UK cut in aid to Yemen is ‘death sentence’

Neglected victims: A UN appeal for aid last year reached barely half its $3.4bn target. © UNHCR

Should the Yemen crisis be the only big story this week? Despite the UN warning that it faces the worst famine the world has seen for decades and is ‘falling off a cliff’, aid is drying up.

Suddenly the teacher in charge of Yasser Ahmed’s class stopped speaking. What was that noise? The answer was all too familiar: bombs. The Saudi Arabian air force was launching yet another attack on Sanaa. In a moment, everybody in the school was on their feet, running for shelter. But for one of Yasser’s classmates, it was to no avail: one of the bombs killed him.

That was in 2016. “After years in the same war, we’ve become used to it,” says Yasser, now a student at one of Sanaa’s universities. “We don’t react any more.”

Yasser is one of the millions of Yemenis caught up in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Since the beginning of the country’s civil war six years ago, more than 18,000 civilians have been killed. An estimated 13.5 million people have faced severe food shortages. Every ten minutes, a child dies of a preventable illness.

The seeds of the conflict lie in the Arab Spring of 2011, which brought about a change of leadership in Yemen. While the new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, struggled with a variety of political and economic problems, the rebel Houthi movement saw its chance.

The Houthis represent a Shia Muslim minority, but have won support from other Yemenis dissatisfied with Hadi’s government. Early in 2015, their fighters won control of Sanaa, forcing Hadi to flee abroad.

But Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, were deeply alarmed by the Houthis’ success, believing that Iran was using them to increase its power in the region. In response, nine states formed a coalition and began an air campaign to defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi to power. The US, UK and France gave them logistical and intelligence support.

The coalition managed to drive the Houthis out of southern Yemen, but not the north. In 2018, the crisis worsened when the coalition attacked Hudayah, a port on the Red Sea through which 80% of aid to Yemen passes. The UN warned that if it were destroyed, a disastrous famine would ensue.

Under international pressure, a ceasefire was agreed upon. But then fighting broke out between the different factions allied to President Hadi. One of them, the STC, seized control of Aden and announced it was setting up a separate state.

Covid-19 has made the situation even worse: not only are people dying from it, but travel restrictions have impeded overseas aid. On top of that, Yemen’s crops have been attacked by locust swarms, adding to food shortages.

With the start of the pandemic, Saudi Arabia called for an end to the fighting. But the Houthis have now launched an offensive against Marib, the government’s only stronghold in the north. It is feared that 500,000 people could be driven from their homes.

According to the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Yemen is “about to fall off a cliff”. The country, he says, is heading for “the worst famine the world has seen for decades”.

Should the Yemen crisis be the only front-page story this week?

Rationed compassion

Some say, no. It is only sensible for newspapers to focus on issues that immediately concern their readers. In countries not directly affected, that overwhelmingly means Covid-19. You can hardly expect people to engage with a highly complicated situation in a country few of them know anything about when even political experts find it hard to offer a ready solution.

Others argue that if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we all need to look out for each other. The suffering in Yemen is simply appalling, and can only be stopped if public opinion forces governments to step in. It makes no sense that papers around the world give headlines to the suffering of the Uighurs in China, but relegate the far more numerous victims of Yemen’s war to the foreign pages.

You Decide

  1. Does it make sense for countries to spend money on foreign aid when the pandemic has done huge damage to their own economies?
  2. Is it right for other countries to get involved in a conflict like Yemen’s, or does it only make things worse?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of Yemen. Research five interesting facts about the country and try to include them to make a powerful infographic.
  2. Imagine that you are the editor of a newspaper. Design and write a front page for tomorrow’s edition with the crisis in Yemen as your main story.

Some People Say...

“No man can write who is not first a humanitarian.”

William Faulkner (1897 - 1962), American novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the change of president in the US has shifted the dynamic of the conflict. Donald Trump was strongly anti-Iran and officially designated the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). Joe Biden is keen to build bridges with Iran, and recognises the need for the Houthis’ co-operation in distributing emergency aid, so has revoked their FTO status. But critics argue that he should not have done that without securing concessions from them first.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Britain, which has been the biggest supplier of aid to Yemen, will now cut it back. Boris Johnson is reported to be planning a reduction of over 50%, from £187m a year to £90m. But many Conservative MPs are horrified by the idea, and could defeat the move. One, Andrew Mitchell, warns that it would be condemning four million people to death by starvation; another, Tobias Ellwood, adds that it would strengthen Al Qaeda, which is based in Yemen.

Word Watch

Sanaa
Yemen’s largest city, it is both one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and one of the highest, at 2,300 metres above sea level.
Houthi
Officially called Ansar Allah, it dates from the 1990s. Its members belong to the Zaidi sect.
Shia Muslim
Around 8% of Muslims are Shi’ites. They believe that the prophet Muhammad appointed his son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib his successor before he died.
Sunni
Around 90% of Muslims are Sunnis. They do not accept that Muhammad chose Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor.
Logistical
To do with organising the movement of troops and equipment. It has also come to be used for non-military planning.
STC
Short for the Southern Transition Council.
Aden
A port city on the south coast of Yemen which has been its temporary capital since 2015.

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