Financing Famine: UK Complicit in Crisis in Yemen

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Escalating conflict over the last six years has made the humanitarian crisis in Yemen the biggest in the world. According to UNICEF, 80% of its population is completely reliant on humanitarian assistance. At this crucial juncture, the UK has announced a reduction in the aid it sends to the country but simultaneously financing the conflict.

The ongoing civil war, poverty, and lately the COVID-19 pandemic mean millions across the country struggle to survive. Hunger and malnutrition affect 16.2 million Yemenis, and around 4 million people are displaced. 

In 2015, Saudi Arabia launched an intervention in Yemen. Together with 8 other states, it aimed to defeat the Houthis that had tried to take over control of the country. Since then, bombings and airstrikes on the Yemeni territory have been a regular occurrence. Saudi officials initially projected that the war would last only a few weeks. Nevertheless, for the last few years, the situation in the state has been deteriorating, turning Yemen into a humanitarian disaster.

Despite this, just last week the UK announced a reduction in its financial contribution to humanitarian assistance to the state. Cuts to funding to Yemen can have a calamitous impact on the already extremely vulnerable population of the state, numerous charities have warned.

The scope of the crisis

Famine and starvation are very real and tangible threats. The UN reports that 400,000 children under five already face acute malnutrition and might starve to death in Yemen this year. In 2021, the state is projected to see the highest levels of severe acute malnutrition since the beginning of the conflict.

There are 333 districts in Yemen, and all of them have been affected by the humanitarian crisis. Water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure is collapsing, and so are hospitals and schools. Around 50,000 people starve each day, and a further 16 million face food insecurity daily.

a mother holding a malnourished child in Yemen looking at the camera
400,000 children under five already face acute malnutrition in Yemen. [Image: NBC News]

Climate emergency further exacerbates Yemen’s plight. In 2020, at least 300,000 people lost their homes and personal belongings because of heavy rains and flooding.

Funding shortfall

Last week the UK announced it allocated £87 million in financial aid to Yemen, as opposed to £164 million that was spent on the cause last year; a cut of 60%. The UK’s decision has been condemned by numerous charities and officials. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that reducing funding is a ‘death sentence’ for the Yemeni population.

The decision was justified by the fact that the pandemic has had a negative effect on the British economy. During the donor conference held by the UN last week, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said the implication of the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘a difficult financial context for us all’.

War financiers

At the same time, however, the UK has signed off arms export to Saudi Arabia worth £1.4 billion. Bombs and arms produced by the UK have been used in attacks perpetrated by the Saudi-led coalition on the Yemeni territory.

Sam Nadel, the head of policy and advocacy at Oxfam, said: ‘As the US has called for an end to the conflict in Yemen, the UK is heading in the opposite direction, ramping up its support for the brutal Saudi-led war by increasing arms sales and refuelling equipment that facilitate airstrikes.’

Moreover, the UK is part of a global community move to pull back from providing Yemen with the necessary assistance. At the pledging conference, the UN had hoped to raise $3.85 billion. Sadly, it only received $1.7 billion. In the last two years, nations have been giving less and less money to Yemen, falling from $5 billion in 2018 to $2 billion in 2020.

Allies such as the US and Germany renewed their commitments however, leaving the UK to curry favour with Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia through arms exports.

Internal displacement camps

The human consequences of the UK’s actions are crowded into settlements for Internally Displaced People (IDPs). In 2020, around 172,000 people were displaced inside the country. So far in 2021, in February alone, around 10,000 people had to flee their homes as a result of the escalation of fighting in the Marib region. 

Around 64 per cent of families living in these camps have no sources of income or land, and no way to rebuild. They either live in the open air, in tents, or use stones and mud to build small cabins that serve as houses. These shelters can easily get damaged during heavy rains, putting their lives at risk. 

A mother sits at the door of a tent in a camp for internally displaced people in Yemen
IDPs live in the open air, in tents, or use stones and mud to build small houses. [Image: PBS]

In camps, IDPs have very limited access to medical help and medication so people die of diseases that could be prevented elsewhere in the world. Viruses spread quickly as there are no facilities that would allow people to wash their hands regularly and maintain good personal hygiene. Moreover, because of overcrowding, distancing oneself from others living in the camp is practically impossible.

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that reducing funding is a ‘death sentence’ for the Yemeni population

Without immediate action and increased financial help from the international community, the crisis is going to rapidly escalate. Not meeting financial assistance targets set by the UN each year means that millions of Yemenis will be pushed into starvation. As long as the UK’s bill for arms deals is bigger than that of foreign aid, the country remains complicit in the crisis.

[Header image: Middle East Monitor]