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3 March 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 2:36pm

Mass famine looms in Yemen – and the international community is standing by

A pledging conference organised by the UN raised less than half the sum required to avert famine in “the most fragile state in the world”.

By Ido Vock

A UN pledging conference this week for Yemen, intended to avert what it warned could be one of the worst famines in recent history, ended with less than half the sum sought being donated.

Famine has threatened the country since at least 2016, around two years after the civil war broke out between government forces and Houthi rebels. A coalition of external forces, led by Saudi Arabia, has been intervening in aid of the government since 2015, supported by Western powers, in particular the US and UK.

But the effects of the coronavirus pandemic may have exacerbated a slide towards severe famine, with Covid-19 putting a minimally resourced medical system under increased pressure, and slowing economies and border closures across the world limiting remittances from Yemenis working abroad. Sixteen million people, half of Yemen’s population, are going hungry, the UN estimates. Eighty per cent of the country’s population are in need of humanitarian aid, including more than 12 million children, according to Unicef, a UN agency.

As a result, at the conference this week UN secretary-general António Guterres and the organisation’s humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, appealed to donors for $3.85bn of aid, without which they warned millions of Yemenis would starve.

“Major humanitarian crises tend to spawn other problems. And unless they’re contained, you find you’re dealing with things that you didn’t expect to have to deal with,” Lowcock told a group of reporters before the conference. “What is alarming about the situation we’re in now is that there’s been such a big drop-off in support for the aid operation that we’ve been cutting aid to starving people.”

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Only $1.7bn was raised by the conference, however, less than half the target. The disappointing result makes Yemen’s prospects even bleaker. It is also around $1bn less than the sum raised at a previous conference in 2019.

Saudi Arabia was the single largest donor to the conference, offering $430m. Yet this pales in comparison to the cost of its military campaign, estimated at tens of billions yearly – several times the sum the UN was asking for in overall aid this week.

[See also: World Review podcast: Aid in the time of Covid]

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The UK, for its part, slashed about 50 per cent of its funding to Yemen, which has been linked to a government decision (not yet passed into law by parliament) to cut its foreign aid spending from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent. The cut compounds a natural fall in spending as UK GDP has fallen as a result of the recession caused by Covid.

At Prime Minister’s Questions today (3 March), Labour leader Keir Starmer’s questions about the cut in Yemen aid led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to bemoan inquiries about “the interests of the people of Yemen”.

Abdulghani al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Centre for Strategic Studies, told the New Statesman that countries that have sold weapons to the Saudi-led coalition have a special obligation towards Yemen. “They have an ethical and moral and legal responsibility to relieve the famine.”

Activists have accused the US and UK of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia that have been used by Saudi-led forces in Yemen. The UK recently declined to suspend offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia even after Joe Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to do so in the US, citing human rights concerns.

In a report published this week, the Disasters Emergency Committee NGO found that all of the country directors and senior aid workers it had surveyed about the crisis believe that the humanitarian situation in Yemen – which it called “the most fragile state in the world” – was the worst it has been for a decade, with the pandemic having led to an increase in childhood malnutrition.

Aidan O’Leary, director for polio eradication at the World Health Organisation and a former head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, said in the report that: “[Yemen] is on the verge of famine and [risks] being in a very serious famine in six months’ time.”

Guterres said before this week’s pledging conference that “childhood in Yemen is a special kind of hell”. The international community’s failure to raise even half the sum the UN believes necessary to avert famine in the country make a looming humanitarian disaster appear ever-more likely.

[See also: Mark Lowcock on vaccine nationalism]