Yemen’s humanitarian emergency: UN action in 2020

Summary: As opportunities for peace in Yemen recede, the urgency to resolve humanitarian aid issues grows ever more pressing.

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 was published by Saqi books in October 2017.

The situation in Yemen has worsened significantly in recent weeks: grave military clashes on previously dormant fronts in the north east, renewed coalition airstrikes leading to the first downing of a coalition plane by the Houthis, clashes between Saudi forces and Yemenis near the Omani border, ongoing struggles between the Southern Transitional Council and Saudi supported government forces in and around Aden. The only positive developments in this grim picture are first the agreement for the liberation of close to 1500 war prisoners, through negotiations based on the Stockholm agreement of December 2018, which will hopefully be implemented; second the evacuation of a mere 30 people for medical treatment through Sana’a airport, a limited first step which may be followed by others. The humanitarian crisis continues unabated: hunger, lack of medical treatment and poverty still affect the majority of the population more than direct military action. Hence the importance of the humanitarian sector and concern about the delays in publication and implementation of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for 2020.

Spying equipment the Huthis claim to have confiscated from a Saudi-backed espionage ring in Sana’a on February 17 (credit: Almasirah)

On Thursday 13 February, Sweden and the EU convened a meeting in Brussels bringing together UN agencies, International Non Government Organisations (INGOS) and the representatives of funding states. In previous years, at this time of year a pledging conference would be held in Geneva where funders made commitments for the implementation of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan, published weeks earlier. None of these has emerged this year, raising many questions, some of which are discussed below.

In 2019, the UN appealed for USD 4.2 billion for its humanitarian assistance for Yemen, the largest appeal ever: it achieved 83% funding, an exceptionally high implementation rate, though lower than the previous year when 87% of an appeal of just under USD 3 billion was funded. Since 2017, the UN has systematically described the Yemeni humanitarian crisis as the worst in the world, and continues to do so, despite the ‘competition’ of other major crises, particularly that in Syria. The high implementation rate in 2019 was largely the result of the major contributions of Saudi Arabia (28%) and the US (26%), each close to USD 1 billion, while the UAE’s contribution was about half of the pledged amount, at only 12% or half a billion. Among the issues which the UN has to deal with, internally at least, is the ethical issue of the states being most involved in the war and the destruction of Yemen, including the active prevention of economic recovery and imports, being the main funders of the humanitarian effort.

The vast amounts (equivalent to the annual remittances sent home by expatriates) available to alleviate suffering in Yemen have also presented major challenges including the temptation for personal profit or social advancement at the local level for the dozens of larger and smaller organisations involved in aid distribution. This has raised concern among Yemenis resulting in the establishment  in early 2019 of the ‘where has the money gone?’ campaign which publicises cases of corruption in relation to humanitarian aid throughout the country.

Among the public revelations in 2019, two UN agencies were involved: at the World Health Organisation hundreds of thousands of dollars disappeared in the accounts of international and national staff while other issues emerged at UNICEF. Most international NGOs are following up on cases within their own networks. This is not surprising given that the chain of contracting, subcontracting, sub-sub contracting etc ensure that some new entirely unproven organisations obtain contracts.

Despite the fact that problems of diversion and corruption are found everywhere in the country, much of the attention is focused on Houthi controlled areas. As most international funders support the internationally recognised government, they are less than enthusiastic about providing  support which might assist the Houthis directly or indirectly. Attempting to prevent the Houthis from controlling international aid automatically raises the problem of reaching the people most in need, as two thirds of the country’s population survive under Houthi control, including thousands of desperate people caught in the most remote difficult to reach areas. The Houthis are determined to control access to humanitarian aid for two main reasons: first to increase income given their limited access to resources due to the economic war waged by the coalition and second to strengthen their hold over the population by determining who has access to assistance. To these ends they use both direct and media pressure.

In 2019, the struggle between the Houthis and the aid community focused on the World Food Programme which is, by far, the largest provider of food aid and cash, feeding more than 10 million people monthly throughout the country. Tensions came to a head in June. After months of increasingly public complaints about Houthi diversion of aid, the WFP officially suspended the distribution of aid in the capital Sana’a in response to the Houthi movement preventing the preparation of biometric lists of beneficiaries. Affecting close to a million people, distributions were resumed in August after the Houthis formally agreed to the process. In practice, this was little more than a cosmetic exercise as, by the end of the year, no biometric based lists had been prepared. Meanwhile the Houthis increased their media war against the WFP, frequently and publicly accusing it of distributing food unfit for human consumption. These accusations also countered the international public outcry starting in late 2018 and continuing through 2019 when the Houthis prevented the WFP from accessing the Red Sea Mills in Hodeida where 51000 metric tons of wheat were stored, enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month. Milling and distribution of the wheat started in October 2019 and is ongoing, albeit intermittently.

The most recent Houthi move was the announcement that humanitarian agencies would be taxed at a 2% rate for their activities. This was promptly abandoned after the 13 February Brussels meeting, suggesting that the move had simply been made to be cancelled, thus showing compliance and willingness to compromise and preventing further cuts in aid. Unfortunately the Houthis have a hold over the UN as the majority of those in need live in the areas they control.

In this context, it may be a little less surprising to find that neither the UN Humanitarian Response Plan nor its appeal for funding have yet been made public. We only know that it will amount to about USD 3.2 billion, about 25% lower than last year’s and will target about 14 million people, despite repeated ongoing assertions that 80% or 24 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance. How is the UN to achieve better results with funding lowered by a quarter?

The 13 February meeting in Brussels was intended to ensure a united front from all humanitarian institutions in the face of Houthi pressures: there are 122 organisations (including 10 UN organisations, 33 international NGOs,  and 79 local NGOs) which often compete with each other both for funding and implementation contracts. Its joint statement expressed determination to improve mechanisms for 2020 but also indirectly revealed tensions within the humanitarian sector: “We are deeply alarmed at the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian space all over the country… All restrictions, obstructions and interference violating humanitarian principles should be removed immediately and once and for all. Therefore, we welcome the commitment reached today by the humanitarian community for a common approach to face these challenges. This includes recalibrating humanitarian assistance, including a downscaling, or even interruption, of certain operations, if and where delivery of humanitarian aid in accordance with the humanitarian principles is impossible.”

Although the UN led humanitarian sector remains an essential component for the survival of millions of Yemenis, those in greatest need should be its beneficiaries. This means first that the HRP should be announced, financed and effectively implemented to reach people in need, regardless of which authority rules them. Second every effort should be made to prevent war profiteers of any kind from diverting goods and funds. But finally decision makers must remember that most basic necessities reach Yemen through the private sector and therefore enabling ships to dock in Hodeida and goods to travel throughout the country is imperative to ensure the survival of Yemenis.

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