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US, UK threaten to cut Yemen aid due to fraud and obstruction

‘We all agree the current situation is not tenable, but we need to find a way forward we all agree on.’

A World Food Programme aid distribution centre in Sana'a, 11 February 2020.
A World Food Programme aid distribution centre in Sana'a, 11 February 2020. (Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS)

“Decisive” action is required to stem aid fraud and obstruction to millions who need it in Yemen, according to the US and British governments. In a strongly worded letter, obtained by The New Humanitarian, both say they will take “unilateral” action to reduce funding if the relief operation – one of the biggest in the world – is not trimmed and better controlled.

The 5 February draft letter to UN relief chief Mark Lowcock throws down a challenge to the UN, NGOs, and other donor countries as they prepare to meet in Brussels this week to discuss long-simmering concerns about Houthi rebel obstruction of assistance.

Together the countries gave $1.16 billion in 2019, about a third of the more than $3 billion UN-coordinated response. In the letter they call for a “reduction and re-focusing of all bilateral and UN assistance”, and less funding to Houthi-controlled institutions as part of a new “posture” towards the group, which runs much of north Yemen, including the capital city of Sana’a.

Yemen’s humanitarian disaster – marked by widespread hunger, cholera epidemic, and economic collapse – is the outcome of more than five and a half years of war that has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

Dealing with massive needs – the UN says 24 million people, or 80 percent of Yemen’s population, need assistance – the aid response has long been plagued by accusations of interference by both sides, notably including a November 2018 Saudi closure of all the country’s borders that contributed to warnings of famine.

Public audits and statements by aid groups, as well as media reports, suggest that significant amounts of money and supplies are wasted and political factors influence projects and contracts in Yemen.

Half a dozen aid workers with the UN and NGOs – all of whom spoke to TNH on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to jeopardise their safety or ability to work in Yemen – said that multiple factors, including red tape, movement restrictions, and concerns over safety all make it extremely difficult to deliver assistance. A spokesperson for OCHA, the UN’s aid coordination body that Lowcock heads, was not able to comment in time for publication.

Rising tensions

The Brussels meetings, hosted by the EU and Sweden and scheduled to begin on Wednesday, come after months of rising tensions over the humanitarian response, including Houthi detentions and expulsions of aid workers. Various UN aid agencies and high level UN officials have been negotiating with the rebel group’s aid coordination wing, SCMCHA, over these and other issues for more than a year, but failed to make significant headway.

“We do face significant obstacles and restrictions and challenges in terms of a principled humanitarian approach.”

One aid worker, who told TNH that “it has basically become impossible for us to operate in the north”, said problems had escalated after SCMCHA issued a decree late last year that would require two percent of all NGO aid budgets to go to the authorities.

It is a ruling humanitarians have so far refused to agree to, and that has played a major role in the United States saying it may suspend its contribution to the aid programme.

SCMCHA head Abdel Mohsen al-Tawoos ramped up the pressure in a Monday television appearance, saying the UN-led aid operation only reached a small proportion of those who need it, and described the threat of suspending aid as “extortion”.

But a representative of a donor country, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak with the media, said the aim of the Brussels gathering was not to end aid to Yemen, but to get everyone involved in the massive response on the same page. That includes finding a common understanding of just how bad aid obstruction and diversion really is and what to do about it, and how it compares to other war zones around the world.

“I think that we all agree about the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” said the representative. “But we do face significant obstacles and restrictions and challenges in terms of a principled humanitarian approach.”

The rest of the aid community has largely balked at the idea of an aid suspension. Saudi Arabia – the biggest single donor to the Yemen aid response – has said it would not favour one, despite long speaking out about alleged corruption.

It could not be independently confirmed that Lowcock received the US/UK letter, but, in an apparent response to donors seen by TNH, the UN relief chief said that their concerns were legitimate as “the restrictions that are being placed on the humanitarian system in Yemen are unacceptable”. However, “the suspension of humanitarian operations should not be considered at this time,” he added in his 7 February letter.

The donor representative agreed with the sentiment, saying that while other countries shared US and UK concerns, “what we want to avoid is a suspension. What we want to see is a change in behaviour in terms of the restrictions and obstacles to assistance… We all agree the current situation is not tenable, but we need to find a way forward we all agree on.”

Bureaucracy, obstruction and interference

The Brussels meetings will include top aid officials, countries that give money to the UN response, and representatives from international NGOs. Notably, no local NGOs have been invited, despite the outsized role they play in humanitarian response.

It comes hot on the heels of a recent report by the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, which said that Houthi rebels were increasingly getting in the way of the delivery of humanitarian assistance, both by arresting and intimidating aid workers, as well as by putting up bureaucratic obstacles.

Read more → UN experts: Uptick in Houthi obstacles to aid delivery

The number of incidents hampering the aid operation in Yemen – ranging from movement restrictions to violence against aid workers – jumped from 299 in June and July to 502 between August and September countrywide, according to figures published by the UN.

While the two percent levy brought these and other long-brewing issues to a head, multiple aid workers told TNH that Houthi bureaucratic processes had long made their work extremely difficult, especially when added to the other issues mentioned in the report.

“You have a paralysis of the aid system.”

All aid agencies and NGOs are required to periodically sign a “principal agreement” with SCMCHA, as well as with the Hadi-aligned authorities in the south, in order to work in the areas they control.

In the north, aid workers said that when the agreements were up for renewal, SCMCHA often demands changes and clauses one humanitarian said they “could not abide by”, for example requiring the handing over of beneficiary lists to the Houthis.

In addition, each project requires at least one “sub-agreement” with SCMCHA. According to OCHA statistics, that takes more than six months on average.

The UN, which keeps statistics on these steps – seen by TNH but not made public – says that 39 percent of all projects that NGOs submitted to SCMCHA for approval in 2019 are pending; holding up aid worth an estimated total of $130 million that is meant to reach 3.2 million people.

“You have a paralysis of the aid system where we are not able to deliver because of these systems,” said one aid worker, while another described staff in constant meetings, with piles of paperwork, unable to get much of anything done.

Hadi’s government also requires agreements, and approval can be a lengthy process, but aid workers said the difference was that his government was internationally recognised, making it easier for donors and aid agencies to negotiate with.

In addition to bureaucratic delays, the UN’s World Food Programme announced its concerns in December 2018 about wholesale aid fraud. By June 2019, the lack of action became such a problem in the north that it suspended aid to 850,000 people in Sana’a until the Houthis agreed to a recount of millions of individuals receiving food aid and their enrollment in a biometric database – a similar system is already in place in the south. That has not happened, according to Lowcock’s email to donors.

Several other agencies, in more guarded language, have released audits and investigative reports highlighting possible fraud or risks in their Yemen work.

IN DETAIL: → The audit trails

An audit of UNICEF’s programme in Yemen, dated October 2019, found significant weaknesses in risk management, and examined some of $178 million in cash payments to Hadi’s government and the Houthi authorities in 2017 and 2018.

The report highlighted particular concerns about some $15 million given to the Houthi water authority, the General Authority for Rural Water Projects: an earlier review had flagged its financial reporting as doubtful, but payments continued.

UNICEF was at risk from “external efforts to inappropriately influence UNICEF’s management”, the auditors found – a reference, UN staff confirmed to TNH, to behind the scenes arm-twisting from the Houthi authorities.

In response to questions, a UNICEF spokesperson described a swathe of tighter procedures it has introduced and said that the agency is “reassessing all 246 current implementing entities” – which would include the water body – as part of its response to the audit. UNICEF has “robust monitoring” but acknowledged that, “in a situation of active conflict and poor governance, accountability and transparency, there is always a risk that humanitarian aid can get stolen or diverted into the wrong hands”.

Another audit of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, published in December 2019 reported “control deficiencies” caused by “inadequate management oversight over implementing partners”. It questioned the legal basis of some of UNHCR’s funding to both Hadi’s government and the Houthi authorities.

An audit of OCHA also found in December that a botched bidding process for a contractor meant monitoring of its funded projects in Yemen “struggled” and that dozens of project audits were months late.

Associated Press reported last year that laptops and external drives of a Word Health Organisation (WHO) audit team had been confiscated by Houthi authorities in late 2018, allegedly to compromise an investigation into wide-ranging fraud and misconduct involving WHO staff and Houthi officials.

Auditors for another UN agency were detained by Houthi authorities in November, according to AP.

What’s next?

In his 7 February letter, OCHA’s Lowcock said that “while the issues we face in Yemen are difficult and serious, there are places where, in my opinion, we have even bigger challenges”, citing parts of Syria, northeastern Nigeria, and the Sahel.

The UN relief chief also said that as far as he was aware no one had yet paid the two percent levy, and his “advice to NGOs would be that this is unacceptable and they should not pay”.

The Houthis have defended the idea of the tax, telling the Washington Post that it was “natural” for authorities to require a “minimum percentage for administering and coordinating humanitarian affairs”.

While donors, NGOs, and aid agencies seem to agree the levy is a demand they won’t meet, a collective set of “red lines” – even if they can be agreed in Brussels – will likely be hard to maintain, given the multitude of actors, and how complicated things can get on the ground.

Lowcock reminded donors in his letter that he does not have executive authority over the various UN agencies, let alone NGOs. In his email to donors he wrote: “decisions on what can and can’t be done are ultimately for each agency (UN, NGO or other) to take.”

A senior aid official familiar with the debate, who insisted on anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said a single rulebook was unlikely: “the key point is whether we agree a one-size-fits-all approach or finesse it in a way that allows different agencies to draw their lines in different places, and we’re tending towards the latter.”

They said that “despite increasing constraints, aid is still getting through at scale”, while adding the caveat that it is not clear how long this will last given the current climate.

While the United States and the UK warn of possible suspensions, the donor official told TNH they were hoping for an increased “engagement” – meaning face-to-face contacts, negotiations, and diplomatic dialogue – with the authorities in Sana’a. This has been a problem for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Saudi-led coalition controls the airspace over the capital and controls who flies in and out. EU diplomats made a rare visit to Sana’a in late January.

The donor representative added that the Brussels meetings were likely to be the first of many that they hoped would be “the start of a process towards a more common approach and assessment in terms of how we move forward”.

That would include, they hoped, a change in behaviour from the Houthi authorities, “as well as stronger monitoring [of aid] and risk mitigation from the UN and humanitarian community”.

“We need to figure out how we can continue our support to Yemen while preserving a principled humanitarian approach,” the donor said. “That is the essence of it.”

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