Humanitarian aid plunges even as Yemeni prospects worsen

Summary: Humanitarian aid to Yemen faces drastic cuts in a country stalked by war, famine and now Covid-19.

Once again we thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years, and has written about political, social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, published by Saqi Books, is a seminal study of the conflict and what lies behind it.

The delayed international pledging conference for humanitarian aid to Yemen was held virtually on 2 June, hosted jointly by the UN and Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly the pledges were way below the requested US$2.4 billion: barely half of this, USD$1.35 billion was pledged despite the fact that cuts have already affected essential medical services: 10,000 healthcare workers have lost salary payments, and operations have shut or been cut in 75% of UN-funded programmes.

By contrast, the 2019 appeal, 25% larger than this year’s, was financed at 87%. Comparing the two years demonstrates changed international political priorities. In 2019 the main funders were Saudi Arabia (32% of total), the USA (23%), the UAE (12%), the UK (6%) and Germany (5%) with a total of US$ 3.6 billion. In 2020, actual funding by 20 June amounted to a mere 16% of the US$ 3.4 billion requirement; the lead funder was the US (34%), followed by Germany (11%), the UK (9%), Saudi Arabia (8%) and the EU (6%). At the conference, Saudi Arabia made the largest pledge (US$ 500 million), less than half last year’s contribution, followed by the UK, US and Germany, while the UAE pledged nothing, despite making a speech. In the overall context of the war, humanitarian aid expenditure is on a different scale from war costs: Saudi Arabia is estimated to spend US$ 5 to 6 billion per month on the war, while the US has sold billions of dollars-worth of weapons to the belligerents. ‘Coincidentally’ this week the UN published its annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict which has removed Saudi Arabia from ‘the list of shame’.

Worldwide, international humanitarian support is significantly lower due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it is causing. No doubt this has played a role in the reduced pledges, but there are other reasons: in the course of 2019, the extent of Houthi extortion from the international humanitarian sector became public knowledge, both through the fees it imposes on the organisations on the ground and its control over selection of beneficiaries of cash and material aid. Problems with the Houthis were the main reason why the UN’s needs assessment was delayed thus preventing the preparation of a detailed humanitarian response plan this year. The US announced severely reduced aid to prevent the Houthis from profiting from its assistance. As a result the World Food Programme, by far the largest recipient of US assistance (52% of funding disbursed by mid-2020), reduced by half support to its target groups in Houthi-controlled areas.

New modelling estimates Yemen has already been hit by 1 million Covid_19 cases, with the potential for 85,000 deaths [Graph: @DFID_UK]
Meanwhile, Covid-19 is causing havoc throughout the country: horror stories are coming out of Aden, leading many to assume that Adenis are suffering more than others, rather than to realise that the situation in Aden is indicative of what is happening elsewhere. Rates of infection are unknown, many sufferers are going to hospital too late, so death rates in hospitals are extremely high at about 20% of cases. Medication and protective equipment are in short supply, medical staff are abandoning their posts and disease is spreading throughout the country. Forecasts of Covid-19 incidence are as high as 90%. Misinformation, political manipulation, denial, stigmatisation, racism, lack of preventive or protective measures and inadequate medical facilities all contribute. In the absence of actual data, the number of new graves suggest the seriousness of the situation, assessed at  80 new graves  dug in Aden daily and about 100  a week in Sana’a at the end of May.

Meanwhile Yemen’s other problems continue apace with neither solution nor improvement. The Safer oil storage facility in the Red Sea has started leaking, but this has not persuaded either party to allow the UN to address the issue. The conflict between the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Hadi government now has multiple fronts: indecisive military confrontations in Abyan, STC current take-over of Socotra, and talks in Riyadh involving the STC leader. Meanwhile the financial war has its semi-comic features: confirming UAE reduced or interrupted salary payments to STC militias, desperate to keep them onside, the STC has captured  containers with about 80 billions of newly printed Yemeni Riyals in Aden port, removing them to a military camp under its control, supposedly to protect the value of the currency, more likely to pay its fighters as was done on a previous occasion. Given that the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) building in Aden is ‘held’ by Saudi military, surrounded by STC forces, it is unlikely that, under financial strain themselves, the Saudi authorities will support a group which refuses to implement the Riyadh agreement by replenishing the now depleted US$ 2 billion, used in the past two years to support international commercial purchases of basic necessities.

The Houthis continue their offensive in Marib. During the 45 day ‘cease fire’ the coalition carried out 205 air raids with 789 airstrikes, an average of 5 per day, though this increased in the last week of May, to 56 raids. The Houthis appear to have won the latest struggle in al Baydha against a faction loosely connected with the Hadi government. On the financial front the Houthis have announced a 20% zakat tax which is explicitly designed to benefit sada, [known elsewhere as Hashemites, claiming descent from the Prophet], an explicitly discriminatory tax, in support of the social group whom the Houthis consider to be entitled to rule.

Ordinary Yemenis wonder if they are faced with the choice of dying from Covid-19 or starvation. Remittances, the main source of foreign exchange for the country and income for Yemenis for decades, are estimated to have already dropped by 70% as a result of lockdown and other restrictions in GCC states, leading to unemployment for Yemenis. Added to the humanitarian shortfall and other crises, the prospect of famine this year is worsened by the plague of locusts which has hit the country, adding yet another disaster for the Yemeni people to cope with.

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