UN raises $1.2 bn for Yemen aid as needs soar

Yemenis receive food aid amid a hunger crisis, in Sana'a, Yemen, 26 February 2023. (Keystone/EPA/Yahya Arhab)

The United Nations has raised around $1.2 billion for aid to Yemen, where humanitarian needs continue to soar despite a stalemate between the warring parties after eight years of conflict.

The UN appealed on Monday for $4.3 billion in aid to help 17.3 million people across Yemen. A total of 31 countries announced pledges during the conference in Geneva amounting to around $1.2bn.

Addressing the meeting, which was co-hosted by Switzerland and Sweden, UN emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths thanked donors for their contributions and noted that more pledges were likely to be announced in the coming days.

“Thank you for coming here and by doing so expressing solidarity with the people of Yemen,” said Griffiths, who served as UN special envoy to Yemen from 2018 until 2021.

The European Union announced $207 million in aid during the conference – the largest pledge made by the bloc since the start of the conflict. Other commitments were made by the United Arab Emirates, which announced $325m, $127m from Germany, $105m (£88m) from the United Kingdom and around $15.4m (CHF 14.5m) from Switzerland.

The United States pledged more than $444 million for this year’s humanitarian response, bringing its total contribution since the start of Yemen’s war to $5.4bn. The US is Yemen’s top donor, and provided nearly $1.1bn last year.

Addressing the opening of the conference, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres urged donors to increase their support for Yemen despite record global humanitarian needs stretching donor support like never before.

“I am acutely aware that humanitarian needs worldwide are the highest they have ever been, and I know resources are stretched thin,” he said. “But I also know that your support can be the difference between life and death.”

“Together, let us at long last turn the tide of suffering. Let us give hope to the people of Yemen,” he added. “We have a real opportunity this year to change Yemen's trajectory and move towards peace.”

Underfunding has forced agencies to scale back their humanitarian operations in Yemen in recent years. Last year donors gave $2.2bn of the $4.3bn appealed for by the UN.

Speaking after the conference, Erin Hutchinson, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Yemen director, said the amount raised was “woefully inadequate”.

“The international community today showed it has abandoned Yemen at this crucial crossroads, with a mere quarter of the amount needed to support the millions of Yemenis who require urgent assistance,” he said in a statement.

“The consequences of this disgraceful shortfall in aid will undoubtedly be dire for the people of Yemen, who will continue to suffer and face tremendous hardship as a result.”

World’s worst humanitarian crisis

Yemen’s Saudi-led military coalition has been warring with the Iran-aligned Houthi group since Houthi rebels ousted Yemen’s internationally-recognised government from the capital, Sana’a, in late 2014. The high-level pledging event is the seventh of its kind held for Yemen since the conflict began.

Humanitarian agencies have frequently referred to Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of people have been killed during the war, which has devastated infrastructure, ravaged the economy and left two thirds of the population – 21 million people – in need of humanitarian assistance. At least 4.3 million Yemenis have been internally displaced.

A UN-brokered truce agreed last April has led to the longest break in fighting since the conflict began. The truce has largely held despite expiring in October without an agreement from the warring sides to extend it.

However, Griffiths told the conference that, although there had been “significant signs of progress” in the country in recent months, “Yemen remains a massive emergency”.

“The Yemeni crisis has gone on for too long, punishing millions of innocent people who didn’t want it in the first place,” he said. “Millions of people [are] going hungry, forced from their homes, facing disease, rights violations and much, much more.”

“In Yemen, as in other chronic crises around the world, progress is indeed possible. We have seen the way,” he added. “There is a risk, however, that with progress – no matter how fragile or recent – the world may assume that things will now take care of themselves. They will not.”

Yemen is also at the forefront of the global climate crisis, the UN warned, with recurrent natural disasters such as severe drought and flooding threatening people’s lives, safety and wellbeing.

Meanwhile, underfunding has forced humanitarian organisations to scale back their aid operations in recent years.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that last year was the first time in 11 years that its operations for the country were underfunded. ICRC’s director Robert Mardini said funding shortages risked “turbo-charging Yemen’s humanitarian woes from bad to worse”.

“This is a worrying development which, if not reversed, will undermine the progress of neutral and impartial humanitarian action,” he said.

Large swathes of the country face food shortages, with food insecurity compounded by the war in Ukraine which has majorly disrupted food supplies. Before Moscow’s invasion, Yemen relied on Russia and Ukraine for half of its food supplies.

Aid workers have also faced increasing access constraints in Yemen in recent months. Last year, humanitarian agencies reported more than 3,000 access incidents affecting the provision of assistance to more than five million people, according to the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA).

UN chief Guterres said “bureaucratic impediments, interference” and “movement restrictions” were making it much harder to reach affected populations, particularly in Houthi-controlled areas.

The UN has also said that the imposition of strict mahram requirements, again primarily in Houthi-controlled areas, have had a significant impact on its operations. New regulations brought in by the Houthi de facto authorities have prevented Yemeni women aid workers from travelling without a male guardian both inside and outside the country, curbing the work of aid agencies and limiting the participation of female staff while also severing access to women and girls in the country.

Guterres called on all parties of the conflict to “facilitate the safe, rapid, and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to all civilians in need, in line with obligations under international humanitarian law”.

“Humanitarians – including female Yemeni aid workers – must be able to carry out their work safely, independently, rapidly, and without hindrance or arbitrary restrictions,” he added.

Reason for hope

While the humanitarian situation facing millions of Yemenis remains dire, participants in the conference hailed some progress in recent months, including the truce brokered last April. Civilian casualties and displacement have fallen sharply since the truce, while commercial cargo has entered the Red Sea ports and flights resumed from Sana’a airport.

“We ended last year with a measure of hope for the future of Yemen,” Guterres told the conference. “After years of death, displacement, destruction, starvation and suffering, the truce delivered real dividends for people.”

Although the truce expired last October, many of its key provisions have remained in place while some have expanded, the UN’s Griffiths told the conference, including measures to allow more commercial imports into the Red Sea ports.

“This stirs hope,” he said. “Intensive efforts are now under way to renew, expand and make solid that truce and help Yemen move towards peace.”

“Peace is, as anywhere else, the greatest gift that could be given to the people of Yemen. And we may now hope that may be closer than ever,” he added.

However, participants noted that while the truce may have brought some long-awaited relief to Yemenis, the humanitarian situation remained severe.

“Yes, key provisions have remained in place. But the economy is in enormous difficulties. Basic services risk collapse. And humanitarian needs continue to soar, while access is constrained, and funding perennially falls short,” Guterres said.

There has also been a significant reduction in the number of people facing famine in the past 12 months, according to UN agencies. The World Food Programme (WFP) said the number of people living in famine-like conditions had fallen from 161,000 to zero in the past year.

However, executive director David Beasley warned that gains were fragile and could be reversed if the international community did not continue its support.

The WFP, which provides food assistance for 13 million people in Yemen and is seeking $2.9 million for its operations in the country this year, said funding shortfalls have forced it to run its activities at reduced levels and cut food rations. Since June, five million people have been receiving half of their daily needs and eight million just a quarter.

“Please don’t turn your backs on the people of Yemen in their time of greatest needs,” Beasley said in a video statement. “They are all counting on all of us to continue saving their lives and investing in a more peaceful and stable future for their nation.”

The UN appealed for the same amount – $4.3bn – for Yemen last year. It raised over $2.2bn, which allowed it to reach nearly 11 million people across the country each month. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Germany and the EU were the top four donors last year.

The UN’s Griffiths noted that a similar amount to the $1.2bn pledged during Monday’s conference was raised at last year’s event, with a further $1bn raised afterwards.