Special investigation | How Houthis weaponize humanitarian aid
Ahmed Hazaa works for a daily wage in construction in the sprawling city of Taiz, which is under the authority of the internationally recognized government, barely making enough to feed his wife and four children who live about 25 kilometers to the north in a village under the control of the armed Houthi movement.
The 45-year-old breadwinner has tried repeatedly to obtain monthly food baskets that the World Food Program (WFP) provides in his village, but his attempts have failed for two reasons: He works in the government-controlled part of the city and granting aid in his village is subject to political considerations; namely, a declaration of allegiance to the Houthis.
Hazaa, one of dozens of impoverished Yemenis in the village, told Almasdar Online that he managed to work only five days in a recent month, earning enough to buy one bag of wheat for his family. “Food aid is distributed in my village in an unfair manner and for political purposes and has nothing to do with the needs of the people," he said.
Almasdar Online interviewed dozens of struggling Yemenis from the same area who said that the distribution of aid is subject to loyalty to the Houthis.
While the Houthis are not the only armed group in Yemen to have weaponized food aid during the war, the rebels have institutionalized the practice. Whether using it as a means to impose control and enhance influence, mobilize fighters to the battle fronts, or enrich those in power, the exploitation of food aid has exacerbated the conflict and prolonged the war.
Most of Yemen’s population of more than 30 million people live in Houthi-controlled areas, where the lion’s share of food aid is distributed. Despite supplying record amounts of aid each year of the war to these areas, the WFP has consistently raised concerns in internal audits that the food may not be reaching the most food insecure and vulnerable populations due to Houthi obstruction.
In this investigation, Almasdar Online spotlights how Houthis divert humanitarian aid from those who deserve it the most in order to enhance influence and consolidate control in central and northern Yemen. The investigation also sheds light on the hidden role of international aid in shaping the economies of Yemen’s civil war, which started on September 21, 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital Sana’a in a military coup with the help of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Six months later, a Saudi-led military coaltion intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government driven from Sana'a.
Most of the estimated 233,000 people who have perished in the war have died as a result of indirect causes including and a lack of food, health care and infrastructure, according to a report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in December.
The UN describes the situation as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and a man-made famine. The conflict has displaced nearly 4 million Yemenis, and about two-thirds of the country's estimated population of more than 30 million are in urgent need of some form of aid. Fourteen million Yemenis are severely food insecure, and 12 million depend on aid to survive, according to the UN.
Hazaa’s village in the Sharab district of northern Taiz is a clear example of how the Houthis use food baskets, in the absence of security forces, to impose control and mobilize fighters from the countryside to the war fronts.
Sharab is home to about 300,000 residents, scattered across 500 square kilometers. In this vast area, the Houthis have a minimal armed presence. Indeed, the district has experienced no battles, nor registered any internally displaced people (IDPs). The Houthis maintain control over the population by purchasing the loyalty of its community leaders with humanitarian aid.
According to a number of residents who spoke to Almasdar Online, the Houthis rule these areas by granting local village sheikhs the powers to control the distribution of the aid. The sheikh of one village of about 2,000 people recruited about 70 young fighters to Houthi battlefronts last year, including his 15-year-old son, who was killed in clashes with internationaly recognized government forces at the end of November.
This arrangement has left thousands of impoverished villages throughout Houthi-controlled territory with little or no humanitarian aid. A UN aid worker told Almasdar Online that the existing methods of aid distribution in Yemen are prone to corruption and serve the objectives of armed groups. "The registration of the needy in villages takes place through so-called village councils and in cities through community committees, which of course are not neutral,” said the UN employee, who requested anonymity. “Local aid organizations are often biased or forced to be biased and obedient.”
The executive director of a local aid organization working in Houthi-controlled areas said UN agencies have failed to devise an effective method of aid distribution. That has led to the diversion of most of the aid to those who either don’t need it at all or who need it less than the intended beneficiaries, she said.
Food for Fighters
In Bani Al-Awam district in Yemen’s northwestern Hajjah governorate, the Houthis lure young males to the war fronts using a recruitment tactic known among the local population as “food for fighters.”
Residents in the district told Almasdar Online that the granting or withholding of food aid is directed by the Houthi authorities and based on certain conditions such as the provision of fighters from families that are registered to receive the aid. One resident said that the sheikh of the region is rewarded with sums of up to 200,000 riyals (about $250*) for each fighter brought to the battlefronts.
Muhammad Abdullah, an employee in Hajjah’s private sector, said poor residents in the governorate suffer in despair as they watch the food aid go to those who need it less than they do. Many families in Hajjah face two choices: death by starvation or death on the battlefields, he said.
The Houthis have actively promoted a culture of martyrdom that facilitates this food for fighters arrangement. Last May, in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, a Houthi official said during a televised interview that “Death on the battlefronts is better than death like sheep inside homes due to the Corona epidemic.” The official, who worked as an advisor to the Houthi-run foreign ministry, died two months later from the coronavirus.
Crumbs for the displaced
Displaced Yemenis in the Bani Hassan IDP camp in Hajjah’s Abs district told Almasdar Online that local officials steal food aid and leave those in the camp with crumbs.
"Food aid doesn't reach dozens of displaced families, and the poor conditions are seen in the thinning of the bodies of children who suffer from severe malnutrition," said Mohammed Badi, a resident of the camp.
The situation is no different in Hajjah’s Bani Qais IDP camp, where suffering from deprivation and hunger worsened with the onset of winter. “We don’t know what are the approved criteria for distributing the aid that we see going to the district officials or stolen by some supervisors in the camp," Ibrahim, the head of a displaced family, said.
In late September, a group of IDPs at Al-Mahraba camp in Abs filed a complaint, demanding the arrest of those manipulating the aid distribution lists.
“Following our complaints that some of the displaced were excluded from the relief rations, the officials made a new list that excluded all of the displaced from that section of the camp, depriving them completely,” he said.
International relief agencies supported by the UN are managing what is described as the largest humanitarian operation in the world in Houthi-controlled areas through partnerships with local and international non-governmental organizations, many of which are affiliated with or managed by Houthi loyalists. Some of these organizations provide aid directly to Houthi fighters as beneficiaries, while the families of soldiers killed or wounded also enjoy privileges. In other cases, some of the aid is sold on the black market for the benefit of the group and its leaders.
WFP's primary local partner in Houthi-controlled areas is the School Feeding and Humanitarian Relief Project (SFHRP) of the Sana’a-based Ministry of Education, which distributes 60 percent of food aid provided by the UN agency to the needy.
The SFHRP, which is supervised by Minister of Education Yahya al-Houthi, who is the brother of the group’s top leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, has been accused of diverting more aid from those who deserve it than any other local organization. The food aid is manipulated in a number of ways, including diverting it to the fronts or to the black market, according to a statement by the minister himself, testimony of an employee in the project, and dozens of beneficiaries.
After the Associated Press published an investigation at the end of 2018 detailing the diversion of humanitarian aid from the mouths of the hungry, WFP directly accused the Houthis for the first time of the aid theft using at least one local food aid distributor linked to the Ministry of Education in Sana’a.
In a rare public rebuke, WFP Executive Director David Beasley said in a statement that this “criminal behaviour must stop immediately.” But WFP’s executive management has been aware of the aid diversion since early on in the conflict. An internal audit of WFP operations in Yemen between May 2016 and September 2017 named the Ministry of Education as the main source of aid diversion from intended beneficiaries.
A public school teacher in Sana’a told Almasdar Online that in 2018 he had received one full food basket and three half baskets before being told that his name had been removed from the list of registered recipients. Later that same year, the teacher received a phone call from a WFP worker who wanted to verify that he had been receiving his food baskets. It turned out that he was still listed by the UN agency as one of the intended beneficiaries. Nonetheless, he has not received any further aid from SFHRP or other organizations that have contracted with WFP.
In late 2016, the Houthi-run government in Sana'a stopped paying the salaries of nearly 166,000 teachers. While some of the teachers have since received half of their monthly salary of about $50 some months, nearly all of them have been forced to go in search of other work for a daily wage.
In 2018, the Sana’a-based SFHRP stated that it was distributing WFP aid to about 63,000 families (about 400,000 beneficiaries), the majority of whom fell into the most vulnerable categories, including people with special needs, chronic diseases and those who had been displaced.
At present, the project claims to distribute aid periodically to about 82,000 families in the capital in accordance with international food standards and under the supervision of two supervisory committees: one from the project itself and another community-based committee consisting of a school director, a local council member and a representative of the teaching staff. However, the spokesman for the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate, Yahya Al-Yanaee, said that the education ministry in Sana’a has only disbursed food aid once two years ago and it was only for female teachers.
"UN agencies in Yemen have received nearly $23 billion to fund humanitarian operations since the outbreak of the conflict, but hungry people have only received a fraction of the aid, while most of it has gone to Houthi leaders and their militants,” he said. “Instead of distributing food aid to students and teachers in schools, the food donated internationally to the school feeding project went to the Houthi militants on the battle fronts," he said.
Deputy Minister of Education Dr. Abdullah Al-Hamdi said in late 2018, shortly after his defection from the Houthi government and his departure from Sana’a, that about 15,000 of the aid rations distributed by the school feeding project went to Houthi militants. In an interview with Almasdar Online, Al-Hamdi said that the aid diversion by Houthi authorities "is widespread and may have increased further in the past two years."
An employee of a humanitarian organization run by Houthi loyalists told Almasdar Online that when he was trying to register the name of a former professor to the lists of the beneficiaries, he was surprised to learn that the professor’s name was already listed, even though he had not received any aid. Official documents showed an aid card for the professor bearing the fingerprint of another person, he said.
Aid diversion soars in the countryside
The rates of aid diversion are high in remote areas, which WFP says its monitors are often prevented from reaching. In Saada governorate, a Houthi stronghold, the UN agency periodically allocates food baskets for more than 100,000 families, while in neighboring Hajjah governorate, nearly 33,000 food baskets are distributed in the Houthi-controlled districts of Aydinah, Bani Qais, Khayran Al-Muharraq and Aflah Al-Sham, among others.
Nearly one-third of the 16,000 monthly food baskets intended for afflicted people in Khayran Al-Muharraq go to Houthi fighters on the Midi, Haradh and Hayran battlefronts, according to a worker at a food distribution warehouse in the area. He witnessed small trucks with no affiliation to aid agencies being loaded almost daily with large quantities of wheat and transported to unknown destinations. Based on his intimate knowledge of the aid distribution process in the area, he suspected that they were being sent to the battlefronts.
Three witnesses from the neighboring district of Al-Mahbeshah, one of whom was a food transport driver, told Almasdar Online that he saw a truck loaded with bags of wheat bearing the WFP logo arrive to the district most mornings and leave a few hours later carrying large quantities of ready-made bread. The activity was unusual, he said, as the WFP wheat normally goes to individuals who make the bread themselves.
According to local residents in Al-Mahbeshah, many women in the Hajar area, most of whom come from Houthi-aligned families, are conscripted to make bread that is sent to fighters on the war fronts and at checkpoints. In return, the families of these women receive a steady supply of wheat rations and household cooking fuel that is usually only available on the black market at the prohibitively expensive price of about $12 per container. Almasdar Online was not able to verify whether the wheat used to make the fighters' bread came from the looted warehouses.
The families of dead and wounded Houthi fighters in Hajjah often end up receiving monthly food baskets, even if they do not meet WFP food insecurity criteria. For example, a local WFP partner gives Hajj Mohammad, a prosperous qat farmer in the Sharafin area, three food baskets per month in the names of three of his sons who were killed in 2017 and 2018. Another sheikh in the region receives about 50 food baskets registered in his name and those of his five sons and grandchildren, even though only one of them died fighting, multiple sources told Almasdar Online.
In response to inquiries, a WFP spokesperson told Almasdar Online that the food agency "began conducting a review of its partners after evidence of aid diversion emerged in late 2018."
"In some areas, some program partners have changed. Meanwhile, the program continues to work with local partners as part of its commitment to support local capacity building through training and monitoring," the spokesperson added.
An internal audit of WFP operations between September 2018 and August 2019 shows that the agency decreased its reliance on the SFHRP in the governorates of Al-Bayda, Amran and Ibb, but has preserved the food-distributing partnership with the Houth-run Ministry of Education in other governorates.
Representatives of the SFHRP did not reply to multiple requests for comment. However, the deputy director-general of the school feeding project, Yahya Al-Hadi, told reporters that manipulation of food aid was a possibility given that it "distributes approximately 350,000 baskets monthly in 12 governorates, which means nearly 3 million beneficiaries." He said that the corruption could be curbed through "community cooperation."
Houthi-run aid organizations
Since their rise to power six years ago, the Houthis have established a number of new humanitarian organizations, some of which are offshoots of the school feeding project or other well-known Yemeni aid organizations like the Charitable Social Reform Society (CSSW). Early on in the war, Houthi forces raided CSSW offices and froze its bank accounts, due to the opposition of its employees to the rebels. Although CSSW eventually moved its headquarters to the southern port city of Aden, Houthi officials in Sana’a retained the organization’s name and logo in its English marketing materials to encourage international donors to continue working with it. Houthi officials changed the Arabic name of the organization to Charitable Society for Social Welfare.
Among the organizations that are most active on behalf of the Houthis in diverting aid are the Yemen Thabat organization, Yemen Future and Homeland of the Free. The organizations allocate a significant amount of the funds from the UN and regional aid organizations to the war fronts and to support the families of fighters.
Humanitarian workers told Almasdar Online that the Houthis often force the UN and other international aid agencies to work with local organizations loyal to them or close to certain leaders within the group. The Houthi-run Bunyan Foundation is one example. Houthi leaders prevented UN agencies from distributing food aid in Hodeidah governorate through any Yemeni aid organization except Bunyan, according to an Associated Press report.
While the foundation claims to be independent on its website, there are several indications that suggest a pro-Houthi agenda, including a project feeding the families of “martyrs” killed on the battlefield and calling on them to carry out “jihad in the development field.” Ibrahim al-Houthi, another brother of the group’s top leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, was a member of the foundation's board of directors until his mysterious death in the summer of 2019.
Fraud and extortion
Almasdar Online heard testimonies about Houthi leaders known as “supervisors” forcing people to pay money in exchange for promises to register them on aid recipient lists provided by UN organizations, or to obtain aid through other channels. Supervisors, known locally as mushrifeen, are senior Houthi loyalists typically from Saada governorate appointed to oversee a particular institution or administrative area on behalf of the rebel government. The supervisors enjoy legal immunity.
In 2020, fraudsters mostly affiliated with the Houthis started reaching out to Yemeni residents over the phone. The WFP stated in June of that year that it was aware of fraudulent calls asking people to pay money for food aid, and strongly condemned the individuals and groups trying to use humanitarian aid for financial gain.
WFP did not disclose the details of the fraud at that time, but anonymous sources told Almasdar Online that women impersonating workers in international aid organizations called impoverished Yemenis and offered them food aid in exchange for financial transfers. It is unclear how the fraudsters obtained the phone numbers of these needy families.
Black market for spoiled aid
In the early years of the war, black market goods spread throughout Sana'a, Hajjah, Aden, Taiz and other governorates. At the markets, one could find an array of international humanitarian aid including WFP food, UNICEF school supplies and IOM tents that were supposed to be provided to impoverished Yemenis free of charge.
In 2017, Member of Parliament Abdu Bashir accused the Houthi-run Ministry of Industry of approving the commercial sale of wheat in WFP sacks. The Houthi government in Sana'a dismissed Bashir from his post at the end of 2018.
Black markets are also often filled with spoiled food aid that was supposed to be destroyed.
About two years ago, spoiled wheat almost killed a young girl named Faten in one of the IDP camps in Hajjah’s countryside. She was taken to a local clinic after showing cholera-like symptoms. But tests later showed that Faten had food poisoning, likely as a result of eating large quantities of Eid cake made from rotten wheat her father bought from a local retailer.
Faten is one of hundreds of children who have suffered from food poisoning, only to seek treatment in health facilities supported by international aid organizations, a medical worker in Hajjah told Almasdar Online.
The re-purification, packaging and sale of spoiled aid has proliferated. Yemeni journalist Issa Al-Rajhi documented part of that process at a facility in Hajjah’s Abs district, where local traders and brokers sold bug-infested bags of WFP wheat to factories that repackaged and resold it under a different brand to consumers.
In some cases, Houthi authorities have obtained spoiled food aid from international organizations for the purpose of feeding farm animals. A WFP spokesperson told Almasdar Online that the UN agency delivered some commodities to the Houthi-run Agriculture and Irrigation Bureau in Hajjah to be used as animal feed.
"A letter was signed between the World Food Program and the Agriculture and Irrigation Bureau confirming that the commodities are not used for human consumption or provided/sold to anyone for human use,” the spokesperson said.
Almasdar Online obtained the document, which shows that the Agriculture and Irrigation Bureau's office in Hajjah received nearly 40,000 bags of rotten wheat from WFP, in addition to food and supplements for more than 1,000 lactating mothers.
The spoiled aid was distributed to six farms, according to the document, but Almasdar Online could not find any evidence that the aid had reached the intended agricultural beneficiaries. None of the farmers specified in the document said that they had received any of the aid.
The humanitarian war economy
The obstacles humanitarian organizations face in distributing aid and carrying out relief work increased significantly in late 2019 with the formation of the Houthi-run Supreme Council for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), according to an international humanitarian official who spoke to Almasdar Online on condition of anonymity.
Formed 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. It also oversees all IDPs in Houthi-controlled areas, a responsibility which previously belonged to the Executive IDP Unit.
“Our humanitarian mission has faced continuous fabricated bureaucratic obstacles, some of them by [SCMCHA], which caused delays in the delivery of aid and the implementation of projects," the foreign aid official said, adding that the lives of many Yemenis were lost due to famine amid these delays.
Entities created by the Houthis to control lucrative aid flows, such as NAMCHA and SCMCHA, have had several rounds of conflict with the humanitarian community. The WFP suspended operations in Sana’a in June 2019 in the face of continued aid obstruction there. Aid distribution only resumed about two months later, when the UN agency and the Houthis had reached a tentative agreement to provide cash assistance using biometric data to ensure that the cash reached its intended recipients. Nearly two years later, the biometric system is still struggling to enter into force.
SCMCHA chief Ahmed Hamid (Abu Mahfouz), who is also the director of the office of the president of the Houthi-run supreme political council, is believed to be the most powerful Houthi civilian leader who does not bear the family name of the group's founders. A report by the UN Security Council panel of experts on Yemen released in January 2021 documented threats and intimidation against humanitarian actors by Hamid and SCMCHA’s Secretary-General, Abdul Mohsen Al-Tawoos, a former Houthi supervisor in Dhamar Governorate.
In February 2020, UN leaders met in Brussels to discuss a potential aid freeze in Houthi-controlled areas due to ongoing obstruction, theft and diversion of humanitarian aid under SCMCHA. The Houthi-run entity had recently made a list of demands from aid groups, including the authority to collect 2 percent of the expenditures of all humanitarian projects in the country, define the aid priorities of these projects and have Houthi national security figures sit on each agency’s board of directors.
To avert the aid freeze, Houthi Prime Minister Abdulaziz Saleh Bin Habtoor agreed to return 120 metric tons of lentils that the group had stolen from WFP a month earlier, release WFP biometric equipment being held at the airport in Sana’a and cancel the 2 percent tax on international humanitarian operations.
Internal UN documents viewed by the Associated Press indicate that the Houthis rejected efforts of the international organization to tighten oversight of about $370 million in annual aid from its agencies to Yemeni institutions that are mostly controlled by the rebels. The money was supposed to pay salaries and other administrative costs, but more than one-third of the funds spent in 2019 had not been audited.
The documents indicated that SCMCHA received about $1 million every three months from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in exchange for office rent and other administrative costs, while the International Organization for Migration paid another $200,000 for furniture and other services.
Some SCMCHA officials received multiple UN salaries. Three UN agencies were paying salaries totaling about $10,000 per month to the head of the council, the vice president and its directors, according to Associated Press.
An anonymous source in the Ministry of Education in Sana'a told Almasdar Online that Yahya Al-Houthi, the Minister of Education who oversees the lucrative school feeding project, was going to receive an even larger sum from the World Food Program. In February 2020, Al-Houthi released a statement on the official Facebook page of the Ministry of Education in Sana'a, defending WFP and accusing SCMCHA of obstruction and looting.
A WFP spokesperson denied that the UN agency paid incentives to the Minister of Education. “The World Food Program cannot speculate on the motives or actions of another person, or comment on rumors," the spokesperson told Almasdar Online.
Yusef Saeed, a professor of economics at the University of Aden, noted that the vast majority of international aid funding goes to Sana’a and the Houthi-controlled areas, rather than through the Aden branch of the Central Bank of Aden. “This helps the Houthi group to prolong the war and at the same time restricts the internationally recognized government from managing monetary policy and preserving the stability of the Yemeni riyal,” he said.
The UN panel of experts report described a dispute between the Yeducation minister and the SCMCHA chief, Ahmed Hamid, as an example of a conflict within the group over the spoils of the war economy.
In September, Houthi President Mahdi Al-Mashat appointed six ministers, including the minister of education, to SCMCHA’s board of directors in an apparent attempt to ease tensions.
“There is no limit to the madness of the Houthis,” an official in an international aid organization told Almasdar Online. A number of foreign employees of international aid organizations have been turned away at Sana'a International Airport after it was discovered that they had previously worked in the US or had even visited the UAE or Saudi Arabia. The official said he believes that the communications of aid agencies are subject to wiretapping by the Houthi intelligence service.
Severe shortage and theft
Following the humanitarian aid summit in Brussels in February 2020, the US Agency for International Development announced that it was reducing aid to northern Yemen due to the unacceptable levels of interference by the Houthis.
WFP later announced the reduction of aid flows to Houthi-controlled areas and shifted disbursements to every two months instead of monthly, citing the reduction of donor funding due to the coronavirus-related economic downturn and ongoing aid obstruction.
Donors required Houthi authorities to meet seven conditions related to aid diversion, obstruction and the verification of beneficiaries before aid levels would resume.
In recent months, UN agencies have warned that Yemen is at a turning point, as worsening conflict and deteriorating economic problems threaten to undermine the gains made through humanitarian action over the past few years.
A WFP spokeswoman told Almasdar Online that the agency began a biometric registration pilot project in Sana'a in November 2020. The UN agency believes that, in light of the lack of liquidity and the collapse of the Yemeni riyal, the biometric system will provide cash, strengthen the economy and help Yemenis buy food. But the slow progress of its implementation, combined with ongoing aid diversion, continues to complicate the situation.
Against this backdrop, the WFP's funds are nearly depleted. In late February, the agency noted that it urgently needed $482 million to fund operations from March to August and $1.9 billion to ensure uninterrupted assistance through the end of 2021. The wider Yemen aid response is facing similar funding shortfalls. At a fund-raising conference in early March, donor countries pledged less than half of the requested $3.85 billion aid budget for the coming year.
The drastic aid cuts in 2020 have led to the reduction or shuttering of more than a third of UN aid operations in Yemen, the effects of which will be increasingly felt in 2021. Yet without assurances that the aid will reach its intended recipients, resovling the problem remains largely in the hands of the Houthis.
*Currency conversions in this article assume an exchange rate of 800 Yemeni riyals per $1, although the rate has fluctuated considerably throughout the war.