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

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United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock. Photo by: Violaine Martin via UN Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — Donors pledged $1.35 billion for the humanitarian response in Yemen during a virtual pledging conference Tuesday, falling short of the $2.4 billion goal that the United Nations set to sustain basic humanitarian operations throughout 2020.

In Yemen, aid groups fear COVID-19 cases are going undetected

Médecins Sans Frontières, which runs a COVID-19 treatment center in Aden, says that out of the 173 patients it's had over the past two weeks, 68 have died. But the charity is unable to confirm whether they have the virus, given the lack of testing capacity in the country.

The $1.35 billion also fell short of the annual humanitarian funding for Yemen that the U.N. has received over the last few years.

“This is not the end. It is abundantly clear because of today’s outcome that it cannot be the end. The U.N. will not abandon the people of Yemen,” U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said during the event. The U.N. co-hosted the conference with Saudi Arabia, the leader of an international coalition that is fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen’s ongoing civil conflict.

The U.K. announced a new aid package worth £160 million ($201 million), and the European Commission announced €78 million ($87 million) for humanitarian aid in Yemen, but donors that have contributed in the past — including Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates — did not come forward with new funding at this year’s event. The UAE recently contributed food aid to Yemen.

China’s representative referenced food aid, a “batch of medical supplies,” and “other assistance,” but no new financing. The U.S., which gave $225 million at the beginning of May, did not announce any new funding. David Schenker, U.S. assistant secretary of Near Eastern affairs, said the U.S. is “working to provide additional funding in the coming weeks.”

Some of the pledges, such as Saudi Arabia’s promise of $500 million, were previously announced, but none have already been paid, Lowcock said. Timely delivery of the pledged funding can stop the U.N. from imminently scaling back work in Yemen, he added.

“The length of time between pledges and payment varies quite a lot between donors. Our plea is for there not to be a gap, because we never at this stage of the year have had so little money for Yemen,” Lowcock said during a press briefing. “And that is why agencies are closing their programs right now. They are not closing their programs because the situation is getting better.”

The meeting marked a stark contrast with past Yemen pledging conferences. The U.N. raised $2 billion in 2018 and $2.6 billion in 2019. Total funding reached $3.2 billion in 2019.

“Because of everyone coming together, we averted famine. Now, because of years of war and conflict, and degradation of almost every service that there is, compounded by COVID-19, we are again facing unprecedented catastrophe,” World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley said during the event.

“This is not the end. … The U.N. will not abandon the people of Yemen.”

— Mark Lowcock, emergency relief coordinator, United Nations

So far this year, the U.N. has raised less than $500 million for its Yemen response work in 2020, Lowcock said. The U.N. is asking for at least $2.4 billion to cover its work in the country through 2020.

“It’s important that those who pledged last year and not this year — that they stand up and play their part in this response effort to save millions of lives,” Lowcock said.

The U.N. is delivering humanitarian aid to more than 10 million people in Yemen each month. But a lack of funding has pushed the global body to close 30 of its 41 major programs in the country over the next few weeks.

“This means many more people will die,” Lowcock said. “COVID-19 rapid response teams are funded only until the end of June. Next month, we could start winding down treatment for severely malnourished children. Support for cholera facilities will also start to reduce.”

The U.N. and international and local nongovernmental organizations are also responding to a rise in coronavirus cases in Yemen.

“COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across the country, exacerbating every issue Yemen is facing. At a time when we should be doubling our efforts, our work is under threat,” said Audrey Crawford, Yemen country director at the Danish Refugee Council. “Families tell us that as terrifying as COVID is, hunger is equally frightening.”

The official tally of COVID-19 cases remains relatively low since the first infection was confirmed on April 10, with 314 cases confirmed this past week. There have been 78 reported deaths, resulting in a mortality rate that exceeds 20% and suggesting that the virus is much more widespread than reported.

“There is every reason to believe that community transmission is already underway across the country,” U.N. chief António Guterres said, noting that testing rates in the country are some of the lowest on the planet.

“The pandemic poses a terrifying threat to some of the most vulnerable people in the world, weakened by years of conflict and with a health system that is already on the brink of collapse,” Guterres said.

About the author

  • 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.