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.
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.