NGOs fear Houthi terrorist designation could throttle Yemen aid

Displaced people at the Mazraq camp in northwestern Yemen. Photo by: Hugh Macleod / IRIN / CC BY-NC-ND

The U.S. State Department’s designation of the Ansarallah, better known as the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization will severely hamper humanitarian efforts in Yemen, where an estimated 22 million people require assistance, NGOs say.

Announced Monday, the decision triggers U.S. regulations and sanctions around material support to terrorist organizations and would prevent NGOs from interacting knowingly with the Houthis, who control the government in the northern part of Yemen. It is virtually impossible to operate in northern Yemen without interacting with them, humanitarian groups say.

An estimated 80% of the country’s population is in need of humanitarian aid.

“We’re concerned about the impact of this designation on our operations, on the humanitarian response writ large, and specifically on the communities that we serve,” said Jared Wright, policy adviser at Mercy Corps. “We are looking at this designation without having any understanding of what the potential of the humanitarian exemptions are or will be.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday the designation is a reaction to the failed political process to resolve the conflict in Yemen and to “provide additional tools to confront terrorist activity and terrorism by Ansarallah, a deadly Iran-backed militia group in the Gulf region.”

Pompeo said the U.S. government is aware that the designation will have severe implications for humanitarian efforts and that it will work to issue licenses to United Nations agencies and NGOs to continue work there.

“The licenses and guidance will also apply to certain humanitarian activities conducted by non-governmental organizations in Yemen and to certain transactions and activities related to exports to Yemen of critical commodities like food and medicine,” Pompeo said in a statement. “We are working to ensure that essential lifelines and engagements that support a political track and return to dialogue continue to the maximum extent possible.”

But Joel Charny, executive director at Norwegian Refugee Council USA, said it won’t be easy to mitigate negative impacts. Even organizations — like NRC — that work in northern Yemen but do not receive U.S. government money there will be affected by the sanctions.

“Right now, this looks like a worst-case scenario for Yemen. Life has just got harder for millions who are already struggling to survive.”

— Abeer Etefa, senior spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa, WFP

“If we’re taking U.S. government money anywhere in the world, and we’re working in northern Yemen and talking to, liaising with, paying staff who pay taxes to the authorities in northern Yemen, we are violating” agreements NRC had signed with the U.S. Agency for International Development, Charny said. “We have certified that we’re not dealing anywhere in the world with a foreign terrorist organization that’s been designated under the U.S. material support statutes. So how can we continue to work in northern Yemen under these circumstances?”

Mercy Corps and Islamic Relief USA said they had yet to receive any guidance from USAID on what the implications of sanctions, which go into effect Jan. 19, might be for their work.

“The Houthis control 70% of the population in northern Yemen. We require approvals and signatures from Houthi authorities to carry out our operations,” Wright said. “We are required and have to work through the Houthi authorities to carry out our programs. And if we are not allowed to do that, we are not allowed to program.”

When asked if USAID had provided any such information to partners on how the sanctions might impact NGO operations or what a process for receiving exemptions to continue work may look like, the agency referred questions to the State Department. The State Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Humanitarian access in the northern and southern parts of Yemen has long been a "struggle" for NGOs, according to Aaron Brent, country director at CARE Yemen. Access has improved in some cases over the last year but "nowhere near enough to deliver all the aid at the speed we would like," Brent said. Humanitarian needs, meanwhile, have continued to increase in Yemen.

Sharif Aly, CEO at Islamic Relief USA, said his organization had already been working on contingency plans to avoid as much service disruption as possible, amid rumors of the coming designation. Islamic Relief USA doesn’t receive direct U.S. government funds in Yemen but does operate a program with the World Food Programme that receives U.S. money.

“Humanitarian organizations have to be able to adjust based on the requirements that come from the governments,” Aly said. “Every delay has a negative impact on a human life.”

Charny said that in addition to impacting NGOs, the designation will also “chill” the private sector that is vital for delivery of food aid and other essential supplies because shipments require that taxes and port fees be paid to Houthi authorities.

UN appeal to address Yemen 'catastrophe' falls $1B short

During a virtual event, donors pledged $1.35 billion for the humanitarian response in Yemen — about half of the requested amount. The gap could lead the U.N. to further scale back work in the country, as it already planned to cut three-fourths of its programs.

Abeer Etefa, WFP senior spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa, said the agency “acknowledges the U.S. government’s commitment to work with the U.N. to address issues relating to the delivery of humanitarian aid” and hopes to have a clearer picture in the coming days of what the sanctions will mean for its supply chain and operations.

“The humanitarian response does not operate in a vacuum; we work with banks, commercial traders, and transporters, who in turn have links to global insurers and so on,” Etefa said. “But right now, this looks like a worst-case scenario for Yemen. Life has just got harder for millions who are already struggling to survive.”

While multiple organizations expressed optimism that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration could overturn the designation as he takes office on Jan. 20, the day after it goes into effect, it’s not immediately clear how that might work logistically.

“If the Biden administration feels this is inappropriate, it needs to be one of their day one activities, because the minute this becomes part of the bureaucratic regime related to providing aid to Yemen, it’s part of the bureaucratic regime indefinitely,” Charny said. “That’s our experience with sanctions all over the world. Once they’re in place, they’re in place.”

U.N. Correspondent Amy Lieberman contributed reporting to this article.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.