Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War

The Sana’a Center Editorial

The international relief agencies themselves have become prisoners to the war in Yemen, with their efforts having been mutated from helping to address the country’s suffering into prolonging it. The principal belligerents on one side – Saudi Arabia and until recently the United Arab Emirates, heavily backed by the United States and the United Kingdom – are by far also the largest contributors to the humanitarian relief effort. This allows them to say they are saving Yemeni lives on the one hand while taking them with the other, to say they are feeding Yemen while destroying the economy and infrastructure by which the country might feed itself. Were Yemen to fall into widespread famine, the war would become untenable among the ‘international community’, and thus providing relief funds is self-serving for these belligerents, allowing them to continue prosecuting the conflict in search of their desired ends.  

Given that the majority of Yemen’s population lives in the north most of this aid has gone to areas controlled by the other side. The armed Houthi movement has so thoroughly corralled United Nations agencies and aid organizations that the relief effort, worth almost US$4 billion in 2019 alone, now forms a critical source of rent and influence for the group’s own war effort. This situation came about as a result of the UN and aid organizations progressively and profoundly surrendering their humanitarian principles to try and secure access to needy populations. In doing so, however, these humanitarian actors have reluctantly been providing hefty subsidies for Houthi operations – which include weaponizing starvation, recruiting child soldiers, planting millions of landmines in civilian areas, sexual violence and mass campaigns of arrest and torture.

Humanitarian workers, speaking to the Sana’a Center, have described how, once international aid enters northern areas, the Houthi authorities essentially dictate to UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations the terms of how it is stored and transported, where and when it is distributed, and to whom. Houthi forces have used their control over access to aid, or the threat of its denial, as a means to recruit soldiers from hungry communities in Yemen, to reward support or punish dissent in northern areas, and for cash income through selling the aid supplies on the market. At times corruption has also taken hold within the aid effort itself, with The Associated Press last year revealing a scheme by a small group of foreign staff to embezzle millions of dollars from the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, UN and INGO attempts to verify aid recipients, monitor distribution and even collect basic data for population needs assessments are made nearly impossible due to Houthi-imposed bureaucratic delays, access restrictions and permit denials.

While the UN regularly publishes numbers regarding how many millions of people in Yemen are facing imminent famine, food insecure or otherwise in humanitarian need, it has been extremely difficult to verify these statistics with on-the-ground surveys. Indeed, evidence suggests that in some locations needs have been inflated to garner more resources, while at the same time other areas remain overlooked and underserved. Put another way, no definitive data actually exists to confirm the often-stated claim that Yemen is “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”, though it may be the world’s worst humanitarian response.  

There is without question immense humanitarian need in Yemen; however, many UN and INGO staff on the ground – the people in the best position to know – have lost confidence that the relief effort, as it is currently being conducted, is helping the situation. At best, it is offering a few Yemenis the brief reprieve humanitarian aid is meant to provide, but in exchange for indefinite suffering through a drawn-out conflict.

Recent international threats to withdraw aid funds from northern areas if the Houthi authorities do not loosen their throttle hold over the relief effort have shown a degree of success – such as getting the Houthis to agree to back down on a proposed 2 percent tax on all humanitarian operations, though indications are that the Houthis are pursuing other avenues to recoup these funds from relief agencies. And even here the response of the humanitarian actors is ethically fraught. It is because the United Nations had been so fearful of losing access that the humanitarian effort became so compromised, and the UN only began to meaningfully confront the Houthis last year after it was forced to by media reports exposing the rampant and systematic theft of food aid. Talks between the World Food Programme, which receives the lion’s share of all aid funding, and the Houthi authorities regarding the implementation of biometric registration for aid recipients dragged on for much of 2019 with no tangible results. Meanwhile, Houthi restrictions on the humanitarian effort continued to escalate. After behind-the-scenes pressure from the UN and INGOs to convince the Houthis the change course yielded no results, donors – among the more vocal being the United States Agency for International Development – have stepped in and are publicly threatening to withdraw funding for UN and INGO operations in Yemen to force concessions from the Houthis.

While the heads of UN agencies were confronted with crushing responsibility and immensely difficult choices during the Yemen conflict, they are also meant to be the standard bearers of humanitarian principles in the world. In this, the UN abdicated its responsibility in Yemen. Into this vacuum, the donors – the largest of whom are active belligerents on one side of this conflict – are now stepping in. This sets a new, dangerous precedent and further erodes the UN’s ability to direct a needs-based relief effort that is autonomous from the objectives – political, economic, military or otherwise – of actors in this war.


This editorial appeared in The War Over Aid – The Yemen Review, January/February 2020

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