OPED: This Thanksgiving, save Yemen from famine

William Lambers
Ending World Hunger

As Thanksgiving arrives let's not forget that innocent civilians in Yemen are on the brink of a catastrophic famine. On a day of thanks where food should be in abundance, many Yemeni families will have nothing to eat. 

A civil war between a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Houthi rebels has left the Middle Eastern country in ruins. With war comes man’s ancient enemy of hunger. The fighting has caused massive food shortages in Yemen, which was an impoverished country even before the conflict. The population depends on international aid from humanitarian relief agencies. 

But the Saudi-led coalition is blockading Yemen's ports, preventing lifesaving supplies from entering the country. The United States must demand this blockade be lifted. The UN World Food Program and its partners appealed last week "for the coalition to permit entry of lifesaving supplies to Yemen in response to what is now the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” 

Think of a small child in Yemen right now, who cannot get anything to eat. Malnutrition will stunt his or her life forever. The effects of malnutrition are irreversible in the young. If the malnutrition continues, the child will perish. It is a race against time to get food or medicine to children in Yemen. 

As WFP’s statement pleads, “The supplies, which include medicines, vaccines and food, are essential to staving off disease and starvation. Without them, untold thousands of innocent victims, among them many children, will die."  

Peanut butter. Many of us probably had this food sometime this week. Well, a vitamin-rich peanut paste called Plumpy’Nut can save the life of a child in Yemen right now. But humanitarian agencies such as WFP, UNICEF or Save the Children need humanitarian access. The blockade of Yemen must be lifted. That must be our imperative this Thanksgiving season.  

It is our great tradition as a country to feed those who hunger and are oppressed. The civilian population of Yemen is at grave risk. There are 17 million people in Yemen who live in hunger, a dramatic increase since the civil war erupted. More than 2/3 of their population does not know where their next meal is coming from.  

The blockade is not the only crisis. There is a lack of funding as well. A recent report stated that "WFP has been obliged to prioritize available resources and target 3.4 million people with full 2,100 Kcal rations and 3.6 million people with reduced 60 percent rations." 

 WFP spokesperson Steve Taravella says that in Yemen “the need remains immense. WFP faces a funding shortfall of nearly $350 million through April of 2018.” 

 This is unacceptable. Food aid must be given complete funding, and the United States must take the lead on this. While the United States has donated to hunger relief in Yemen, we have to do more. And we have to encourage other nations to do so as well. Like we did after World War II when we stepped up food aid to defeat famine, we must do so again.  

What is very alarming, though, is the future prospects of U.S. food aid with upcoming budgets.  The Trump administration had proposed earlier this year to eliminate funding for the U.S. Food for Peace program as well as the McGovern-Dole global school lunch program. This is a huge travesty, as our food aid is needed to help countries facing severe hunger, such as Yemen. 

Congress can save the budget by increasing funding for our food aid programs, which can feed Yemen and the many other nations in dire need. Food is the key to stability and peace in the world. We understood this so well during and after the second World War when food aid helped win the peace in Europe through the Marshall Plan. 

We must rise to the occasion again today to fight hunger in Yemen and other countries, including Syria and Iraq. The U.S. famine warning system stated earlier this year that 45 nations faced hunger emergencies. That is the worst hunger crisis since the WWII era. 

On this Thanksgiving, we should expect our leaders to end the humanitarian blockade in Yemen and organize peace talks. Food aid must reach all civilians in need. Our leaders must also increase food aid funding to WFP and other organizations on the front lines fighting hunger.  

— William Lambers is an author who partnered with the U.N. World Food Programme on the book "Ending World Hunger."