Yemen faces 'macabre tragedy' as aid funding falls short by $1bn

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen remains on the brink of “a macabre tragedy”, the UN has warned after a humanitarian fundraising summit raised only $1.35bn (£1.05bn) for this year, around $1bn short of the target and only half the sum raised at the equivalent pledging conference last year.

The UN’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, said unless more money was raised Yemen “will face a horrific outcome at the end of the year”. 

Despite the shortfall “the UN will not abandon the people of Yemen”, he vowed, adding that pledging would continue because some of last year’s large donors had not yet contributed.

Dr Abdullah al-Rabiah, the head of the King Salman Centre for Relief and Humanitarian Aid in Saudi Arabia, which co-hosted the virtual summit, put the overall shortfall down to the impact of coronavirus on national budgets and concerns about the restrictions on aid flows imposed by the parties to Yemen’s five-year civil war. “We want to be sure that the money will go to those in need,” he said. 

 The largest single sum pledged, $500m, came from Saudi Arabia, one of the main protagonists in the war. Other big donors were the UK, the US, Norway and Germany.

Lowcock said those countries that had not paid this year “had to stand up” or Yemen faced “a macabre tragedy”.

Repeated disputes over the diversion of aid, including by interference or by conditions set by the Houthi rebels in the north of the country, have led some Arab states to hold back from making pledges. Lowcock insisted the UN had to work throughout the country to help the most vulnerable, regardless of which group was in charge of the territory. 

Before the conference, the UN had only been able to raise $500m for Yemen this year. Even if all the $1.35bn pledged was handed over, the UN aid budget for Yemen would still be more than $1bn less than the $3.2bn eventually raised in 2019.

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Lowcock told the summit: “Yemen is now on the precipice, right on the cliff edge, below which lies a tragedy of historic proportions.” 

In a sign of the UN’s problems, Saudi Arabia insisted $200m of its donation would be spent through Saudi aid programmes, not those sanctioned by the UN. It also later clarified this sum had been previously announced but not handed over. 

The United Arab Emirates, one of the external powers backing the Yemen government against the Houthis, made no commitment to the UN programme at the summit.

During the four-hour virtual summit, addressed by more than 40 speakers, leaders in individual nations repeatedly called for a political settlement and the lifting of any restrictions on the distribution of humanitarian supplies.

The conference was not designed to bring about the resumption of political talks to end the conflict, which started when Houthi rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, from the Saudi-backed and UN-recognised government. That government has subsequently been hit by internal divisions, with a secessionist group, the Southern Transitional Council based in Aden, claiming to rule across the southern governorates.

Saudi Arabia has reopened talks with the STC to try to reunify the anti-Houthi forces, but the widespread view is that Saudi Arabia wants to bring the disastrous and costly war to an end, as long as it can protect its borders.

In his speech, the UN secretary general, Antonio Gutteres, highlighted the arrival of coronavirus in Yemen in early April.

“We are in a race against time,” he said. “Reports indicate that, in Aden, mortality rates from Covid-19 are among the highest in the world. That is just one sign of what lies ahead, if we do not act now.

He said only half of Yemen’s health facilities were operational, and there were shortages of testing devices, oxygen, ambulances and basic protective equipment. “Many healthcare workers are among those who have contracted the virus. Even hospitals that are operational and equipped may not have a reliable electricity supply.”