A record-breaking $1 billion pledge from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to humanitarian operations in Yemen has gone unfulfilled for four months – a gap the UN says could soon lead to a slowdown in much-needed aid.
The two countries, which head a coalition fighting on one side of Yemen’s war, promised the money at a Geneva conference in late February. The UN had asked for $4.2 billion to help 15 million people in Yemen, the largest single-country ask in the organisation’s history, and the joint pledge was to be the biggest ever donation to a UN appeal.
But more than four months later, despite multiple meetings between UN humanitarian officials and leaders of the two countries – including a late May visit to Riyadh by UN relief chief Mark Lowcock – the money has still not been disbursed.
“We would of course want the funding to be allocated as quickly as possible given the terrible situation in Yemen,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for OCHA, the UN’s emergency relief body that Lowcock heads, told The New Humanitarian on Monday. “Agencies are already facing serious funding shortages that are affecting critical programmes. For example, WHO [The World Health Organisation] has suspended support to health facilities in some areas and vaccination programmes will also start closing down soon.”
After more than four years of war between Houthi rebels and the coalition, which backs the internationally recognised (but largely exiled) government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s economy has collapsed, its health infrastructure has been largely decimated, and extreme hunger is widespread.
While the Gulf states were the biggest pledgers in Geneva by far, they’re not the only countries that haven’t delivered. Speaking to the UN Security Council on 17 June, Lowcock said only 27 percent of the $4.2 billion had been given, emphasising (without mentioning specific countries), that “when pledges are made, they must be fulfilled”. Since then, the number has increased to 28.1 percent.
The UN Security Council also issued a pointed reminder about the pledge on 10 June, in a statement that “urged donors to promptly fulfil the pledges they have already made”.
In addition to the WHO suspensions that Laerke mentioned, Lowcock said that other programmes – including treatment for malnutrition, cholera prevention, and support for displaced people – “could start closing in the next few weeks”.
“Vaccination programmes will also soon start winding down,” said Lowcock. “This means people are almost certainly already dying as a result of these funding gaps.”
Officials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not respond to requests for comment, but humanitarian sources from the kingdom – speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak to the media – said there had been frustration that a $930 million grant from the same donors in 2018 wasn’t all used before the end of March 2019 – the original spending deadline.
The money was given directly to OCHA, which passed it on to UN agencies like the WHO, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme. Some of the funding reached NGOs working in Yemen in the form of sub-grants from the UN agencies.
Laerke said the 2018 money had been “instrumental in allowing the [aid] operation [in Yemen] to rapidly scale up in all sectors at a critical time”, and said nearly all of the $930 million had been spent, with “some small exceptions” when donors had granted extensions.
He said the reason extensions had been needed were “primarily related to access challenges beyond the control of implementing agencies”.
Gulf donors have been playing an increasingly public role in humanitarian efforts in the past few years, with the 2015 opening of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre aiming for more strategic and coordinated delivery on par with an agency like USAID.
Following this, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been funneling more money through UN channels, although this trend may be reversing course, especially if this year’s donation is not given to OCHA, as many had originally expected.
After repeated warnings that Houthi rebels were diverting aid in the parts of Yemen they control and had refused to agree a biometric registration system intended to avoid fraud, the WFP announced on 20 June that it was suspending assistance in rebel-controlled Sana’a.
A statement published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency on 30 June said Yemeni Vice President Ali Mohsen had accused the Houthis of “misleading and exploiting the humanitarian [situation] to carry out its agenda in mobilising and inciting against Yemenis” and the coalition.
While they have not yet made good on their $1 billion pledge, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have given $282 million towards the 2019 Yemen plan, part of a $500 million pledge made in November 2018.
They have also provided significant funding through channels outside the UN-coordinated plan, such as Hadi’s government, the King Salman Centre, and the Emirati Red Crescent.
Laerke said more funding was urgently needed. “Although the Saudi and Emirati pledge was the biggest at Geneva, it is far from being the only one that has not been paid in full,” he said. “We urge all our donors to pay promptly. It has now been four months since the Geneva conference.”
(TOP PHOTO: 25-year-old Uhood in a camp for displaced people in Lahj province, Yemen.)