North Africa, West Asia

Yemen’s hopes and expectations - Part 3: living conditions and humanitarian aid

Corruption, war profiteering, and outrageous governance are deepening the severe humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

Helen Lackner
7 February 2020
Yemenis return home after receiving their food rations provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) at a distributing center in Sanaa, Yemen, on Oct. 18, 2019.
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Picture by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

This four part series summarises the main changes in the Yemen crisis during 2019 and suggests what may happen in 2020. Part 1 deals with the Stockholm Agreement, primarily focused on the Huthi-controlled area. Part 2 deals with the crisis which arose within the anti-Huthi coalition between President Hadi’s internationally recognised government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council. Part 3 addresses people’s living conditions, the humanitarian crisis and Part 4 deals with the looming environmental disaster and other environmental issues.

Five years of war, following many others of worsening economic conditions and increased poverty, have taken their toll on the population. Remembering that 70% of Yemen’s now close to 30 million people live in rural areas and that the World Bank estimated in 2018 that around 80% were poor, there is little doubt that Yemenis are living through hell. But again, the situation is different depending on where people are and who is ‘governing’ them. Moreover, profiteers from the war economy have shown zero compassion and have also penetrated the humanitarian sector which is the best known aspect of the war in Europe.

Surviving 5 years of war

People living under Huthi control have to deal with a highly centralised and restrictive environment, with the constant threat of arbitrary arrest on baseless accusations, while their economic circumstances are worsening on a daily basis, due to the lack of jobs and income. Government employees receive half a month’s pay every few months, while the full salary was completely inadequate to maintain a family before the cost of the basic survival basket more than doubled with the war. Most private sector enterprises are either closed or work way below capacity, as people only buy absolute necessities. Rural people cannot survive from their very small holdings and depleted livestock.

Those in the ’liberated’ areas fare slightly better though the above-mentioned constraints are also present. But the impact is less, as these areas receive far more humanitarian assistance coming directly from the main coalition states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, through their national mechanisms. Here it is more difficult to generalise due to the wide range of authorities involved, which have little connection with each other and a wider range of administrative income sources: for example both Mareb and Hadhramaut collect oil revenue income directly and manage their own affairs under their respective governors and use some of it to pay medical, educational and other staff.

Throughout the country, corruption plays a major role in enriching war economy profiteers, whether from direct military related activities, ‘taxation’ of businesses and the citizenry or through their demands from humanitarian actors, international or national. Community and households’ ability to manage their own affairs, develop their economic potential, or relate to line ministries or official local administrations, have been undermined, if not destroyed by a combination of rising war economy and the impact of the massive humanitarian intervention, creating dependency rather than supporting self-reliance.

Economic and financial warfare

In the absence of a military strategy to defeat the Huthis, the coalition and the Hadi government are focusing their efforts on the economic war which causes little suffering to the leaderships, but massive problems for all ordinary people. This is similar to the outcome of most sanctions which cause suffering to the population while leaders successfully manipulate the situation to benefit personally. In Yemen fuel is the prime example.

Financial issues are at the heart of the struggle between the Huthi movement and the IRG

Throughout 2019, import constraints on fuel and particularly diesel have been manipulated by the coalition by restricting imports, by senior internationally recognised government (IRG) officials obtaining contracts at inflated prices without open bidding, and by the Huthis who control the distribution of the limited supplies thus allowing the black market to flourish, a black market which is, of course, run by their allies. All that has been at the expense of the population at large throughout the country who need fuel to pump water for domestic purposes, for the operation of generators and for transport, and thus suffer both shortages and increased cost which they can’t afford.

Financial issues are at the heart of the struggle between the Huthi movement and the IRG and a major element of the war. The transfer of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) to Aden in 2016 has slowed remittance flows, almost stopped payment of salaries, caused the currency to collapse, and worsened inflation.

The list of problems is long. All these actions have contributed significantly to increased poverty but have also allowed senior central bank and other officials to make millions from manipulating exchange rates and operating black markets. The transfer of the CBY resulted in the existence of two rival central banks vying to control the currency and trade. This has reduced commercial imports through their competitive and incompatible administrative requirements from importers, thus limiting the number of traders who have access to the letters of credit essential for the import of fuel and basic food supplies. This has favoured those with good relations with the officials in charge, some of whom have not missed the opportunity for enrichment.

One example among many: after months of negotiations, the factions agreed to put Hodeida fuel revenues in a special account in the Hodeida branch of the Central Bank and use these funds to pay long delayed salaries to civil servants in the Huthi controlled part of the country. By January 2020, this account contained USD 80 million but nothing had been disbursed, as the two sides argued over the list of beneficiaries.

Since December, people have to deal with the additional problems arising from what are now effectively two sets of currencies circulating, as the Huthis have banned the use of new bank notes printed by the internationally recognised government; this is preventing people from accessing salaries and pensions which should reach them from the IRG across the dividing lines. It also prevents routine exchanges within families and with local shopkeepers. People in Huthi controlled areas who have such notes must exchange them for old notes, paper or electronic vouchers or a new ‘e-currency’. Given previous history and the fact that Yemen is still a country where cash is the main payment mechanism, no one trusts this system. The increasing shortage of old bank notes in this part of the country, is yet another problem for daily life.

Humanitarian issues

This week, according to international media, humanitarian efforts have achieved a major success: seven extremely seriously ill women and children were flown out of Sana’a airport for treatment abroad; they are to be followed by another 23. It only took two years since the coalition first announced that such flights would be allowed out of Sana’a airport, which has been closed for more than 3 years. The Ministry of Health estimates that more than 32 000 patients have died in the past two years because they could not be flown out for urgent treatment.

As neatly put by the Norwegian Refugee Council Director "today's move comes too late for thousands of Yemenis who died waiting to leave the country for urgent life-saving care. They were handed a death sentence when the Saudi-led coalition blockaded northern Yemen by closing down the airport in Sana'a over three years ago…There is no justification for punishing very sick civilians by blocking them from accessing medical treatment.” The fact that such a minor action can be described as a major success only demonstrates, yet again, the contempt of decision makers on all sides for the suffering of Yemenis.

Despite the publicity surrounding the very high levels of humanitarian aid and the millions of beneficiaries, significant amounts are diverted by the authorities or distributed on a nepotistic basis rather than objective criteria of need. Access to humanitarian assistance has become increasingly important throughout Yemen, despite the fact that the majority of food and other basic imports are done through commercial channels. In December 2019, the World Food Programme (WFP) assisted close to 13 million people; although this figure is vast, it represents only three quarters of those it recognises as needing food aid and about 60% of those the UN describes as needing humanitarian assistance of one kind or another.

The UN usually publishes annually its Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) and a needs assessment, towards the end of the year. This includes details of its intended programme and is followed by a pledging conference in Geneva around mid-February. Interestingly, unlike previous years, by early February, the UN has not produced any public information about its plan for the year beyond a terse announcement that it will be about USD 3 billion, ie 25% less than in 2019 and reach fewer people, though there is little suggestion that the need was reduced.

This raises the ethical issues of the same states paying to alleviate the humanitarian disaster largely caused by their own military interventions.

A quick overview of the humanitarian sector in 2019 is therefore in order. With its largest HRP ever, requesting USD 4.2 billion for the year, the UN Office for Humanitarian Action achieved a funding level of 84.1% by end January 2020, an excellent record compared to most plans which rarely get financed at more than 70%. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the largest contributors with 54% of this amount. While their contributions to the humanitarian programme of about USD 4 billion is considerable, it pales into insignificance when compared to the amounts these states have spent waging the war, in military materiel, salaries for their national military personnel, for the Yemeni military and militias and for the various mercenaries, primarily the Sudanese.

Expenditure on the war is a well-guarded secret in both KSA and the UAE. This, of course, raises the ethical issues of the same states paying to alleviate the humanitarian disaster largely caused by their own military interventions. For the humanitarian organisations, these ethical aspects are important as they affect their ability to be critical of the coalition states’ activities.

The year also witnessed the previously unmentioned issues of corruption within the humanitarian sector itself. Given the millions involved and the contracting, subcontracting, sub-sub-contracting involved ad infinitum, it is unsurprising that some individuals throughout the chain have used opportunities for personal enrichment. Conflict between the Huthis and the WFP over diversion of aid and identification of beneficiaries led the WFP to suspend distributions in Sana’a City in June 2019; according to an agreement the two entities reached, they were resumed in August, suggesting that this was little more than a cosmetic exercise as the interruption was only partial and the agreement to implement bio-identity data for its beneficiaries has not been implemented.

Small scale misappropriation and favouritism of aid distribution on the ground are found everywhere, as the ultimate distributors are small inadequately monitored organisations many of which have no proven record of probity or competence. The extent of this is difficult to assess, but probably pales into insignificance by comparison with what is happening at various headquarters. In May 2019 there were revelations of large sums of money misappropriated by staff of the World Health Organisation, involving national and international individuals and the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of US dollars; UNICEF also found cases of corruption within its network.

Earlier in the year, Yemenis started a campaign, ‘Where has the money gone’? which publishes information on numerous cases, though they don’t always provide evidence. There is no doubt that millions of Yemenis are suffering increasingly from the crisis and the war, but it is clear that those benefiting from humanitarian aid and support also include individuals and organisations which are appropriating goods and cash for personal gain. This takes place at the expense of those who are in real need.

A further important problem is that much assistance provided directly by the Saudis and the UAE goes primarily to the less populated areas out of Huthi control, and that in some of these areas, people are receiving far more than they can use. But the Huthis prevent them from sending it to friends and relatives in Huthi controlled areas where the majority of the population in desperate need reside.

The Huthis are also involved in a whole range of issues concerning humanitarian assistance. One example was the above mentioned WFP plan to create biometric registration of beneficiaries, intended to prevent fraud and the diversion of their assistance. The Huthis also regularly accuse the WFP and others of importing food unsuitable for human consumption, though others have pointed out that they prevent distribution till food has deteriorated. The most outrageous example, described by the German representative at the UN Security Council as another case of “incomprehensible degree of cynicism and barbarism” was the situation of the Red Sea Mills in Hodeida. Its stocks of wheat sufficient to feed 3.7 million people for a month, were kept inaccessible for more than six months, allowing the food to deteriorate. Even when access was restored, this was only partial and insufficient to allow for the use of all the flour.

The delayed announcement of details and appeals for the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2020 reflects the complex negotiations both with financiers and with authorities on the ground. It also illustrates the ongoing politicisation of all aspects of the Yemeni crisis for the benefit of warlords and senior politicians. In the next part, further outrageous aspects of the crisis will be discussed, focusing on the environment.

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