Humanitarian Groups Demand Trump Reverse Yemen Aid Freeze

Aid groups operating in Houthi-controlled areas are unable to deliver lifesaving support.

A Yemeni child
A Yemeni child looks out at buildings that were damaged in an airstrike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez on March 18, 2018. Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images

Top humanitarian groups are pressuring the Trump administration to drop a monthslong aid suspension in Houthi-controlled northern Yemen, according to a letter obtained by Foreign Policy, as the spread of coronavirus has again left the war-torn nation teetering on famine and economic collapse.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) halted programs in northern Yemen in March, just days after Foreign Policy reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressured the United Nations to scale back vital aid over concerns that the Houthi rebels—who receive backing from Iran—were maintaining heavy-handed control of aid and obstructing distribution. Aid groups said the move has left them unable to provide critical lifesaving services as the situation on the ground deteriorates. 

“In such dire circumstances, it is not justifiable to withhold funding for some humanitarian activities in order to leverage improved operating conditions for others,” says the letter to acting USAID Administrator John Barsa, signed by the leaders of the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam America, CARE, Save the Children USA, and Mercy Corps. 

“We urge you to abandon the suspension and restore USAID funding wherever partners can operate in a principled manner.”

The demands from aid groups come as Yemen reels from a COVID-19 outbreak that looks to be one of the worst in the world, according to the letter. “We’re in a situation where we have crisis, layered on top of crisis, layered on top of crisis. And the layering has been happening for so long that it’s actually difficult to keep track of what the biggest drivers and threats to Yemeni communities are,” Scott Paul of the humanitarian organization Oxfam America told Foreign Policy. “The COVID crisis has introduced another massive layer of fear, confusion, and death into this mix.”

The U.N. predicts that the number of Yemenis experiencing acute food insecurity will jump to 3.2 million by the end of this year. The U.S. suspension, designed to force the Houthis to lift aid restrictions, has compounded funding gaps.

Financial woes will cut the U.N.’s ability to feed Yemenis by more than 60 percent. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock conceded last month that the aid effort is “frankly on the verge of collapse.”

The U.N. has called for $3.4 billion in funding to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen this year. But so far, it has only received about $714 million of that amount from donor countries and organizations, leaving a $2.7 billion funding gap. 

Though the United States injected $225 million in aid to help stabilize the World Food Program’s efforts in the country in May, the new letter’s signatories said that Yemen has received barely over a fifth of needed aid pledges, even as food prices have soared and bombings doubled in the first half of the year compared to the previous six months. Though Saudi Arabia surpassed its 2019 pledge of $750 million at a recent conference, both the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait fell drastically short of their respective pledges from last year. Even the less lofty pledges aren’t being fully implemented on the ground: Saudi Arabia has sent only $22.8 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen in 2020, a fraction of its earmarked $500 million. Meanwhile, the UAE and Kuwait have virtually abandoned the cause, pledging no money at all to Yemen. 

Aid groups have also battled the Trump administration over what they perceive as arbitrary cutouts to the aid freeze, pointing out that USAID has allowed organizations to treat severe malnutrition, while preventing assistance to community health workers, hygiene and sanitation, and the provision of clean water. The increasingly deadly conditions on the ground have prompted aid organizations to push for a complete end to the policy. 

“Time is running out for tens of millions of Yemenis,” the signatories wrote to Barsa. “As we do in challenging environments all over the world, humanitarians have stayed and delivered in Yemen in the midst of complex crises. But our ability to do so now is jeopardized unless the U.S. changes course.” 

The Trump administration cut off refueling support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen after facing harsh criticism and threats from Congress to legally bar U.S. military support—though lawmakers were unable to overcome a White House veto.  

The challenges faced by organizations cut off from U.S. aid dollars has been compounded by a U.N.-backed peace process that has failed to generate momentum lately. In July, the world body’s Yemen envoy, Martin Griffiths, warned of a “real risk” that negotiations between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen could slip away. The so-called Riyadh agreement signed between Saudi Arabia and Emirati-backed southern separatists last year has yet to yield a joint technocratic government. “They [Saudi Arabia] can work on a couple of things at best,” a former U.S. official familiar involved in the talks told Foreign Policy. “The problem is not intention, they only have a few people who are capable.” Efforts to move the peace process forward, the person said, are “forever at the 5-yard line.”

The United States has sought to limit aid to Houthi-controlled areas, fearing that the Iran-linked group could give Tehran another launching pad to fire rockets at Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The Trump administration has considered designating the Houthis a terrorist organization, the Washington Post reported. The move would potentially deny the movement international financing but could deepen the food crisis in areas controlled by the group. Ten new front lines were added to Yemen’s battlefield between January and July—leaving more parts of the country increasingly vulnerable to hunger. 

“The biggest risk is how far the U.S. is willing to go to show it’s tough on Iran and the impact it would have on vulnerable families in Yemen,” said one humanitarian aid worker, who spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity. 

“The more this is seen as purely a U.S. decision to punish the Houthis, the more that puts the optics on U.S. NGOs as pawns in that broader game.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Allison Meakem is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem