WFP to resume food aid to Houthi-run areas after biometric data hurdle cleared

The World Food Programme (WFP) and Yemen's Houthi movement have reached an agreement to resume food assistance to the rebel-held areas in the country after deliveries were partially suspended in June, affecting 850,000 people. 

The UN agency "signed a high-level agreement that is an important step towards safeguards that guarantee the accountability of our humanitarian operation in Yemen," said WFP spokesperson Herve Verhoosel, adding that some details have yet to be hammered out.

"We are hopeful that technical details can be agreed in the coming days," he added. 

The agency halted part of its aid operations in Sana, which has been under Houthi control since late 2014, amid concerns that food designated for the poorest in the war-ravaged country was not reaching them.

"The decision was taken as a last resort after lengthy negotiations stalled on an agreement to introduce controls to prevent the diversion of food away from some of the most vulnerable people in Yemen," the agency said in a June 20 statement.

Programs for malnourished children, pregnant and nursing mothers were not affected by the suspension.

The sore point between the two sides revolved around a biometric system for beneficiaries already in use in regions administrated by the internationally recognized pro-Saudi government but not in parts controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis.

The WFP was calling for biometric verification – such as iris scanning, fingerprints or facial recognition – to prevent the misappropriation of food rations and ensure transparency of its humanitarian operations. However, Houthis took issue with the agency's plan to control the data, arguing it's in violation of Yemeni law. 

That hurdle seems to have been cleared now as the agreement includes a biometric database of beneficiaries to guarantee "effective and efficient distribution" and to "benefit the most needy," AFP reported quoting a Houthi-run website.

WFP's food relief includes pulses, flour, oil, sugar and salt for households, and snacks for school children. The agency also distributes commodity vouchers, which recipients can use to redeem basic foodstuff, as well as cash-based transfers.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthis' Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said late Saturday on Twitter that cash distribution will "soon be launched in accordance with the mechanism of the WFP."

Four years of conflict in the country have triggered what the UN has dubbed "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world" amid unrelenting violence, food shortages and economic hardship.

According to the WFP, food insecurity affects two-thirds of the country's population or around 20 million Yemenis, half of whom are at risk of famine. Children and women are among the most vulnerable groups, with around three million threatened with acute malnutrition.

The WFP has scaled up its operations with the aim of serving around 11.7 million people across the country on a monthly basis – although the agency doesn't always meet its target.

(Cover: Displaced Yemenis carry World Food Programme (WFP) food aid in the northern district of Abs in the country's Hajjah province, on July 8, 2019. /VCG Photo)

(With input from agencies)