Instead of sending weapons to the Middle East, we should be sending food

Emergency Response Policy
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President Trump’s new arms agreement with Saudi Arabia ignores the most urgent threat in the Middle East: famine.

Yemen is on the brink of starvation because of a civil war between a Saudi-led coalition and rebels. Sending more arms to Saudi Arabia will strengthen its military machine to further wage war in Yemen. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “many of the armaments we’re providing to Saudi Arabia will help them be much more precise and targeted with many of their strikes.”

What we should be doing instead is providing food to Yemen.

Over half of Yemen’s population is suffering in hunger because of the civil war. It’s the single largest hunger crisis in the world, says United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

But the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) does not have enough resources to meet this massive humanitarian challenge. WFP has been forced to reduce rations to some war victims because of the lack of funding. WFP’s Reem Nada says 3.9 million Yemenis are only receiving 60 percent of a full ration.

To fund its emergency operation, WFP needs about $1 billion to feed 9 million Yemenis for a year. That amount is tiny when compared to the cost of Trump’s Saudi arms deal, which is $110 billion.

Even before the civil war began, Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East.  When the conflict erupted in 2015, Yemeni civilians were uprooted from their homes and lost their livelihoods.

Farming was destroyed. The production and distribution of food, which many take for granted in their part of the world, is nonexistent in Yemen.

The fighting has blocked humanitarian aid from reaching those in need. So now many Yemenis face death by starvation.

Guterres pleads, “A famine can be prevented if we act quickly and commit to funding crucial life-saving assistance, and if all parties fulfill their obligations under international humanitarian law.”

It is a race against time, especially to save children. Small children suffer lasting physical and mental damage from malnutrition if left untreated. Foods like Plumpy’Nut and Plumpy’Sup, an enriched peanut paste, can rescue these children — but only if aid agencies have the resources to provide the food and can gain access. This food aid is crucial for saving lives and reinforcing any peace settlement that could potentially emerge to end the war.

The Trump administration meanwhile talks about reducing the foreign aid budget, which includes our international food programs. Trump has already called for the complete elimination of the McGovern-Dole school lunch program, which feeds hungry children overseas.

Why not save McGovern-Dole and use it to help build a national school lunch program in Yemen when this war finally does end?

Instead Trump touts arms deals and calls for cuts in food aid. Congress must stand united against such dreadful budget proposals.

The United States is a humanitarian nation above all else. We won the peace after World War II because we fought famine and fed the hungry.

Today, we can’t be trapped into thinking that massive arms deals are going to bring peace. They surely will not. What can, though, is food for the hungry.  We should be funding the WFP and other agencies fighting hunger in Yemen.

Food, not arms, must be our priority for the Middle East. We must save Yemen from famine while helping bring an end to their civil war.

William Lambers is an author who partnered with the United Nations World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger.” He writes on Huffington Post, History News Network and many other news outlets.

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.