“When we escalate they’ll give on a few points, but do the fundamentals actually change?” said one UN official of attempts to stop Houthi interference

Houthis admit stealing 120 tons of WFP food in last-minute plea to avert humanitarian aid freeze

The Houthis have quietly retreated in their latest battle with the World Food Programme (WFP) and other United Nations aid organizations, as UN leaders meet in Brussels to discuss a potential aid freeze in Houthi-controlled areas due to ongoing obstruction, theft and diversion of humanitarian aid.

In a letter dated Feb. 12 to the top UN humanitarian official in Yemen, Houthi Prime Minister Abdulaziz Saleh Bin Habtoor listed three concessions: the rebels had returned 120 metric tons of lentils stolen from the UN food agency last month, released WFP equipment being held at the airport in Sana’a and agreed to cancel a controversial tax on international humanitarian operations. 

The seeming compromise come in the wake of months of accusations that the Houthis’ humanitarian oversight body, the Supreme Council for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), has been holding aid work hostage in parts of the country where people are starving. 

Almasdar Online viewed Arabic and English copies of Bin Habtoor’s letter to UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, which haven’t been made public. 

“About 120 MT of food that was taken by SCMCHA branch office in Hajjah Governorate is returned,” Bin Habtoor said in the letter, taking responsibility for the brazen theft of about 2,000 bags of lentils from a WFP warehouse by armed men in northwest Yemen, where the UN body had requested cooperation from Houthi officials in multiple letters amid ongoing interference with food distribution over the past year. 

Next, Bin Habtoor said that a 2 percent tax SCMCHA recently demanded from all humanitarian operations in the country was canceled. 

Formed in November as a successor to the Houthis’ National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (NAMCHA), SCMCHA was given expanded financial oversight by coordinating directly with international humanitarian donors, an authority that previously belonged to the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. 

SCMCHA was also given the authority to collect 2 percent of the expenditures of all humanitarian projects in the country, define aid priorities and have a national security figure sit on each agency’s board of directors, effectively exerciscing control over ever aid project from start to finish.

While Bin Habtoor’s commitments appear conciliatory, it’s unclear to what extent they will be implemented, given the rebels’ history of exploiting the aid community. In a rare move last summer, WFP partially suspended operations in the Houthi-controlled capital Sana’a, following months of pushback against the UN agency’s plans to implement a biometric aid delivery system that would make it more difficult for the group to divert assistance to political loyalists.

The Houthis ultimately signed off on the biometric plans as a condition for WFP’s resumption of aid distribution in Sana’a. But almost nine months later, minimal progress has been made implementing the fingerprint technology, in part because the Houthis confiscated the devices at the airport in Sana’a. Bin Habtoor agreed to release the equipment in his letter Wednesday.

“When we escalate they’ll give on a few points, but do the fundamentals actually change?” said one UN official, who spoke to Almasdar Online on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. 

This time around, however, the WFP is not alone in its ultimatum to curtail aid work in Houthi-controlled areas. Non-UN aid organizations like USAID have also voiced a willingness to suspend operations in Sana’a, while others have made preparations to move their headquarters to other parts of Yemen, multiple humanitarian officials told Almasdar Online.

At the Brussels meetings, which started Wednesday, international NGOs, UN aid officials and key UN aid donors including the US and British governments will try to figure out a way to deliver aid to millions of suffering Yemenis without enriching Houthis in the process.



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