The United Nations made an urgent plea for funding to shore up operations in Yemen, saying it has already been forced to stop some humanitarian work just as the coronavirus rips through the country.
Some 75 percent of UN programmes in Yemen have had to shut their doors or reduce operations. The global body’s World Food Programme had to cut rations in half and UN-funded health services were reduced in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.
“It‘s almost impossible to look a family in the face, to look them in the eyes and say, ‘I‘m sorry but the food that you need in order to survive we have to cut in half,‘” Lise Grande, resident UN coordinator for Yemen, told The Associated Press.
The dwindling funds are the result of several factors, but among the top reasons is obstruction by Yemen‘s Houthi rebels, who control the capital, Sanaa, and other territories. The United States, one of the largest donors, decreased its aid to Yemen earlier this year, citing interference by the Houthis.
It is yet to be seen whether the Houthis will allow monitoring and oversight, or give UN agencies the space to operate.
A UN pledging conference for Yemen on Tuesday seeks $2.41bn to cover essential activities from June to December.
Grande said the Houthis are working to become more transparent and she hopes this will encourage donor countries to give aid.
Her optimism, however, comes as the rebels face heavy criticism for suppressing information about the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities in areas they control, while putting no mitigation measures in place.
Tuesday’s conference will be co-hosted for the first time by Saudi Arabia – a major player in Yemen‘s civil war since it first unleashed a bombing campaign in 2015 to try to push back the Iran-aligned Houthis who seized the northern half of the country.
Critics question the Saudis’ high-profile role in rallying humanitarian support even as they continue to wage a war – as do the Houthis – that has created the world‘s worst humanitarian crisis.
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Yemeni researcher and a non-resident fellow at the Sana‘a 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.
In past years, the kingdom has been one of the top donors for UN humanitarian aid operations in Yemen. The Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, said the kingdom will allocate half a billion dollars this year to support UN programmes, including $25m for a COVID-19 response plan.
The UN itself has also investigated allegations of corruption and diversion of aid in Yemen in its own ranks.
Reports indicate the coronavirus is spreading at an alarming rate throughout the country.
Among the slashed programmes is financial support for thousands of health workers who have not received salaries from the government for nearly three years. Grande said just a week before the first coronavirus case was announced in Yemen, aid agencies had to stop paying health workers.
Without salaries, medical staff will not be able to provide health services to patients amid the pandemic. Since April, authorities in areas controlled by Yemen‘s internationally recognised government reported 283 cases, including 85 deaths. The Houthis declared only four cases, including one death.
The UN received $3.6bn in 2019 in international donations for its campaign, short of its $4.2bn goal. For its 2020 plan, it has so far received only 15 percent of the necessary $3.5bn.
Yemen has been caught in a grinding war since 2014 when Houthi rebels descended from their northern enclave and took over Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognised president to flee. In the spring of 2015, a US-backed, Saudi-led coalition began a destructive air campaign to dislodge the Houthis while imposing a land, sea and air embargo on Yemen.
The air war and fighting on the ground have killed more than 100,000 people, shut down or destroyed half of Yemen‘s health facilities and driven millions of Yemenis from their homes.