Donors pledge $1.1B to Yemen, with 'one hand tied behind their backs'

Secretary-General António Guterres (center) speaks to journalists following the pledging conference for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which he hosted jointly with the foreign ministers of Switzerland and Sweden as co-chairs. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / United Nations

Governments and humanitarian agencies promised half of the United Nations’ requested $2.1 billion for Yemen at a pledging conference in Geneva yesterday — but aid groups cautioned that the crisis will continue to deteriorate as long as access is restricted and pointed to an apparent discrepancy between aid commitments and political actions.

International donors pledged $1.12 billion to help respond to the emergency needs of 19 million Yemenis — signalling that the U.N. could reach its goal of $2.1 billion by the end of the year, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters following the day-long event. Pledging conferences typically draw a third, or less, of requested funding.

“We basically now need three things: access, access, and access … for all humanitarian actors to reach all the people in need,” he said, also stressing the need for international law to be respected.

However, he added that, “obviously, there is no humanitarian solution for the crisis in Yemen; the solution is political.”

The European Union, the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United States all announced new funds at the conference.

Some of these pledges struck an ironic chord for many aid experts, however, who point to thousands of civilian deaths in Saudi-led airstrikes, and the use of weapons sold by the U.K. and the U.S.

A representative of a humanitarian relief organization, who wished to remain anonymous, said that: “In the end we reached half of the [UN] goal, but it’s clear that many of the governments here have one hand tied behind their back, either because of [arms] sales or direct involvement in the conflict.”

The U.K. and U.S. have sold more than $5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the conflict began, according to Amnesty International.

The conference did not yield any clear government commitments to cease the hostilities in Yemen, or to ease blocked paths for international aid workers struggling to reach the 17 million people who are food insecure.

“Millions of people across Yemen are in critical need of aid in order to survive in a country where the economy has largely collapsed, basic services struggle to function and social safety nets are strained.”

— Médecins Sans Frontières

The country is embroiled in a two-year-long conflict between the internationally-recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, supported by a Saudi-led military coalition, and Houthi-Saleh rebels.

Humanitarian groups warned last week about the use of unauthorized landmines and attacks on hospitals, alongside the worsening food crisis.

“Millions of people across Yemen are in critical need of aid in order to survive in a country where the economy has largely collapsed, basic services struggle to function and social safety nets are strained. Many of the patients we treat, and the families of the medical staff with whom we work, have lost their livelihoods and face illness, rising prices and shortages of essentials including food, fuel and electricity,” Médecins Sans Frontières said in a statement.

The U.N. has so far struggled to raise money, after it launched a joint $4.4 billion funding appeal in February for Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, which are also facing severe hunger crises. Until yesterday, it had raised just 15 percent of its target for Yemen, which the World Food Programme has warned faces a “full-scale famine.”

Some major international NGOs and advocacy groups questioned the impact of the pledging conference.

Amid funding shortfall, doubts over why UN links 4 food crises together

The United Nations has experienced a dangerously slow response to a $4.4 billion funding appeal to the food insecurity and famine crises that span Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. Some development experts are now questioning the strategy of linking together four disparate emergencies.

Shane Stevenson, Oxfam's senior program manager for Yemen, said in a statement that “the best way to prevent famine in Yemen is for weapons to fall silent and for the parties to the conflict to return to the negotiating table.”

Saudi Arabia has recently expressed its intention to attack Port Hodeidah, a key entry point for humanitarian relief. It also rejected a World Food Programme request to install cranes in the port, to facilitate the movement of food aid to the interior of the country, where almost all agricultural production has ceased.

“The Yemeni people know, and we know, that any attack on the port will lead to a bloodbath, and will destroy the main entry point and the biggest entry point for assistance,” Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, told Devex, adding that the Saudis have not yet enabled assistance to “flow freely.”

In addition to the food crisis, there is a severe shortage of medical supplies. A fifth of all Yemen’s districts do not have a single doctor, an emergency response representative from the World Health Organization said at the conference. Less than half of the country’s health facilities are functional, and some have been targets of attacks.

“Hospitals have repeatedly been hit by shelling, missiles, airstrikes and gunfire. This includes four MSF health facilities, in attacks in which 26 of our patients and staff lost their lives,” said an MSF spokesperson, adding that “there is a consistent pattern by all warring parties in the Yemeni conflict of injuring and killing civilians and of deliberately obstructing access to health care for those in need.”

El Taraboulsi-McCarthy criticized the international donor community for failing to condemn what some aid groups see as the duplicitous behaviour of the Saudi Arabian government, which pledged $150 million to the Yemen crisis at yesterday’s conference.

A group of U.S. senators introduced legislation on April 13 to set new conditions for U.S. military support for Riyadh, and U.S. officials speaking to Reuters anonymously last week suggested that additional guarantees would be sought from Saudi Arabia over the use of weapons bought from the U.S.

This is the first time a major donor government has come close to acknowledging the Saudi government’s alleged misconduct in the Yemen crisis, El Taraboulsi-McCarthy told Devex.

“We do see condemnations here and there, mostly by independent researchers like myself and organizations like Human Rights Watch, but we have yet to see a firm position from the U.N. or from the international community saying that it’s not OK,” she said.

Still, the warning from the U.S. could pave the way for other major donors to take a stand, setting an example for governments such as the U.K, a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia.

“I think the U.K. does have a very strong and important role to play, but there’s also the recognition that there are interests at hand that seem to be trumping values, if you will,” she said.

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About the authors

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.