Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf donors fighting on one side of the war in Yemen, committed a record-breaking $1 billion towards UN-led humanitarian operations in the country at a pledging conference on Tuesday.
The UN and 250 associated aid groups were asking for $4.2 billion to meet the needs of millions of the most vulnerable Yemenis in 2019. More than $2.6 billion in new money was pledged at the event, co-hosted by Switzerland and Sweden at the UN in Geneva.
For nearly four years, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been backing the internationally recognised (but mostly exiled) Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in its fight against Houthi rebels and their allies.
The war has caused a sharp rise in the needs of civilians, as extreme poverty, hunger, disease, and displacement threaten the daily lives of most of the country’s approximately 30 million people. Aid and trade in the divided country are frequently disrupted by logistical and military obstructions by all parties to the conflict, aid agencies say.
The new contribution from Saudi Arabia and UAE, the largest such commitment to a UN humanitarian appeal ever, follows a joint $500 million pledge in November, most of which will also be spent in 2019. The two countries committed $930 million for last years’ appeal.
Senior Swiss humanitarian aid official Manuel Bessler told IRIN that Yemen was “a good operation” with “actors that can deliver”, but acknowledged that the giant aid response did face challenges in terms of access and security.
Muna Luqman, chairperson of the Yemeni NGO “Food For Humanity”, lobbying in Geneva for more support to deal with mental health and trauma, said she had ”mixed feelings” about the conference.
“I’m happy that we’re getting more attention to Yemen, and of course more funding is needed,” she said. “However, I’m sad this is the second or third pledging conference – I hope the next event will be a peace conference.”
The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the two Gulf states are still in discussions about how the 2019 funds will be allocated, according to UN and Saudi Arabian officials.
Mohammed Al-Jaber, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, said talks were underway with OCHA chief Mark Lowcock to review the 2018 experience and “overcome the weaknesses of what happened last year”.
Saudi Arabian and Emirati officials both declined to elaborate in detail on what those weaknesses were, although UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the high stakes involved, said Riyadh had expected more impact from its donations and wanted to be “seen in the driving seat” of the humanitarian effort on Yemen.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday publicly offered to host the 2020 Yemen humanitarian pledging conference, a proposal that observers said was a non-starter due to Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict.
A block grant of $930 million from Saudi Arabia and the UAE was paid to OCHA last year, and then allocated to UN agencies and NGOs in a number of large grants.
Lowcock said he hoped the same would happen this year. In 2018, the “exceptionally” large grant enabled a synchronised approach that helped stave off famine and save “millions of lives”, he added.
Donors and UN agencies called for salaries to be paid to Yemeni state employees, both in areas controlled by the Houthi rebels and in parts of the country run by Hadi’s government and its allies. Among those who have not been paid regularly for around two years are teachers, health workers, and civil servants. Humanitarians say the lack of these payments has contributed to the collapse of Yemen’s economy.
The issue was a talking point for the UN and Western donors, but they are reluctant to get drawn into paying state employees indefinitely. EU humanitarian aid commissioner Christos Stylianides told IRIN that salary payments were “a precondition in order to see the economy resuming, and at the same time to give the people more dignity”.
Saudi Arabia’s al-Jaber told IRIN he hoped some of the appeal funding could go towards paying the salaries of government workers.
The number of unpaid civil servants is hard to pin down. In a recent interview with IRIN, al-Jaber said about 650,000 civil servants were being paid, and rejected a figure of 1.2 million unpaid civil servants that had been circulated by aid agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.
Bessler said donors were willing to contribute, at least to some extent, to salaries. “We have to,” he said. “Beside addressing humanitarian needs, we have to build institutions. And for this, the basic… human capacity is also needed.”
Reem al-Hashimi, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, agreed it was “incredibly important” that civil servants were paid, but said it wouldn’t be effective alone – if for example the central bank couldn’t also stabilise exchange rates to control the cost of imports.
The fact that the largest country donors to the appeal, as in 2018, are also parties to the conflict was not lost on participants.
The conduct of the war by the two biggest donors is “both driving massive humanitarian needs and obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” said Médecins Sans Frontières in a statement.
And while some donors are engaged directly in the war, others are significant arms exporters to the warring parties, such as the United States and the UK.
This led Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, to make a tongue-in-cheek proposal. Speaking at the conference, Byanyima suggested a different pledging conference, to help arms-producing countries diversify into more peaceful industries.
(TOP PHOTO: A woman receives assistance from the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, in Dhamar province, Yemen. CREDIT: Arwa Al Sabri/UNHCR)