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buildings in Sanaa Yemen

Why Yemen Starves

The Making of a Modern Famine

Daniel Larison

Available languages: Deutsch, 한국어

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  • Red Robbo

    John Boyd Orr, former director of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, was candid in stating: ‘a world of peace and friendship, a world with the plenty which modern science had made possible was a great ideal. But those in power had no patience with such an ideal. They said it was not practical politics’ (Daily Herald, 29 July 1948). What Lord Boyd Orr failed to recognise - and his counterparts today - is that food, like every other commodity in our modern world, is produced primarily for profit, as this headline from Asia Times (31 October, 2018) attests: 'In Yemen, plenty of food but few have the cash to buy it'. And: 'While agriculture and food distribution suffer from the war, food remains available in markets across the country - but few can afford it. "All kinds of food and other items are available in the market. The problem is not a shortage of food in markets but that we do not have money to buy food that is now expensive," Sofi said' (Middle East Eye, 9 November, 2018)

  • Nancy Hess

    Thank you, Daniel Larison, for your heartbreaking & informative report on the current crisis in Yemen, which has been going on for years now. It seems most of our national news focuses on much more trivial issues, and rarely mentions the world events at large. It is hard to imagine the horrors of starvation, especially for children. May we not forget them, and dare to speak out as you have done.

Modern famine is almost never the result of a lack of food. This may seem strange; for almost all of human history, people have starved when crops fail or wars deplete food supplies. No longer. Today, famines are man-made. Nor do they happen by accidents of omission. Often political leaders choose to inflict this punishment on a group of people whose lives they consider expendable. To create a famine in the twenty-first century requires an extraordinary amount of organized effort. It is something that some people do to others to achieve their political goals. As such, it ranks as another type of mass atrocity and a crime against humanity. One such crime against humanity is taking place today in Yemen.

A child at a shelter for displaced persons in Ibb, Yemen, August 2018

A child at a shelter for displaced persons in Ibb, Yemen, August 2018 Photograph by Nariman El-Mofty. Used by permission.

Yemen has been hard hit after more than four years of war. As Alex de Waal tells us in his valuable history of modern famine, Mass Starvation, “acts of commission – political decisions – are needed to turn a disaster into mass starvation.” Indeed, Yemen’s famine is largely a product of economic blockade and other policy decisions made by the Saudi-backed, internationally-recognized government of Yemen led by President Hadi. Hadi was the successor to Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen for over thirty years when he was forced out following protests in 2011. Hadi was himself then ousted by Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, in a September 2014 coup. In the spring of 2015, a coalition of Arab governments led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and supported by the United States, launched a military intervention to reinstate Hadi and expel the Houthis from the capital. Saleh and the Houthis formed an alliance of convenience that collapsed last year when the Houthis fell out with Saleh and killed him. Today, the coalition is no closer to achieving its goals, but the civilian population of Yemen has been thrown into the abyss.

The civilian population of Yemen has been thrown into the abyss.

Between the damage done to the country’s infrastructure from Saudi coalition bombing, the sea and air blockade maintained by the US-backed Saudi coalition, the relocation of the central bank to Aden, the devaluation of Yemen’s currency, and more than two years of failing to pay civil servants their salaries, Yemen’s economy has virtually collapsed. That has meant deepening poverty for most Yemenis. As many as fifteen million – more than half the population of the entire country – are so food insecure that they are at risk of starvation. There may be food in the marketplaces in Yemen, but it has become prohibitively expensive for a population impoverished by conflict and inflation. And the economic war being waged on the civilian population is causing far more deaths from preventable causes than bombing and shelling. Save the Children estimates that at least eighty-five thousand children have starved to death since 2015.

Children are usually among the most vulnerable to the ravages of famine, especially because malnutrition puts them at greater risk of dying from disease. The sad story of Amal Hussain, a seven-year-old Yemeni girl, is representative of the plight of millions of children in that war. The New York Times first reported on her condition in late October 2018, and the story was accompanied by a haunting photograph of Amal’s frail body wasted by extreme hunger and diarrhea. Within a few days of the report, Amal had died. Amal’s family had lived like refugees in their own country since their home was destroyed by a Saudi coalition airstrike three years earlier. It was in the camps for the internally displaced that she slowly wasted away. Millions of Yemeni children are just as severely malnourished, and their families are just as poor. Even the children that don’t perish from hunger and disease have had their development stunted and their lives permanently scarred by the experience of living through war and famine.

Just as famine has political causes, it can have a political remedy.

Just as famine has political causes, it can have a political remedy. Unfortunately, these atrocious famines have not generated the attention or interest worldwide that other mass atrocities receive. The countries affected by famine are not covered in the news media very often. When there is coverage, it seems to have little or no effect on policymakers and the public. There is a real danger of famine making a comeback in many countries where outside governments are either complicit in causing mass starvation or have no interest in staving off disaster. After nearly succeeding in eliminating famine entirely, the world seems mostly oblivious to its horrendous return.

Contributed By Daniel Larison

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at the American Conservative, where he also blogs. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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