In early March 2021, the fifth conference of its kind was held virtually to announce financial pledges for humanitarian efforts in Yemen. The conference resulted in pledges to provide only 43 percent of the amount requested by the United Nations (UN) to fund aid, which threatens to reduce its programmes and the number of beneficiaries, and exacerbate the humanitarian situation in Yemen. This paper sheds light on the context of the conference and the implications of its results, and makes proposals to increase the adequacy of the response to the humanitarian crisis in the light of the decline in international funding.
The context of the conference
The high-level conference to announce pledges regarding the humanitarian crisis in Yemen coincided with the escalation of warnings by international organisations against the exacerbation of the suffering of Yemenis from the war, which is about to enter its seventh year. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 24.1 million people (approximately 80 percent) in Yemen are in need of some form of assistance or protection, and that 16.2 million people (approximately 54 percent) suffer from acute food insecurity at varying levels, some of them having reached the point of starvation, in addition to the presence of 3.65 million displaced persons, most of whom face difficult conditions.
Prior to this conference, the OCHA had warned against a repetition of the scenario of 2020, when total donations amounted to only 56 percent (1.9 billion dollars) of the amount required to fund aid (3.38 billion dollars), indicating that this funding gap caused a reduction in the number of beneficiaries from 14 million at the end of 2019 to only 10 million by the end of 2020.
The holding of the donors’ conference in 2021 came with renewed fears of the repercussions of the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in Yemen in the light of the second wave of the global outbreak of the epidemic, and the state of the health sector that is unqualified to deal with such a situation, especially that the first wave led to catastrophic health and humanitarian repercussions, perhaps the most prominent of which was revealed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG), namely recording the highest global death rate as a result of the epidemic in the temporary capital Aden, in addition to the intensification of the manifestations of the economic crisis and its repercussions for living conditions recently, both in the areas under the control of the internationally recognised government, which are witnessing a continuous decline in the local currency exchange rate and a rise in foodstuff prices, together with the irregular payment of the salaries of public sector employees and the deterioration of vital services, and in the Houthi-controlled areas, in which citizens are suffering from more difficult conditions as a result of the disruption of the salaries of public sector employees for nearly 4 years, together with the interruption of most vital services and the scarcity of oil derivatives.
Significance of the outcomes of the fifth conference
At the Fifth Donors’ Conference, the UN was looking forward to raising 3.85 billion dollars in order to fund the response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen in 2021. However, the Conference resulted in pledges to provide only 1.67 billion dollars, that is 43 percent of the required amount, prompting the UNSG Antonio Guterres to express his disappointment.
This position can be understood, given the total pledges made in all UN-supervised donor conferences since the beginning of the war, as shown in the table below:
While the pledges for 2021 exceeded those announced in 2020 in terms of their size or percentage of the required funding, they reflect the pattern itself of declining donor contributions compared to the years 2018 and 2019, and thus the persistence of the significant gap between the amounts provided and the required funding, and consequently the continued decline in the number of beneficiaries of the aid programmes at a time when the scope of those programmes was supposed to be expanded in response to the increasing numbers of needy people as a result of the worsening severity of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Donor pledges at the recent conference were uneven and reflected different trends. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), known as the largest donor to Yemen, provided 430 million dollars in 2021, compared to 500 million dollars in 2020. This limited decline appears to be related to the repercussions of the coronavirus epidemic for the KSA's economy and financial capabilities.
At the latest conference, Germany ranked second in the list of donors for the first time after pledging to provide 244.8 million dollars, a significant and remarkable contribution despite its previously generous donations, as Germany almost doubled what it had provided in 2020 (138 million dollars). At the same time, it is part of a clear trend towards increasing its contributions since previous years (2018: 40 million dollars, 2019: 114 million dollars, etc.).
At the latest conference, the UAE affirmed its commitment to provide 230 million dollars, which it had announced during the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the legitimate government Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak to Abu Dhabi several weeks ago. Thus, it is the third largest contributor to the conference, which reflects its continued keenness to activate its response to the difficult humanitarian situation in Yemen.
The US ranked fourth on the list of donors in 2021 with its pledge to provide 191 million dollars, a slight decrease compared to what it had provided in 2020 (225 million dollars). The UK pledged 123 million dollars in 2021, compared to 196 million dollars in 2020, and 261 million dollars in 2019. This reduction comes within the framework of a new policy adopted by the UK to reduce all international aid.
Kuwait pledged to provide 10 million dollars in 2021 after it had abstained from making any contribution in 2020, given that the total it provided in the years 2018 and 2019 amounted to 500 million dollars. This significant decline is believed to be due to the huge deficit facing Kuwait in the public budget. As for Qatar, for the second consecutive year, it abstained from making any contribution, although this matter seemed incomprehensible, especially in the atmosphere of the Gulf reconciliation.
Nevertheless, it could generally be said that the pledges made by donors at the 2021 conference have mostly tended to decline compared to previous years. This decline seems to be mainly related to the implications of the coronavirus pandemic on the donors' financial capabilities, in addition to the possibility of other motives – perhaps political – with respect to some donors.
Towards a more adequate and effective international response policy
In the light of the continuous decline in donor pledges against the expanding need for aid in Yemen, and in the absence of indications that funding can return to the previous level in the light of the fact that the donors' financial capabilities have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, this gap is expected to have serious repercussions for a large segment of the population, which would inevitably exacerbate what has been described several years ago as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis".
These challenges call for a radical review of the strategy of the UN bodies in managing the response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. While the UN has managed to raise more than 10 billion dollars since the first donors’ conference in 2017, many observers point out that there are no tangible results on the ground that reflect the size of this funding. They even openly question the integrity of the UN bodies and international organisations working with them in Yemen.
The most prominent factors behind the modesty of outputs compared to the size of funding could be said to be the following:
The problem related to operational budgets seems to stem from the lack of real controls governing the budget preparation process by the UN and its bodies, and from the fact that the regulations currently in force are limited to general standards and determinants, without setting limits to what is supposed to be spent on the operational budget of the total funding.
Consequently, it is important for donors to exert pressure to impose new standards that oblige the UN bodies to adopt limited operational budgets that guarantee spending most of the funding for the benefit of the beneficiaries, or agree to grant them a supervisory role only in exchange for symbolic allocations, and assign the projects to other local or international bodies willing to adhere to those standards, while commissioning an independent party to review all data and verify operations and quantities and the inclusiveness of distribution on the ground.
The new standards should lead to restricting and reducing the total expenditures within the operational budget of the organisations, starting from the wages of employees and ending with the costs of international travel and transportation between Yemeni governorates and the rest of the services they need. The prices of the various items should also be checked by comparing them with the prices prevailing in the market, especially in the light of the allegations that often circulate about the existence of great financial corruption that takes place with the collusion between some employees of organisations and the traders who provide the service.
On the other hand, donors should discuss with UN agencies the possibility of their gradual transition towards implementing projects that combine the relief and development aspects, and developing a comprehensive strategy that organises this shift according to the generally accepted rules in this field under the framework of what is known as Humanitarian-Development Nexus.
For example, important progress could be achieved in this regard through the “cash for work” projects, in which local residents are tasked with implementing service projects in their areas, such as paving roads or digging water wells in exchange for wages paid by organisations. These projects are being implemented randomly at the present time, in order to provide an immediate source of income to the population only, without taking into account their priorities or long-term needs. Therefore, they should be replaced by various projects that meet the priorities of the population and provide them with job opportunities or a source of income in the future.
The above proposals contain additional opportunities, especially those related to reorienting projects towards the developmental side. Within the framework of this transformation, it is possible to accomplish some reconstruction projects, especially that the reconstruction projects would require large costs ranging, according to some estimates, between 20 and 25 billion dollars.
Further pressure could also be exerted on the UN and its bodies to push them to accept the Yemeni government's proposals on disbursing aid through the Central Bank in Aden, which would help limit the decline in the local currency exchange rate and its serious repercussions on citizens' living conditions within government-controlled areas.
 https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/yemen (Last updated: 14 Feb 2021).
 “Yemen Dynamic Needs Assessment: Phase 3” (2020 Update). http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/490981607970828629/pdf/Yemen-Dynamic-Needs-Assessment-Phase-3-2020-Update.pdf
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