World Food Program calls for biometric system to reduce theft of food aid in Yemen

The World Food Program (WFP) is calling for a biometric system for food aid distribution to be launched in Yemen after uncovering evidence of people not receiving aid meant for them in the capital of Sana’a and other areas controlled by Houthi rebels, Voice of America reports.

The WFP welcomed an announcement from Houthi leadership that it would undertake an investigation, but WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel told VOA that the organization wants to implement a biometric registration system similar to one it is operating in Aden with Yemeni government permission.

“We have proposed since a few months to do the same to the Sana’a de facto authorities,” he said. “For the moment, they have not accepted yet. But it is the best way to make sure that the support reaches the people who need to receive that support.”

There are 14 million people in Yemen on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations, and another 6 million are “food insecure.” The WFP has been providing assistance to 3 million people a month, but its monitoring system recently discovered that food was being misappropriated from the local partner organization responsible for distributing it. Trucks were seen illicitly removing food from designated distribution centers, and local officials were found to be manipulating the selection of beneficiaries and falsifying records. Some food aid was being sold for profit in the capital.

“To improve the support to beneficiaries, we have been looking into the introduction of cash-based transfers in some areas”, Verhoosel added. “However, given the risk of corruption, we have made it clear to the de facto authorities that we will not introduce cash-based transfers unless we are authorized to implement a biometric identification system that uses personal data, including iris scans and ten-finger prints”.

The WFP has called for those individuals responsible for thefts to be removed, and also notes that the problem is more prevalent, but not restricted to Houthi-held areas. WFP Executive Director David Beasley said in an announcement that continued resistance to reforming the aid distribution system in Yemen would force the WFP to stop working with the Houthi Ansarullah movement.

The WFP collaborated with the UNHCR on a massive biometric registration program for refugees in Uganda which was completed in late 2018.

The potential risks of use of biometrics for humanitarian aid delivery in conflict zones were examined in 2018 by Oxfam, which urged stakeholders to refrain from using sensitive situations to experiment with new technology.

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