The blind spot of lib­eral rage

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - AZAD ESSA

Azad Essa is a jour­nal­ist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.

IT’S OF­FI­CIAL: Ye­men is now the largest food emer­gency in the world. Be­tween 7 and 10 mil­lion peo­ple don’t have enough food and are in urgent need of hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance, with 2 mil­lion so des­per­ate they face the real prospect of dy­ing from star­va­tion.

Th­ese aren’t num­bers be­ing pushed by a frac­tured gov­ern­ment look­ing for aid, or by Ye­meni ac­tivists call­ing for an end to the war.

Ac­cord­ing to the Famine Early Warn­ing Net­work (Fews), a lead­ing mon­i­tor of global food in­se­cu­rity, if some­thing is not done im­me­di­ately, Ye­men faces a largescale famine.

Now, the word “famine” is of­ten a turn of phrase used by com­mon­ers – me, you, ac­tivists – to de­scribe a dev­as­tat­ing se­ries of events that lead to a se­ri­ous lack of food. But famine is not a loose term.

When a body such as Fews talks of famine it means the fol­low­ing: Mal­nu­tri­tion rates within the pop­u­la­tion have ex­ceeded 30 per­cent, the death rate ex­ceeds 2 peo­ple a day per 10 000 and at least 20 per­cent of house­holds face food short­ages of an ex­treme kind.

Rarely do hu­man­i­tar­ian or­gan­i­sa­tions use “famine” un­less they have to, even though the dec­la­ra­tion car­ries no bind­ing ac­tion on the UN or a mem­ber state. That it should war­rant im­me­di­ate emer­gency ac­tion, or a cease­fire in times of con­flict is a moot point.

Right now the peo­ple of Ye­men are in des­per­ate need for a show of some hu­man de­cency. Since the aerial bom­bard­ment led by Saudi Ara­bia be­gan in March 2015 at least 10 000 Ye­me­nis have been killed and 44 000 in­jured. In a coun­try long con­sid­ered the poor­est in the Arab world, with about 15 mil­lion peo­ple al­ready in need of daily as­sis­tance, the war has wrecked an en­tire na­tion.

The on­go­ing wran­gle be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia for re­gional dom­i­nance has left Ye­men tee­ter­ing on the edge. Qatar, Egypt, Sene­gal, Morocco, Jor­dan, Kuwait, and the UAE are all in­volved, with the help, of course, of Amer­i­can and Bri­tish fire-power.

The con­flict has forced peo­ple out of their homes, re­sulted in a col­lapse of

War has wrecked Ye­men and left its peo­ple hun­gry not only for food, but for a show of hu­man de­cency.

ba­sic ser­vices and in­sti­tu­tions, and left the ma­jor­ity un­pro­tected, and com­pletely inse­cure.

It is ul­ti­mately the over­all dys­func­tion of the so­ci­ety that re­sults in famine, and not sim­ply the ab­sence of food.

Again, though there is a shortage of food, it doesn’t mean there is none.

Fews re­ports that sta­ple foods are still loosely avail­able in the mar­ket but the coun­try’s econ­omy is so bat­tered – busi­nesses are closed, the gov­ern­ment dys­func­tional, pri­vate en­ter­prise col­lapsed – that no one has any pur­chas­ing power.

And it’s not an un­com­mon tale. When I briefly en­tered So­ma­lia, where the dual ef­fects of a drought and an al-Shabaab in­sur­gency had left thou­sands hun­gry and dis­placed, I found food ready for pur­chase in the main mar­ket­place.

But very few could af­ford any­thing. The drought had ma­ligned the cli­mate for farm­ing, and the war had de­stroyed the en­vi­ron­ment for fea­si­ble trade. So much so that food in the mar­ket was so over­priced that it was ren­dered use­less to most.

Nearly 260 000 So­ma­lis died in the famine from 2010 to 2012. More than half of them were chil­dren.

In 2013, the UN said the hu­man­i­tar­ian com­mu­nity’s re­sponse had been too slow.

“Re­spond­ing only when the famine is de­clared, is in­ef­fec­tive. About half of the ca­su­al­ties were there be­fore the famine was al­ready de­clared,” Rudi Van Aaken, the deputy head of the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion for So­ma­lia said at the time.

And yet, to­day, Ye­men is fac­ing a sim­i­lar or­deal, if not big­ger. And noth­ing is be­ing done. Ye­men’s hos­pi­tals have been im­mersed in ema­ci­ated chil­dren for months; news­pa­pers across the globe have long fea­tured sunken faces, life­less dark corpses but with lit­tle ef­fect. In Oc­to­ber last year, the UN de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion as “se­vere”. It said 370 000 chil­dren were suf­fer­ing mal­nu­tri­tion, 1.5 mil­lion were go­ing hun­gry.

But there is more. Not only does famine threaten sur­vival, it eats at the moral ba­sis of the so­ci­ety.

For in­stance, it was re­ported that child mar­riages were on the rise in Ye­men. With in­comes so putrid and inse­cure, par­ents are be­ing forced to re­con­sider their op­tions when it comes to their daugh­ters of 15 or younger. It is not as if such prac­tices did not ex­ist prior to March 2015, but war has a way of mak­ing a bad sit­u­a­tion worse.

This is the cruelty of war. And as a for­got­ten one, Ye­men re­mains the blind spot of lib­eral rage.

ES­CAPE: Men find re­lief from the war smok­ing and chew­ing Cat in the old mar­ket in the his­toric city of Sana’a, Ye­men, on Sun­day. The on­go­ing wran­gle be­tween Iran and Saudi Ara­bia for re­gional dom­i­na­tion has left Ye­men and its peo­ple tee­ter­ing on the edge.

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