Yemenis and international aid organisations have urged the UK to reconsider reported cuts of up to 50% of its support for humanitarian efforts in the country’s devastating civil war.
The UN is hoping to raise $3.85bn (£2.76bn) from more than 100 governments and donors at a major virtual pledging conference on Monday to avert widespread famine in what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The total raised at last year’s conference fell $1.5bn short of what was needed.
Reports emerged earlier this year that the UK was planning to slash the legally mandated budget of 0.7% of national income on foreign aid projects, a move diplomats and experts warned would translate into a 50%-70% reduction in funding and a “gut punch” for the world’s poorest.
Cutting the aid budget in Yemen in particular would be “very serious indeed”, continuing the “slow, agonising and obscene process of starving to death” for millions of people, the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell told the Today programme on Monday.
A Yemeni aid worker coordinating food distribution programmes, who asked the Guardian not to use her name to protect her organisation’s work, said: “It is hard to describe how heartbreaking the situation in Yemen is right now. We have already had aid cuts since the beginning of 2020 which have helped put 16 million people into hunger.
“That’s half of the whole population. Children are dying every day here. It is not a moral decision to abandon Yemen.”
Yemen’s civil war erupted in 2014 when Houthi rebel forces seized control of the capital, Sana’a, leading the UN-recognised government to flee to neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi- and Emirati-led campaign to drive out the Iran-backed Houthis, supported and supplied by western countries, has been heavily criticised for indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure. The coalition blockade of Yemen’s borders has left 80% of the population dependent on aid to survive and contributed to the hunger crisis as well as the outbreak of cholera and other infectious diseases.
Joe Biden has said that the US will end its support for the Saudi offensive – a major foreign policy reset after allegations that Donald Trump had turned a blind eye to gross human rights violations committed by the Gulf monarchies in Yemen. Biden’s administration is also expected to announce a major increase in aid funding at Monday’s conference.
The change in position in the US has led to increased scrutiny over both the UK’s intended aid cuts and the sale of weapons destined for use in Yemen’s conflict. Britain suspended arms sales to the coalition in response to a court order in 2019, but resumed them last year, authorising the export of almost £1.4bn of weapons to Riyadh in the quarter after sales restarted. Saudi Arabia represents 40% of the volume of UK arms exports between 2010-19.
“We are beyond dismayed by reports that the government intends to cut aid to Yemen by a staggering 50%. To slash food and medicine to these children as they stand on the brink of famine and a second Covid-19 wave risks many thousands of deaths,” said Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children UK.
“This is one of the first illustrations of the devastating real-life consequences of the UK’s decision to abandon its commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI [gross national income] on aid, and we hope the government will urgently rethink this move in time to avoid tragic consequences for the world’s most vulnerable children.”
Last year’s UN pledging conference shortfall was caused in large part due to major cuts in funding from wealthy Gulf nations.
The UK pledged £160m for Yemen in 2020 – an overall decrease on the year before, and following a trend of year-on-year cuts since 2017.
While the new US administration has expressed a strong desire to restart diplomatic efforts to end the Yemeni conflict, both the humanitarian crisis and fighting on the ground have steadily worsened over 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
Marib, an oil-rich central province previously seen as a safe haven for those fleeing fighting in other parts of the country, has faced a brutal Houthi offensive since February.
The Saudi-led coalition has stepped up airstrikes on rebel positions in Houthi strongholds in north Yemen in retaliation.