COVID-19 pandemic is not the only humanitarian emergency we should care about

by 05th Jun 2020
Food distribution in Yemen Food distribution in Yemen

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a huge threat to billions of people around the world, but it can’t be the only priority for aid. Other humanitarian disasters and emergencies have not gone away. Countries that still don’t meet the UN target of sharing 7p in every £10 with people in poorer countries, should try as hard as possible to increase their aid budget to respond to the new COVID-19 pandemic, and try to avoid taking aid away from other emergencies.  

This week, 31 governments pledged only half of the humanitarian aid needed for Yemen for 2020. People in Yemen will die as a result. 

After more than five years of war, 24 million people in Yemen need humanitarian aid to survive. Only one out of every 6 people doesn’t need help. 69% of Yemen is at risk of famine. Millions of people have fled from their homes to avoid being killed. And now people are dying of COVID-19 too. 

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a huge threat to billions of people around the world, living in poorer countries with fewer health workers and equipment. It is absolutely right that preventing the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is a new priority for aid budgets around the world this year. But COVID-19 can’t be the only priority for aid. Other humanitarian disasters and emergencies have not gone away. 

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Five years of war in Yemen. Nine years of war in Syria. 19 years of conflict in Afghanistan. Ebola in the DRC. One million Rohingya refugees cramped into refugee camps in Bangladesh for three years. In May, Cyclone Amphan affected 27 million people in India and Bangladesh, destroying homes, livelihoods, roads, communications and water supplies. In April, Cyclone Harold destroyed 90% of all homes in Vanuatu. In Latin America, millions of Venezuelans have escaped poverty in one country but don’t have enough help in neighbouring countries. A year-long plague of locusts in East Africa threatens hunger for millions of people. I could go on.

Here in the UK, quite rightly, the government isn’t saying that COVID-19 is the only thing that matters. It’s still trying to get people to seek treatment for other health problems. It’s still paying benefits to people who had them before the pandemic, as well as new and extra support for others affected by the pandemic.  

We need to see the same approach globally

Countries that still don’t meet the UN target of sharing the equivalent of 7p in every £10 of GDP with people in poorer countries, should try as hard as possible to increase their aid budget to respond to the new COVID-19 pandemic, and try to avoid taking aid away from other emergencies.

Countries like the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands and Germany, who are over or close to the UN target, cannot be expected to increase aid. They will have to make hard choices to reallocate aid to address the new COVID-19 pandemic priority.

The UK is talking about cutting aid in 2020, as GDP forecasts fall. That is “the deal” of linking aid to GDP. I support that. But it would be better if aid was cut in 2021 to balance this out, rather than cutting aid now, at the peak of the global COVID pandemic. In this crisis prevention is not only critical to save lives, but also more cost effective than treatment.

And when these governments make hard decisions about reallocating aid to COVID-19, it is important not to take aid away from massive emergencies like those in Yemen, Syria and Bangladesh with Rohingya refugees. COVID-19 makes these emergencies worse. It doesn’t make them only about COVID-19.  Instead, the UK should be redirecting any aid away from bad projects, like trying to support British exports or stop refugees. These are poor value for money at the best of times and pretty irrelevant in the current pandemic.

It is good that the UK remains the 3rd largest donor to Yemen, I have seen first hand that this aid is saving lives and dignity. It is good that UK arms sales to the Yemen conflict are still suspended. But the UK’s pledge for Yemen has gone down since 2019, while the need has not.

The world needs to stop and think again about funding for Yemen, Syria and other emergencies. The COVID-19 pandemic means these emergencies need fully funding more than ever. Not half funding. All lifesaving humanitarian aid that is needed is still needed. A death from cholera, famine or Ebola, is no less of a tragedy than a death from COVID-19.

There’s no doubt there are hard choices to be made, but they must not involve cutting aid to Yemen.

Laurie Lee

I joined CARE in August 2014, because I believe strongly in our focus on economic development, gender equality and people holding governments accountable. My focus at CARE is on ensuring we have the best people to do the job we do, to support our teams on the ground in over 70 developing countries, and to ensure we continuously improve our ability to monitor the impact of our work, and learn how to do it even better.  

Prior to CARE I worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for seven years, advising them on development policy issues in Europe and Africa. Before that I worked for the British government. I managed British development programmes in South Africa and Afghanistan. He worked in 10 Downing Street to prepare the G8 Gleneagles Summit on Africa in 2005. And I ran the DFID Trade Policy Unit until 2008.

One good thing I've read

One of CARE’s goals is to help the 2 billion people – including 1.1 billion women – without access to financial services, to get them. This great and easy book, Portfolios of the poor: How the world's poor live on $2 a day, by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven, explains why there’s no such thing as living 'hand to mouth'. The poorer you are, the more you need financial management tools.

Email: Lee@careinternational.org

Twitter: @lauriejlee