Yemen faces humanitarian cliff edge as UN fundraiser falls $1 billion short

By Imogen Smith

YEMEN’S already-dire situation is set to worsen after pledges from the international community fell $1 billion short at the UN fundraiser earlier this month.

The UN fundraiser, co-hosted virtually by Saudi Arabia on 2 June, failed to meet the target of $2.45 billion needed to cover the cost of essential aid until December.

More than 130 governments and aid agencies participated in the fundraiser.

They were warned that more than 30 of the UN’s 41 major programmes in Yemen will have to close in the next few weeks unless sufficient funding is secured.

In what continues to be one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, 24 million people are in need of lifesaving aid across the country – including 12 million children.

Aid to the war-ravaged country has already been cut this year due to a lack of financial support from the international community.

In April, the World Food Programme had to halve food supplies to 80 per cent of the 12 million Yemenis they support in northern Yemen after donors cut funding due to concerns over Houthi rebels hindering aid deliveries within their territory.

The US cut over $70 million in funding for aid to northern Yemen at the end of March.

The $1.35 billion raised at this year’s fundraising event was about half the amount received at a similar event last year.

Conveying the immediacy of the situation, UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Mark Lowcock wrote on Twitter to donors: “Pay immediately – it will mean the difference between life and death.”

As of Friday, nearly $637 million of the money pledged had been paid, according to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Covid-19 is spreading quickly through the devastated country and a cholera epidemic is ongoing, having already infected around 110,000 people this year.

OCHA described the current Covid-19 fatality rate of 25% as “alarmingly high”.

The healthcare system in Yemen has “in effect collapsed” according to a UN statement last month.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s Advocacy Manager in Yemen, Sultana Begum told Redaction Politics: “At a time when Covid-19 is tearing through Yemen, the $1.5 billion raised at the Yemen donor conference is woefully inadequate. Now is not the time to cut funding.

“Covid-19 is hitting a country with few defences and a population already weakened by hunger and other diseases. Without support, millions of displaced and conflict-affected Yemenis who rely on aid as their lifeline and who remain at high risk will be left to their fate.”

The current war in Yemen began with an uprising in the north-western Saada governorate by Houthi Shia rebels, who initiated protests about unpopular fuel subsidies in mid-2014.

After taking Saada governorate, the Houthis gradually moved south and took the country’s capital Sana’a on 21 September 2014.

A Saudi-led coalition of nine mostly Sunni Arab states – supported by the US, UK and France – began air strikes against the Houthis in 2015, seeking to reinstate the exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansur Hadi.

The Houthis remain in control of Sana’a and much of the north west of the country.

Given the sectarian nature of the conflict, the war has been seen as part of the wider Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict, with the Houthis reportedly getting assistance from Shia majority Iran.

Since 2015, Saudi-led air strikes have been severely criticised by the UN for indiscriminately targeting populated areas, contravening international humanitarian law.

Saudi-led air strikes have killed 8,680 civilians to date according to the Yemen Data Project.

On 8 April this year, Saudi Arabia declared a two-week ceasefire – extended for another month on 24 April.   

This was greeted with scepticism by the Houthis and fighting continued through the ceasefire period.

The Houthis demanded an end to Saudi Arabia’s five-year blockade – which severely restricts the flow of food, fuel and medicines to Houthi-controlled territory – before they would resume UN-backed peace talks.  

At the UN fundraiser, Saudi Arabia pledged $500m, but the UAE failed to offer any funding despite being a large donor at last year’s event. Kuwait also failed to donate.

This significant cut in aid funding from the Gulf countries may signal Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s desire to force the Houthis to the negotiating table.

The US and UK, who pledged $225 million and £160 million respectively, have been leading suppliers of arms and support to Saudi Arabia throughout the conflict.

The NRC’s Sultana Begum told Redaction Politics: “A range of countries have contributed weapons and expertise to the Saudi-led Coalition, with the UK and the US being two of the major suppliers helping to fuel this brutal war.

“There is a shocking discrepancy between at least $100 bn spent to fight this war, and the $1.3 bn pledged this year to help civilians suffering because of it.”

A spokesperson for the Department for International Development said: “The UK has been one of the largest humanitarian donors to Yemen since its conflict began in 2015, providing nearly £1 billion of aid over the period, including £400 million in the last two years.

“We call on all donors to urgently provide further significant funding to help tackle the country’s humanitarian crisis.”

But a spokesperson for the Campaign Against Arms Trade told Redaction Politics: “The humanitarian crisis has been hugely exacerbated by the brutal Saudi-led bombing campaign.

“This five-year long bombardment has only been possible due to the complicity and support of arms dealing governments like the UK.

“UK-made fighter jets, bombs and missiles have played a key role in the war, and so has the political and military support offered by Boris Johnson and his predecessors. The role of the UK has been instrumental in the crisis.”

Since January 2015, £6.4 billion worth of UK arms have been sold to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their coalition partners fighting in Yemen, according to Oxfam.

This figure shows a £2 billion increase compared to the five-year period leading up to December 2014, prior to the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in Yemen.

In June last year, the Court of Appeal ruled that continued licensing of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia was illegal and criticised ministers for ignoring whether airstrikes which killed civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law.

In September, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss admitted a third illegal breach of the court’s ruling, with further export licenses having been granted.

She told MPs at the time: “It is possible that more cases may come to light.”

The International Trade Secretary was cleared of personal responsibility in February – an internal inquiry blamed “shortcomings in the processes” overseeing weapons licences and warned of potential further violations.

A government spokesperson told Redaction Politics on Friday: “The UK assesses all export licence applications on a case-by-case basis in line with our strict licensing criteria.

“We will not issue any export licences for Saudi Arabia that are inconsistent with the criteria, including with respect to International Humanitarian Law.

“The UK is deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We fully support the peace process led by the UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, and urge the parties to engage constructively with this process.”

The NRC’s Sultana Begum told Redaction Politics: “Money alone is not enough to stop the suffering in Yemen. The UK, and US must use all diplomatic means to secure a nationwide ceasefire and get the warring parties to the negotiating table. Covid-19 is tearing through Yemen leaving devastation in its wake. Now more than ever, the war must come to an end.”

Shadow Minister for International Development with oversight on Middle East affairs, Anna McMorrin MP, told Redaction Politics: “Only by bringing about lasting peace can we truly tackle the scale of the health and humanitarian crisis.

“As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a penholder on Yemen, the UK has a unique leadership role to play in helping to bring about an effective political settlement and an end to the conflict. The distinct lack of leadership has been particularly harmful for humanitarian relief efforts.

“With over 24 million Yemenis already reliant on aid assistance, Labour warned the UK Government that a shortfall in humanitarian aid funding could lead to the humanitarian and health crisis in Yemen spiralling into an irreparable disaster.

“We need vigorous leadership from the Foreign Secretary and International Development Secretary, which is as much about picking up the phone to world leaders as it is unveiling multi-million-pound packages.”

Despite Saudi Arabia possibly looking for a way to extricate itself from the drawn-out conflict, successful peace negotiations bringing both parties to the table are still a long way off.

The pursuit of long-term peace needs to be matched by short-term action from the international community – namely, the funding of vital aid programmes.

UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Mark Lowcock warned: “Without more money we face a horrific outcome.”  

With the people of Yemen facing a substantial reduction of UN-supported aid programmes at the end of the month, the situation could not be more urgent.

Without emergency action from the international community we will undoubtedly witness a tragedy of horrific proportions in Yemen over the coming months.


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Featured Image: Felton Davis @Flickr

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