UN’s OCHA chief slams UK for abandoning Yemen to ‘balance its books’

Mark Lowcock believes Britain is causing long-term damage to its international reputation

Sons of Mona Muhammad play football outside their house in Sanaa, Yemen February 27, 2021. Picture taken February 27, 2021. REUTERS/Nusaibah Almuaalemi
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The head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs has accused the UK of turning its back on the “starving people of Yemen” to balance its budget.

Mark Lowcock, the former permanent secretary at the Department for International Development, told The Guardian that the UK decision was "an act of medium and longer term self-harm" for a "relatively small amount of money."

Mr Lowcock’s blunt remarks to the newspaper follow the UK’s slashed aid commitment to the conflict-ridden country.

Earlier this month the UK's Middle East Minister James Cleverly told an online donor conference that the UK would give at least £87m ($121.2m) over the next financial year. That compares to the £160m it pledged at the same summit last year and £214m across 2020.

The UN told the conference attended by more than 100 governments and donors that it was seeking $3.85 billion to prevent famine in Yemen.

After the British government’s announcement, former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who visited Aden in 2019, said he was “deeply disappointed by the decision”.

Another former UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, expressed similar dismay at the UK’s decision. The chief executive of the International Rescue Committee said: “it is hard to imagine a more self-defeating decision for the UK, or disastrous decision for Yemenis.”

“Without funding, UN and humanitarian agencies will have no choice but to scale back life-saving programming and more Yemenis will die,” Mr Miliband said.

Aid groups warned of catastrophe if cuts to funding continued. Six million people in Yemen – half of them children – are without access to clean water or sanitation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Lowcock has said that some four million Yemenis would "continue the slow, agonising and obscene process of starving to death” should aid be cut, and the UN has warned that Yemen faces the worst famine the world has seen for decades.

Last year, Britain decided to reduce its total spending on aid from 0.7 per cent of its gross national income to 0.5 per cent.

Mr Lowcock believes the UK is causing long-term damage to its international reputation. “The UK has had a strong reputation for being a leading donor and a lead player in international development. That has had wider reputational benefits for the UK and that obviously isn’t the case anymore.”

“Everybody can see that the aid budget has been singled out. The government is still borrowing at an unprecedented scale, but it has singled out the aid budget to be slashed”, Mr Lowcock said.

According to information passed to the investigative website openDemocracy, the UK plans to slash its aid to some of the poorest countries by more than 50 per cent.

Leaked discussions held by the Foreign Office include cuts of more than 60 per cent to aid programmes in Somalia, Syria, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The UK aid programme over two years is being cut from £15bn to £10bn.