This week, five years after the US supported the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, the Trump administration is poised to impose massive cuts to humanitarian assistance there – including funding for key COVID-19 prevention programs.
USAID had previously announced a suspension of aid to people living in the Houthi-controlled areas of northern Yemen to take effect on March 27. The suspension, which is intended to compel the Houthi authorities to end their unacceptable interference in the work of humanitarian organizations, is not meant to cut off life-saving activities.
But even as the threat of COVID-19 has emerged, USAID will not ensure that key activities for stopping the spread of deadly infections like primary healthcare, hygiene promotion, and other programs will continue. Instead, they will only allow narrow exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Without a swift course correction by USAID, many of these programs will come to an abrupt halt this week, leaving Yemen uniquely vulnerable to the most deadly pandemic in generations.
Yemeni families have endured more than five years of conflict, which has pushed basic necessities like clean water and adequate food out of reach for millions. The war has decimated Yemen’s health facilities and undermined its healthcare workers, creating fertile ground for easily preventable diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and dengue fever. In a country with millions of people forced from their homes living in cramped, unsafe conditions, stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Yemen will require a massive, collaborative effort.
In contrast to USAID’s broad-brush funding cutoff, most organizations and donors are supporting a joint effort led by the United Nations to achieve the same improvements in conditions for humanitarian assistance. The UN approach is centered on clear preconditions for aid delivery and the possibility of more targeted suspensions of programs that cannot be carried out effectively. Though unacceptable impediments remain and will require a sustained and coordinated push to overcome, the UN-led initiative has shown early promise: since it was launched in Brussels six weeks ago, Houthi authorities have withdrawn some of their demands of aid agencies.
Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy Lead, Scott Paul, said: “Five years ago, the US government supported the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, which gave rise to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Millions of Yemenis are living without clean water, proper nutrition, or access to medical care. Many have been forced from their homes, living in cramped quarters where it will be nearly impossible to stop the spread of COVID-19 should it arrive. It will require a sweeping effort – with extraordinary international support – to limit its damage.
“We are working tirelessly to make sure no one and nothing gets between humanitarians and people in desperate need of aid. We don’t accept interference by any of the authorities in Yemen. But putting Yemeni lives in the balance through a premature and unilateral funding suspension will not improve the humanitarian situation. USAID says it will continue supporting life-saving activities even as it eviscerates Yemen’s first and best defense against the defining health crisis of our time. That is simply impossible to understand.”
Oxfam is urging USAID to delay its suspension of funding in Yemen for a minimum of one month in order to properly account for the urgent threat of coronavirus. In the interim, USAID should consider abandoning the suspension in favor of a risk-based approach in line with the UN and other partners. Oxfam also calls on authorities, including the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, to allow aid agencies to reach vulnerable families in Yemen without interference and in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law.
Now more than ever, all sides to the conflict and the international community must push for peace so that Yemeni families have a chance to prevent and treat COVID-19, among the many other challenges they face.
Notes to Editors:
- Oxfam does not accept US government funding in Yemen.
- In response to the COVID-19 threat in Yemen, Oxfam is planning to respond by training community health volunteers to raise awareness of the virus and how to prevent it. You can learn more about Oxfam's global COVID-19 response here: https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/emergencies/COVID-19/