International donors have pledged $1.35bn in humanitarian aid to war-torn Yemen, well below a $2.41bn fundraising target, according to the United Nations.
The videoconference on Tuesday was organised by the UN and Saudi Arabia, a major player in Yemen’s long-running conflict since it first launched a bombing campaign in 2015 to try to push back Houthi rebels who seized the northern half of the country.
It came as some relief groups say they have been forced to stop their work even as the coronavirus pandemic rips through the country.
“A total of $1.35bn in pledges has been announced from a wide range of donors to the humanitarian response in Yemen including to fight COVID-19,” a UN spokeswoman told reporters.
Mark Lowcock, UN emergency relief coordinator, said the global body would continue its fundraising efforts.
“This is not the end,” he added, calling on donors to pay the funds immediately, since “pledges on their own achieve nothing”.
Saudi Arabia pledged $500m in aid to support a UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen.
The United Kingdom, a leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, stepped in with a new aid package for Yemen worth $200m. The United States, another weapons provider to the kingdom, said it would offer $225mi, while Germany announced $139.8m in assistance to Yemen.
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Rabeeah, the supervisor of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, said he was pleased by the level of attendance, despite the lower than expected pledges.
Al-Rabeeah said the amount raised is a “good response” taking into consideration the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis resulting from it.
Yet, critics question the kingdom’s high-profile role in rallying humanitarian support even as it continues to wage a war – as do the Houthis – that has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The air attacks and fighting on the ground have killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions of others, pushing the impoverished country to the verge of famine and gutting its healthcare facilities.
A spokesman for the Houthis dismissed the Saudi-led conference as a “silly attempt to [gloss over] their crimes”, according to rebel-run Masirah television.
The Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthis killed or wounded 729 children during 2018, accounting for nearly half the total child casualties, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a report to the UN Security Council (UNSC) in July 2019 that blacklisted the alliance for a third year. The UN report said the Houthis killed and wounded 398 children and Yemeni government forces were responsible for 58 child casualties.
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Yemeni researcher and a non-resident fellow at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said the kingdom is trying to repair its international image by changing the conversation.
Saudi Arabia “has always tried to change the narrative of the war and present itself as a backer of the legitimate government, not part of the conflict”, she said.
Addressing the conference, Guterres said aid agencies “are in a race against time” in Yemen, warning that “unless we secure significant funding, more than 30 out of 41 major United Nations programmes … will close in the next few weeks”.
“Today’s pledges will help our United Nations humanitarian agencies and their partners on the ground to continue providing a lifeline to millions of Yemenis,” he added.
Yemen has so far confirmed a total of 354 infections and 84 deaths from the coronavirus – but aid groups believe the actual numbers are much higher.
According to data compiled by the International Rescue Committee, Yemen has one of the world’s lowest testing rates, even compared with other conflict-hit countries, at just 31 tests per one million citizens.
Guterres said reports indicate that mortality rates from COVID-19 in Aden, the temporary seat of Yemen’s internationally-recognised government, are among the highest in the world.
“That is just one sign of what lies ahead, if we do not act now,” he added. “Tackling COVID-19 on top of the existing humanitarian emergency requires urgent action. The pandemic is making it even more difficult and dangerous for humanitarian workers to reach Yemenis with life-saving aid,” he said.
Yemen has been in the grip of a devastating power struggle since the Houthi rebels took over the capital, Sanaa, and other cities late in 2014.
The Houthis’s advance on the Saudi-backed Yemeni government seat of Aden prompted Saudi Arabia to form a military coalition in early 2015 and start its ferocious air campaign against the rebels.