During the pandemic politics in Britain has become a matter of life and death. Usually it matters less than that. To live in a country in which politics is a second-order preoccupation is one of the luxuries of a wealthy democracy. The people of Yemen have no such privilege. In their ill-governed, war-torn country, politics stages the argument between life and death every day. Right now, the prospect of famine is lurking in the shadows. We could choose to help by transferring a small part of our abundant resources to them, who have comparatively little. The biggest story in Budget week is that the Chancellor has failed a moral duty on our behalf.
At a virtual funding conference on 1 March, James Cleverly, the Middle East minister, announced that Britain’s humanitarian contribution to the United Nations target of $3.85bn to aid the plight of the Yemenis is going to be cut in half. Cleverly pledged £87m, which is 40 per cent of what the UK gave in 2020. The Chancellor, contending with an annual deficit of £56bn, has chosen to save £73m here. The decision, along with those of all the other nations that are evading their moral responsibility, is, as the UN secretary-general António Guterres said, “a death sentence”.
The UN has warned that Yemen faces severe famine. As the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has pointed out, Unicef has reported that two million children in Yemen are acutely malnourished. More than a million and a half children have been displaced from their homes during the war there and only a third of the country has access to running water. The Yemeni health system has collapsed under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the Gulf of Aden lies Ethiopia, the country that in 1984 seared famine into popular memory. That is what we might be looking at now. Mark Lowcock, a former permanent secretary at the Department for International Development and now the chief of aid at the UN, said recently that if the people of Yemen do not get the help they need, we will bear witness to “the worst famine the world has seen for decades”. The conditions are in place in Yemen for a huge and avoidable tragedy, and we are walking away.
This is appalling because, as Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, candidly put it, we are “complicit” in the region. In the Yemeni leg of the Saudi-Iran proxy conflict, the UK continues to supply the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition with arms, which is a brutal trade we ought to stop forthwith. These are dire regimes to be wrapped up with. Human rights are routinely violated. The rights of women barely exist. Child marriage, for example, is common.
Yet even more than that, the decision to curtail British help is egregious because children will die as a direct result. Amartya Sen’s pioneering work on famines has shown beyond doubt that they are not caused by an absence of food. They are caused by an absence of entitlements to food. The word “Yemen” means blessed. The Romans contrasted the fertility of Yemen to the rest of the desert. There is food enough in the blighted country but too many people cannot secure it. Money confers an entitlement to food and we have decided to withdraw that money. This is as close to snatching food from the mouths of babes as politics ever gets.
There are two impulses behind this decision, which has its roots in Rishi Sunak’s terrible choice to cut Britain’s aid commitment from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP. The first is pure populism. No doubt it tests well in the focus groups if you mouth some homily or other about charity beginning at home while cutting vital aid to people suffering the slow torture of starvation. I’m sure Sunak will be feted on the Tory chicken-dinner circuit, when it resumes, for his marvellous patriotism.
The second reason for the cut is a fault line between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that is bound to crack and open up over time. Sunak wants to cut spending but Boris Johnson dare not do so. That fundamental disagreement, to which we will have to return, leads to bad decisions, such as taking a pittance from people in a far-flung part of the world who have so little and who live under the yoke of a tyrannical government, and a conflict that promises them nothing but a slow death.
Until now, Britain’s record on humanitarian assistance in Yemen has been good. We have been the world’s largest donor and the aid has worked. It is credited with helping at least 500,000 vulnerable people to buy food and essentials each month; it has helped to treat 55,000 children for malnutrition and it has provided a million people with better water and sanitation. Britain currently holds the pen in the UN Security Council on Yemen and we had until this week the moral authority to persuade others to do their duty, especially in a renewed alliance with the president of the United States, who has just increased his country’s assistance.
The decision to cut the aid budget to 0.5 per cent of GDP still has to pass through parliament. Perhaps enough Conservatives will find it unconscionable to wave it through. The Chancellor, for his part, is happy to offer me a subsidy to eat in a restaurant but he is cutting the funds that allow Yemenis to eat at all. How about the “Help Out To Eat” scheme, Mr Sunak?
The most heartening consensus of the years that ran from Blair and through Cameron to May was the commitment to overseas aid. For a time we were doing the right thing and now, just at the moment that an urgent need is being described, we turn inwards. For shame, Mr Cleverly. For shame, Mr Sunak.
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus