The UN's losing battle to fight famine in Yemen

Vital donations have been declining throughout the years, even as the conflict deteriorates
epa09045435 A displaced Yemeni boy carries a UNHCR bucket at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen, 01 March 2021. The five-year al-Azraqeen IDPs camp in the northern outskirts of Sana'a was rebuilt by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2020 with orange wooden huts in place of the tents and small stone huts that the displaced people were using as their refuges. The camp hosts more than 60 displaced families, who were forcibly displaced by the escalating fighting in the northern areas of Yemen. The prolonged conflict has plunged Yemen into the world's largest humanitarian crisis with an estimated 80 percent of Yemen's 29 million-population are in need of humanitarian assistance, and led to the displacement of more than three million people.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB

"Childhood in Yemen is a special kind of hell." Antonio Guterres, the UN SecretaryGeneral, did not mince his words at Monday's fundraising meeting for the country. More than three quarters of Yemen's population are expected to go hungry this year. Five million are at risk of famine.

And yet, foreign aid to the nation is faltering. In 2020, the UN received $1.9 billion, a little over half the amount it requested. This year, the total fell to $1.7bn, now under 50 per cent of the target figure of $3.85bn. This is just money pledged. The amounts delivered are frequently less.

As funding decreases, the intensity of Yemen's crisis increases. Houthi terrorists maintain their grip on large parts of the country and, by the day, are pushing further into new territory.

Economic recovery from Covid-19 is the top priority for governments across the world. Foreign aid budgets are regarded as easy targets for spending cuts. And when crises drag on, some donors can become weary. Others insist on maintaining their commitments. Saudi Arabia has committed $430 million, by far the largest annual pledge of any country at the meeting. The UAE promised $230m, America $191m and Germany $240m. The future of Yemen has global consequences, and the effort to secure it must involve more countries.

epa09045447 A displaced Yemeni child ride a bicycle at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen, 01 March 2021. The five-year al-Azraqeen IDPs camp in the northern outskirts of Sana'a was rebuilt by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2020 with orange wooden huts in place of the tents and small stone huts that the displaced people were using as their refuges. The camp hosts more than 60 displaced families, who were forcibly displaced by the escalating fighting in the northern areas of Yemen. The prolonged conflict has plunged Yemen into the world's largest humanitarian crisis with an estimated 80 percent of Yemen's 29 million-population are in need of humanitarian assistance, and led to the displacement of more than three million people.  EPA/YAHYA ARHAB
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This year, total pledges fell to $1.7bn, under 50 per cent of the target figure of $3.85bn

Meanwhile, the UK, which has tried to rebrand itself as "Global Britain", has slashed its 2021 contribution. London has promised $121m, almost half of what it pledged in 2020. While frugality is not a bad quality for a state to have, well-spent  foreign aid is an investment that can pay big dividends in terms of national security and international influence.

Donor reluctance is understandable. There is room for international organisations to spend more efficiently, and some experts justifiably wonder whether money would be used more efficiently if given directly to local governments, even in cases where they may misappropriate a portion of it or struggle without the full capacity to deploy the funds. To keep the pipeline flowing smoothly, the UN must enhance its efforts to maximise the returns for the intended beneficiaries of aid – that is to say, civilians on the ground. More engagement from donor countries, not less, will help to hold the organisation to high standards.

But used well, there is no doubt that aid saves lives. In 2018 and 2019, when the UN World Food Programme sought funds to fight global hunger, the success of its appeal helped to stave off famine.

Of course, foreign aid is not the total solution to Yemen's crisis. Houthi rebels continue hold the country hostage, killing and injuring the innocent, preventing the flow of aid into certain areas and using the impending environmental catastrophe of FSO Safer – a stranded, decaying tanker loaded with oil that could explode at any moment – as a bargaining chip.

But all the same, choosing to step back from foreign aid now, would make a bad situation worse.