UN calls for Yemen aid to be maintained after US cutbacks

UN spokesman Farhan Haq said cash should continue flowing to health clinics and refugee shelters amid mounting concerns over the Covid-19 pandemic

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks in a street in the capital Sanaa, amid concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus, on March 28, 2020. Yemen's broken healthcare system has not so far recorded a case of the COVID-19 illness, but aid groups have warned that when it does hit, the impact will be catastrophic in a country already regarded as facing the world's worst humanitarian crisis. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS
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The United Nations has urged donors to continue funding aid work in Houthi-held north Yemen, even as the United States stopped sending money to the region in the face of interference by the armed rebels there.

Speaking with The National, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said cash should continue flowing to health clinics and refugee shelters across the north, amid mounting concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic would reach the war-torn country.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres “has been clear in his call for everyone to do everything possible to maintain principled humanitarian assistance at the scale required. Millions of people depend on this assistance to survive across Yemen,” said Mr Haq.

Mr Haq noted the concerns of Washington and others that the Houthi hardliners have made humanitarian “work more difficult” in northern Yemen with “untenable” restrictions on aid teams and their projects.

“Senior humanitarian officials have been having frank discussions with the de facto authorities in the north, conveying the seriousness of the concerns we’re facing and outlining what the impact could be,” Mr Haq said on Friday.

“We’ve seen important progress on some of the toughest issues.”

On Friday, the US administration of President Donald Trump began cutting millions of dollars of funding through its USAID agency to rebel-held north Yemen, accusing the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels there of “unacceptable interference” in aid work.

A USAID spokesman said the Houthis had “failed to demonstrate sufficient progress” on access for humanitarians. The US would continue funding for the “most urgent life-saving assistance” and was assessing the risk from Covid-19 in Yemen.

Funding cuts by the Republican-led administration were quickly bashed by Democratic lawmakers and the aid group Oxfam. Both referenced the Covid-19 pathogen, which has ripped through the Middle East but is not understood to have reached Yemen.

Democratic lawmakers including Adam Smith and Eliot Engel, who chair the House armed services and foreign affairs committees respectively, warned against cutbacks amid a pandemic that has claimed some 29,000 lives globally.

“This certainly and needlessly leads to more lives lost,” they wrote in a letter to USAID administrator Mark Green and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday. “We urge the administration not to re-program funding for Yemen assistance.”

Aid agency Oxfam said the US was expected to cut between US$100-$200m from its annual spending in Yemen, which amounted to more than $746 million pledged in last year’s response plan, much of which was directed to government-held areas.

Aid groups that run projects in north Yemen using USAID cash, such as Islamic Relief, Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps, are understood to be assessing which programs will be affected.

Scott Paul, Oxfam’s point-man on Yemen policy, who has been briefed by USAID administrators, said the cuts would cause shortages of soap and other washing gear that would be vital in the event of a coronavirus outbreak in Yemen.

Millions of Yemeni civilians “have been forced from their homes, living in cramped quarters where it will be nearly impossible to stop the spread of Covid-19 should it arrive,” Paul said in a statement.

“It will require a sweeping effort – with extraordinary international support – to limit its damage.”

The UN, big donors and charities have repeatedly bashed the Houthis for diverting aid for their own purposes, including with a 2 per cent tax on aid imports and red tape strangling humanitarian schemes. The tax was not implemented.

Aid teams struggle to get medicine, food, fuel and other life-saving supplies to Yemenis nationwide amid the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but restrictions in Houthi-held areas are worse than elsewhere, according to the UN.

The funding cuts come amid a ceasefire and raised hopes of traction in peace talks between Yemen’s warring forces. This week, UN chief Mr Guterres urged all armed groups globally to put down their guns during the pandemic — a call that appears to have been heeded in Yemen.

Colonel Turki Al Malki, spokesman for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that is fighting in Yemen, said he supported the UN ceasefire and a military drawdown. Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al Houthi said in a tweet that he “welcomed” the coalition’s announcement.

The Houthis ousted President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi’s government from Sanaa towards the end of 2014, prompting military intervention in 2015 by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Fighting has left 24.1 million people needing aid.