"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.
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.