Politics /

Eighty percent of Yemen’s population is in need of humanitarian aid, but the Houthi coalition is threatening to cut off the vital flow of funding. The threat — designed to coerce the UN to give Houthi leadership more control of the funds — has prompted international donors to reassess humanitarian donations, imperiling the lives of millions of civilians, according to The Associated Press.

Siphoning Money Intended to Prevent Starvation

Last year, the rebel group demanded a 2% tax on the aid, but it walked back that condition last week. Already, Houthi-aligned governments received $370 million per year for operating expenses and salaries. However, the UN has started to scrutinize how the funds are spent. In 2019, a third of the allocation was not audited according to an internal review obtained by the AP. 

Houthi rebels have long been suspected of siphoning money intended for humanitarian purposes. When the UN requested an audit from every agency distributing money to the war-torn state, reports revealed multiple instances of employees receiving multiple salaries, including the president of the Supreme Council for Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and International Cooperation (SCMCHA), the Houthi organization in charge of handling aid disbursement.

SCMCHA also spent $1.2 million from the UN’s refugee and migration agencies to refurbish an office.

UN Coordinator: ‘We Have to Fix the Situation’

Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator, has led a comprehensive analysis of aid disbursed to Yemen. UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Grande was “genuinely shocked when she learned about the arrangements.” 

“She had no idea about the scale of it,” one of them remarked. “Her reaction after that was, we have to fix the situation.”

Grande’s efforts led to the World Food Program temporarily halting aid before implementing biometric identification procedures for beneficiaries. The measure to prevent money from going to people not designated as beneficiaries was eventually cancelled by Houthi leadership.

UNICEF also began to reevaluate all 243 of its Yemeni partners and decided to pay suppliers and contractors directly, rather than through the Houthi group. In retaliation, Houthi leadership began a media campaign portraying UNICEF as “corrupt and wasteful.”

A Demand for Control

SCMCHA issued 200 new guidelines for humanitarian agencies. Some of the requirements include reveling the identities of beneficiaries and including Houthi officials in the process of evaluating need. These measures would allow Houthi leadership to possibly channel aid to its supporters and restrict it from those it deems as threats. Additionally, SCMCHA would have regional power to hold funding over the heads of civilians in exchange for compliance.

An internal reorganization moved SCMCHA to be directly under the office of the Houthi president, controlled by his chief of staff. The move created a new risk of humanitarian aid being politicised.  

The Houthi government also demanded a new agreement with the UN that would require the rebel group to approve of contracts. By this, Houthi leadership would be able to award lucrative contracts to partners it views as favorable. Houthis also asked for the right to monitor the UN hiring process in Yemen. 

UN agencies refused to agree to the Houthi terms. As a result, Houthi leadership has impeded the flow of financial and food aid. In one instance, food for 200,000 civilians was stopped long enough for it to spoil before reaching beneficiaries. The Houthis have also often denied visas and permission for UN aid workers.

Houthi Leadership Doesn’t Care About the People

“Yemen will survive” amid a suspension of UN humanitarian aid, said Abdul-Mohsen Tawoos, secretary general of the Houthi international aid organisation. The Houthis want an agreement, Tawoos said on a Jan. 20 Skype call with European agencies, but Tawoos emphasized that they would not be bullied. 

Tawoos also accused Grande of filing false reports on the situation and Houthi interference, in particular. Houthi leadership is content with holding out despite the suffering of its people. The UN World Food Program is responsible for supplying 12 million Yemenis with food, but it said it would scale back its operations in March due to the difficulty of working with Houthi leaders.

“The operating environment in north Yemen has deteriorated so dramatically in recent months that humanitarians can no longer manage the risks associated with delivering assistance at the volume we currently are,” a senior UN official told Reuters.

NGOs, Donors and Agencies Leaning Toward Aid Reduction to Yemen

Official announcements of aid cutbacks have yet to be announced, but multiple sources informed Reuters that discussions at “high levels” involving agencies, NGOs, and donors, are ongoing and leaning toward an aid reduction. 

Saudi Arabia, the largest foreign donor, opposed an aid suspension, however. At a meeting in Brussels, an international contingent discussed the possibility, with no action being taken thus far. The second largest donor, the United States, has expressed concern. A spokesman for the US Agency for International Development, said Washington is coordinating with global actors “to communicate unequivocally to Houthi officials to cease their obstructive behavior.”

‘No One Wants to Walk Away from a Crisis’

In the interim, the UN would prefer to reach a workable agreement with Houthi leadership.  

“No one wants to walk away from a crisis, certainly not a crisis as big as the one in Yemen, but humanitarians have to adjust what we are doing based on the risks we are facing,” a U.N. official said.

Since 2015, the UN has given $8.35 billion to Yemen, largely funded by donations from Saudi Arabia, the US, and the United Kingdom.

In demanding concessions from global aid organizations, Houthi leadership is gambling with the lives of civilians, betting that the international community will eventually buckle. Aid channeled through a corrupt government still benefits the overall population, or so Houthi leaders would prefer the UN to think. 

Absent a deal, the Houthi government risks a significant reduction in aid for its people. In that event, crucial conditions could turn even more dire for an already starving and suffering population.