Yemen turns to the challenge of reducing poverty and hunger
In February, Yemen elected a new president for the first time in 22 years, following a year of street protests, violence, and political unrest. Yemen’s new government marks the beginning of a new era in the country—part of the Arab Awakening—and holds the potential for greater freedom and prosperity for its citizens. But the conflict has been costly, even beyond the toll in human lives. Many Yemenis are poorer, more vulnerable, and more food insecure than they were before the uprising.
IFPRI, in collaboration with the European Union, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), World Food Programme, and World Bank, worked with Yemen’s previous government, civil society organizations, and the private sector in 2010 and 2011 to develop a food security strategy. But the uprising came before the strategy could be implemented. Now, IFPRI is supporting the new government and its international partners in efforts to address key development challenges. Clemens Breisinger, a research fellow who leads IFPRI’s work in Yemen, says, “Yemen wants to get back on track.”
One severe challenge is food insecurity. The country relies heavily on food imports, making it especially vulnerable to price fluctuations in the global market. The global food, fuel, and financial crises of 2007–2009 hit Yemen’s poor especially hard. As food prices increased, households struggled to meet their nutritional needs. The global financial crisis slowed economic growth, reducing incomes and further depressing household purchasing power. In 2009, 7.5 million Yemenis, or 32 percent of the population, did not have access to enough food. Nearly 60 percent of children under five were stunted, or too short for their age, and faced possible developmental and health problems.
Around this time, the Yemeni government invited IFPRI to work with a national food security committee set up under the leadership of the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. Working with the committee and the ministry,
IFPRI developed the Digital Food Security Atlas for Yemen, a tool for mapping and analyzing food security indicators.
IFPRI’s team also helped produce a National Food Security Strategy, which called for reforming petroleum subsidies and water policies, improving food security risk management, and reducing qat production and consumption, among other priorities. (Many Yemenis chew qat leaves as a stimulant, and the qat plant uses up about half of Yemen’s scarce water resources. Getting people to consume less qat would improve public health, and cutting production would free up water for other uses.) Among the suggested measures to reduce qat consumption and production are the introduction of a qat consumption tax, awareness campaigns led by local leaders, and the promotion of alternative crops.
Last year’s protests and violence destabilized the country, and the situation now is even more dire. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Yemen’s economy contracted by more than 10 percent in 2011, and government estimates put this number even higher. The consumer price index rose precipitously between 2010 and 2011. Almost 55 percent of Yemenis are now estimated to live in poverty, up from 43 percent in 2009. According to Breisinger, “Even getting back to pre-crisis levels may take three to four years.”
While economic and social conditions have worsened, Yemen’s political uprising may raise the country’s profile in the Arab region. Observers around the world are following Yemen’s post-conflict experience; its success will support those pushing for more political freedom in other countries, such as Syria. As Breisinger points out, “Yemen is one of four Arab countries where uprisings have initiated significant political transition processes. The better they do, the better it is for all the countries in the region.”
The international community is rallying support for the new government. A “friends of Yemen” donors meeting in May brought together major international donors, such as the Arab Gulf states, European Union, IMF, Islamic Development Bank, United Nations, United States, World Bank, and others, to help the government chart a path forward. In preparation for the meeting, IFPRI contributed—with support from the EU, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the World Bank—to an assessment of the costs of the conflict, with estimates of post-conflict poverty levels and the investments needed for recovery and growth. The assessment also calls for government reforms, including those proposed in the earlier National Food Security Strategy. Yemen’s government must meet donors halfway; to ensure efficient use of donor funds, the government must improve governance and public services, push forward with economic reforms, and better target public investments.
Despite the challenges, Breisinger is optimistic about Yemen’s prospects. “It’s a country with great potential in several areas,” he says, noting the country’s strategic location on the Arabian Peninsula and huge potential for improving governance to attract private investment. Furthermore, he says, “Yemen has great potential for tourism if security improves. There are mineral resources. And it has a strong tradition of coffee growing—the word ‘mocha’ comes from a city in Yemen.” The opportunities are there—the task for Yemen is to seize the moment and bring greater prosperity and well-being to its people.