month I travelled with Oxfam to Al Hodeidah in western Yemen, one of the country's largest cities, to see first-hand how communities in this area are struggling to cope with the post-crisis situation of rising inequality and economic turmoil. One in three children are suffering from severe malnutrition and more than 70% of people who rely on casual labour have been unable to find work to feed their children.

Yet amidst the poverty, I met families who are striving to recover from the crisis. At one village, before the male inhabitants started their chaotic football game, a lady, who was probably in her forties but looked twice that, showed me her livestock donated by the Oxfam programme. A few scraggy goats and a cow. She proudly gave me a tour of her one room hut - impressively clean and ordered - where she had raised her seven children after their father had died young. 'No,' she said, ' she hadn't married again.' She shrugged and grinned implying why on earth would she want to? As a widow, a woman in those parts has more independence than a wife.

With UK funded support from the Department of International Development (DfID), Oxfam provides a cash transfer programme together with Government-run schemes - the Yemeni post office, and the main public social safety net the Social Welfare Fund - which delivers cash based support to the most vulnerable Yemenis.

The infusion of $100 per family every two months was keeping families afloat and, particularly in the case of the very old and very young, alive. When I met with local shop-keepers, they explained how the programme created a virtuous circle as the villagers used the cash infusion to repay their debts, purchase food, and enabled them, in turn, to restock and remain open to serve the community.

Many beneficiaries told us that they immediately left the cash distribution centre's and bought supplies of rice and wheat flour for several weeks, spending any of the extra on vegetables or meat. Given Yemenis' emphasis on the social importance of qat - a bush whose leaves are chewed to produce euphoria - I was surprised to learn that the programme's monitoring showed that less than 1% of the money was used for this purpose. It was sobering to observe the arrival of people who were clearly struggling, but were not on the list to receive cash that day. There is a system to document such cases and enable access to the Social Welfare Fund - this will be a key area for the government to strengthen in order to ensure the donor-funded programmes reach all of those in need.

Oxfam's programme is just one of the many made possible by the UK Government which plays a leading role, alongside other international partners, in supporting the people of Yemen and has given substantial long term funds to help tackle the root causes of the crisis. At the last Friends of Yemen meeting in London in March, Foreign Secretary William Hague and his Saudi and Yemeni colleagues brought together almost 40 countries and international organisations determined to create a better future for Yemen.

The Yemeni people have chosen peace and dialogue, in the hope that political transition will deliver a brighter future. For this dream to become a reality, the government of Yemen and international community need to live up to their promises and deliver funds to the people who need it most.

Meanwhile, many communities in the desolate Sahel of western Yemen will remain dependent on the delivery of money and other support by programmes such as Oxfam's - while, of course, enjoying the odd game of village football.