International donors promised to give $1.35 billion for aid operations in Yemen on Tuesday, far less than the $2.4 billion the UN says it needs to stave off the devastating impacts of more than five years of war and the spread of COVID-19.
The largest pledge at a virtual donor conference came from co-host Saudi Arabia at $500 million. The kingdom has been a major donor to humanitarian work in the country, but it is also a key player in the war, leading an international coalition that supports Yemen’s internationally recognised government against the Houthi rebels. The war has all but destroyed Yemen’s health system, allowed disease like cholera to thrive, and left millions without enough to eat.
Dr Abdullah al-Rabeeah, supervisor general of the King Salman Relief Centre, Saudi Arabia’s aid body, told The New Humanitarian on Wednesday that $300 million of the money his country had pledged would go through UN agencies, and $200 million would be funnelled by the centre he heads to international NGOs. All of the money, he said, would go towards the UN’s humanitarian response plan for Yemen.
The UN’s $2.4 billion ask was for programmes carried out by its agencies and hundreds of associated aid groups in 2020, but the $1.35 billion figure reflects all the promises made on Tuesday, including those that extend past this year and some that will not go through the UN. Last year, the UN and its partners asked for $4.2 billion, and received $3.6 billion.
Various aid groups said Tuesday’s pledging numbers were a disappointment, with 24 million Yemenis said to be in need of some sort of assistance and key aid programmes, including food rations, on the chopping block because of funding shortfalls.
“We welcome the pledges made today. But this still falls far short of what is needed to alleviate the suffering,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “Millions of Yemeni people are staring down the double barrel of starvation and a global pandemic,” his statement said. “The money pledged today needs to be disbursed immediately and donors who failed to put their hands in their pockets must step up. But money alone is not enough. These pledges are worth little if people are still fleeing from bombs and crossfire and their hospitals attacked.”
Al-Rabeeah said there would be no restrictions on where Saudi Arabia’s aid money could be used, including in the Houthi-controlled north. He did not specify when the money would be given, but said negotiations were underway with aid groups, and called for “stronger monitoring programmes so there will be no misdirection of this money for other purposes”.
The Yemen aid operation has been plagued by accusations of aid diversion, theft, and misuse. In June, the World Food Programme temporarily stopped delivering food to parts of Houthi-controlled Sana’a because the group would not agree to a biometrics system intended to prevent fraud.
Before Tuesday’s event, UN relief chief Mark Lowcock wrote in a private email to heads of UN agencies, seen by TNH, that he expected donors to promise as much as $1.5 billion, with Saudi Arabia “talking about providing $300 million through the UN”. If this turned out to be the case, Lowcock wrote, “it will be important not to describe [the pledging event] as a success”. For more, read our full story.
– Annie Slemrod