CAIRO – Aid organizations are making an urgent plea for funding to shore up their operations in war-torn Yemen, saying they have already been forced to stop some of their work even as the coronavirus rips through the country.
Some 75% of U.N. programs in Yemen have had to cease or reduce operations. The global body's World Food Program had to cut rations in half and U.N.-funded health services were reduced in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.
"It's almost impossible to look a family in the face, to look them in the eyes and say, 'I'm sorry but the food that you need in order to survive we have to cut in half,' " Lise Grande, resident U.N. coordinator for Yemen, said.
The dwindling funds are the result of several factors, but among the top reasons is obstruction by Yemen's Houthi rebels, who control the capital, Sanaa, and other territories. The United States, one of the largest donors, decreased its aid to Yemen earlier this year, citing interference by the Houthis.
It's yet to be seen whether the Houthis will allow monitoring or give U.N. agencies the space to operate. A U.N. pledging conference for Yemen on Tuesday seeks $2.41 billion to cover essential activities from June to December.
Grande said the Houthis are working to become more transparent. Her optimism, however, comes as the Houthis face criticism for suppressing information about the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities while putting no mitigation measures in place. Reports indicate that the coronavirus is spreading at an alarming rate throughout the country.
Tuesday's conference will be co-hosted for the first time by Saudi Arabia — a major player in Yemen's civil war since it first unleashed a bombing campaign in 2015 to try to push back the Iranian-backed Houthis who had seized the northern half of the country.
Critics question the Saudis' high-profile role in rallying humanitarian support even as they continue to wage a war — as do the Houthis — that has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a Yemeni researcher and a nonresident fellow at the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies, said the kingdom "has always tried to change the narrative of the war and present itself as a backer of the legitimate government, not part of the conflict."
Among the slashed programs is financial support to thousands of health workers who haven't received salaries from the government for nearly three years. Grande said that just a week before the first coronavirus case was announced in Yemen, aid agencies had to stop paying health workers. Without salaries, medical staff won't be able to provide health services to patients amid the pandemic.