Survival in Yemen during a worsening crisis

Summary: despite urgent need and a looming famine, key funders have cut aid pledges and funding to Yemen dramatically.

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 the country’s 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 current war and what lies behind it.

Yet another landmark for Yemenis: on 20 November, UN Secretary General António Guterres stated that “Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for decades. In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost.” He then summarized the reasons: drastic reduction in funding for humanitarian relief operations and impediments on the work of humanitarian agencies, lack of support for the economy including for stabilization of the currency, continuing impact of conflict, locust invasions and floods. Despite this desperate appeal, ten days later, there is no evidence of any impact either in international funding, or local political or military progress.

The secretary general speaks of “imminent danger of famine” not of actual famine; this is because the UN has set criteria for the formal declaration of famine, that is a statistically recorded percentage of deaths within a specific period, a statistic almost impossible to fulfil in countries where civil registration is basic. (Whether such accurate information is available anywhere is debatable viz the accuracy of the data on Covid-19 in the UK, let alone elsewhere). Furthermore, such an official declaration would have negative political implications – an admission of failure despite all the money spent – which the UN tries to avoid.

Meanwhile, there is little doubt that thousands, if not millions, of Yemenis are currently suffering levels of malnutrition leading, directly or indirectly, to death. Why? Obviously close to six years of civil war is the primary cause of the current disastrous situation: the country’s economy has collapsed, unemployment rocketed from an already high base. Financial warfare and, in particular, President Hadi’s Internationally Recognised Government (IRG) decision to transfer the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) to Aden has meant that more than a million civil servants have not received their salaries for more than four years now, (while even military/security staff have also been unpaid for long periods while their leaders enrich themselves) and the currency has collapsed.

A second fundamental reason is the Saudi-led coalition ‘blockade’ of the Red Sea ports, mainly Hodeida. Despite 70% of Yemenis living in rural areas, they have for decades depended on imports for 90% of their basic cereals because of misdirected development strategies combined with global warming and rapid population increase. Thus, restrictions on imports of food and fuel have a direct and immediate impact on people’s survival. While UNSC Resolution 2216 (2015) decreed an arms embargo against the Houthi movement, it is implemented as a blanket blockade of these ports with significant delays and a reduced number of ships arriving despite clearance by the UN Verification Inspection Mechanism. Although it has little, if any, impact on Houthi fighting capacity,  it is harming and killing civilians in their thousands. In addition to the blockade causing increased prices, world food price fluctuations and a multiplicity of exactions along the distribution chain ensure that most people can’t afford to buy food. To this must be added further travel restrictions due to closure of land borders as part of Covid-19 responses. People’s few remaining sources of income are what little remains of a local economy, remittances (reduced because of Covid), the war economy and the internationally funded humanitarian sector. The year 2020 has seen a deterioration in all these.

In recent years, the humanitarian sector has not only fed millions but also partly compensated for the lack of salaries for medical and education staff. The largest ever UN Humanitarian Response Plan of 2019 was funded at 87% thanks to major contributions by the two main coalition states, Saudi Arabia (US$1.3 billion) and the UAE (US$490 million). The situation in 2020 is entirely different: humanitarian funding stood at 47.5% of requirement on 25 November even though the original request for 2020 was US$3.4 billion, close to US$1 billion less than in 2019. That assessment was made before Covid-19, devastating floods, locust invasion, and displacement resulting from the Houthi offensive in the north, i.e. before the latest set of disasters hitting the country.

The World Food Programme has cut its beneficiaries from 13 million at the end of 2019 to 8.7 million in October this year, the majority of whom have been receiving half rations since early 2020. More than half the medical programmes, including emergency nutrition ones, have closed their doors or reduced their activities massively in the course of 2020 due to the lack of funding. Readers can see the impact of this on images of starving and emaciated children on their social media screens.

In brief, in response to increased need, pledges and funding have dropped dramatically. Anyone doubting the relationship between politics and humanitarian support should note that by 25 November Saudi Arabia had disbursed US$380 million of its pledged US$500 million and the UAE pledged nothing this year; the US, second largest funder in 2019 (US$ 915 million) contributed US$ 536 million this year, a reduction explicitly designed to avoid anything going to the Houthis. Two-thirds of  the Yemeni people live under Houthi rule so in reality this means that they are at risk of dying from disease and starvation in order to enable Trump to claim he is acting against the Iranian supported Houthis, regardless of whether or not the people support them.

Trump’s ‘management’ of the Covid pandemic in the US demonstrates the extent of his concern for American lives, let alone those of foreigners in remote lands. Part of his strategy to undermine his successor, is expected to include the designation of the Houthi movement as terrorist. This would worsen the famine by restricting food imports by companies fearing international legal repercussions. It would also make peace negotiations even more difficult than they already are by limiting negotiators’ access to the Houthis, including the UN. Finally, it could threaten the implementation of the hard-won agreement between the UN and the Houthis to avert the major threat of pollution in and around the Red Sea from disintegration of the stranded oil tanker FSO Safer.

So, yet again, international indifference, factional politics and the callousness of national ‘leaders’ mean that millions of Yemenis are left to suffer and die.

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