CAIRO: The United Nations on Monday launched an appeal for countries to fund its response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where more than six years of war has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
At a virtual pledging conference, co-hosed by Sweden and Switzerland, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for $3.85 billion this year to address the impoverished Arab country's dire needs.
“Today, famine is bearing down on Yemen. The race is on, if we want to prevent hunger and starvation from taking millions of lives,” he told the conference.
It was unlikely the response from donors would meet U.N. goals given the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating consequences for economies around the globe. Corruption allegations in Yemen aid operations were also a factor.
Yemen’s war started in 2014 when the Iran-backed rebel Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north. The Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition intervened months later to dislodge the rebels and restore the internationally recognized government.
The conflict has killed some 130,000 people, spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and reversed development gains by 20 years, according to the U.N. Development Program.
Half of Yemen’s health facilities are shuttered or destroyed and 4 million Yemenis have been driven from their homes. The pandemic, cholera epidemics and severe malnutrition among children have led to thousands of additional deaths.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned that more than 16 million people in Yemen will go hungry this year, with already some half a million living in famine-like conditions.
Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who is on a week-long visit to Yemen, warned Monday that aid groups were “catastrophically” underfunded and overstretched.
“It’s outrageous that aid organizations have to beg and scrape the barrel to provide the bare minimum food to help keep Yemenis alive, when the countries who wage war and cause so much of the suffering are still willing to spend magnitudes more on the fighting,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, which leads the military coalition fighting the Houthis, announced it would donate $430 million in aid for Yemen this year to be funneled through the U.N. and related aid agencies. Saudi Arabia had pledged half a billion dollars in 2020, the largest amount pledged by any country.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken led the U.S. delegation to the conference, which took place amid efforts by President Joe Biden's administration to bring an end to the conflict.
Blinken said the U.S. would donate $191 million in aid for Yemen this year, a decrease of about $35 million from the amount it announced in the 2020 pledging conference.
He called for a cease-fire and for warring parties to halt their interference in aid operations and “allow assistance to reach the innocent women, children, and men.”
“We can end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen by ending the war in Yemen,” Blinken said.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soereide said Norway would earmark 200 million kroner ($23 million) to Yemen. She said she was “deeply worried” by the situation and that “the enormous need in Yemen is man-made.”
Wealthy countries, such as the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cut back drastically on aid to Yemen last year. The reductions came amid the pandemic, corruption allegations and concerns the aid might not be reaching its intended recipients in territories controlled by the rebels.
Last year, aid agencies received about $1.9 billion — half of what was needed and half of what was given the previous year, according to David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee.
Mohammed Abdul-Salam, spokesman for the Houthis, said such pledging conferences “don’t help Yemen as much as they help the aggression countries,” referring to the Saudi-led coalition.
“Halting the aggression and lifting the siege is the biggest aid that can be provided to Yemen,” he said in a series of tweets.
This year’s conference comes amid intense fighting in the central province of Marib, where Houthi rebels renewed their offensive last month to retake the oil-rich province from the internationally recognized government.
The fighting has displaced more than 10,500 people in just three weeks from the district of Sirwah, many of them forced to move for the third time or more since the start of the war, the U.N. migration agency said Monday.
Marib has served as a haven for around 1 million Yemenis who have fled Houthi offensives since the start of the war.