Humanitarian Aid: An attractive façade sustaining an ugly war
The 40th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), AT THE PALAIS DES NATIONS, IN GENEVA, SWITZERLAND TUESDAY, MARCH 5TH, 2019
BY BUSHRA NASR KRETSCHMER
A couple of weeks ago, on the 26th of February, the United Nations and the Governments of Sweden and Switzerland convened the third High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. The event aimed to gain support for the humanitarian response in Yemen and alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people. Donors pledged US$2.6 billion to ensure that humanitarian operations in Yemen can be sustained and scaled up.
Over 254 humanitarian organisations are working within Yemen to help those in need, an increase of 140% since 2016; there were 106 organizations in 2016 and 69 organizations in 2015. However, such efforts are significantly hampered in light of the lack of institutional capacity to absorb the funds, as well as access constraints, damaged infrastructure and unreliable access to fuel. The narrative in the media focuses on the blockade of the country and almost nothing is said about corruption and humanitarian violations.
I want to address two components that are barely mentioned in the news about Yemen or in the researchers’ fora: the hindrance to humanitarian aid and the effect of humanitarian aid on the Yemeni economy.
Corruption in humanitarian action is a topic that remains until today under-researched. Recently, we have started to hear more official statements on this since the Stockholm Consultations. When very little was being said, I wrote a paper about aid and corruption. There have been high levels of corruption and diverted aid in aid operations since the beginning of the Yemen war, but aid agencies kept it quiet.
The focus has been drawn to the reasons underlying aid prevention, with articles appearing in media outlets and public statements of condemnation from civil society. By way of example, on the 6th of January 2018, the article entitled “Yemen War: Corruption stops food aid reaching us, say desperate families” appeared in the Middle East Eye, detailing the restricted access to aid packages by those in need with families often coming up against armed gangs; inflated prices and malfunctioning distribution processes.
Conversely, a collective group of humanitarian organisations working in Yemen issued a statement on the 17th of December 2017 condemning the allegations of corruption and bias in their provision of relief assistance in Yemen.
Although we expected transparency from aid agencies in revealing aid corruption and exposing those parties/groups preventing and hindering aid distribution, since the beginning of aid activities in Yemen, this has only started happening to some extent recently. Such transparency was crucial to prevent the war from being sustained. And unfortunately, this did not happen, and aid continued to play a role in stimulating the war, creating black and parallel markets. This is evidenced by the new wealth distribution of the people in the north, the flourishing real estate market and the supply of food to the Houthi fighters on the war frontlines.
Humanitarian aid agencies devote some efforts to combating corruption but remain reluctant to openly discussing it. Apart from a few articles during these last four years, silence was the common response of the aid agencies regarding corruption and aid diversion by the Houthis. In my paper last year, I stated that at least forty percent of total aid to Yemen was subject to corruption and confiscations by Houthis and that it needed deeper analysis and a revelation of aid corruption. Recently, it was revealed by a spokesperson from the World Food Programme that “nearly sixty percent of their beneficiaries in Sana’a only had not received the food assistance they were entitled to.”
Despite repeated reports and appeals by the legitimate Yemeni government over the past few years, the action from the international community has not corresponded with the magnitude of the offences committed to date.
During the UN Security Council briefing meeting on the 16th of November 2018 that aimed to prepare to stop the escalation of hostilities in Hodeidah and develop a new humanitarian resolution for Yemen, there was no mention of the Houthi violations against aid in Hodeidah.
The efforts to stop the escalation in Hodeidah was based on the importance of Hodeidah as a main port for receiving aid, based on the perception that Hodeidah received 70 per cent of imports to Yemen. However, in fact all containerized goods have been passing through Aden port since November 2017, when Saudi Arabian authorities temporarily closed the ports
Houthi under control and since April 2018, major container carriers have
expressed concerns about military operations approaching Hodeidah.
The statements were harsh towards the government, warning them that any further advancement from their side in Hodeidah will risk deepening the humanitarian crisis, but with no mention of the impacts of the Houthis acts on the humanitarian situation. A few days after the briefing and on the 19th of November 2018 during an interview with CNN, the World Food Programme director praised the cooperation of the Coalition and the government in facilitating aid access and he said that they found seven landmines inside their facility among grains at the red sea silos, and that the Houthis were entering their facilities, violating all humanitarian principles and laws.
Since then, we have been hearing further statements from UN officials and the international committee experts.
World Food Programme says: “Food and aid meant for starving Yemenis has been 'diverted' and sold on the black market.”
And since the Stockholm consultation, these are the main headlines:
“UN threatens to suspend aid to Yemen amid theft by Houthi rebels”,
“United Nations proposes the establishment of safe corridors in Hodeidah”,
“Houthis prevent 36 health organizations from working”,
“Yemeni groups call on WFP to reveal aid ‘corruption’”,
“UN can’t access Red Sea Mills that can feed 3.7 million people for one month”, “Houthis bombed the foods stores in Al Hodeidah that may boost relief operations in Yemen”
"The World Food Program (WFP) has identified seven food distribution centres belonging to the Houthi administration in Sana'a, which are involved in the misuse of food aid,"
The UN official pointed to the removal of about 1,200 tons of food illegally from stores and distributed or sold to people who are not entitled to receive goods, and this was only during the months of last August and September.
The details of the piracy and looting of relief aid revealed the ugliest aspect of the Houthi militias' coup and ideology.
The statistics of the Higher Relief Committee in Yemen document the detention of 88 relief and commercial vessels and oil by the Houthis during the period from 2015 to 2018, and the looting and detention of 697 relief trucks and the bombing of 4 trucks, in addition to 16 incidents of attacks on the organizations of the United Nations and its employees, varying between killings, kidnappings and the closure of offices by force.
On December 29th, the Houthi militia detained a truck in the port of Hodeidah heading for the Sanaa governorate loaded with 32 tons of cholera-specific medicines and child vaccines. In October, it also detained 51,000 tons of wheat provided by the World Food Program to feed 700,000 people for more than four months. In September, four relief and oil vessels were also seized in the port of Hodeidah and Salib with 25,050 tons of foodstuffs, flour, sugar, 25,980 tons of diesel and 9,025 tons of gasoline.
In response to the Houthi's manipulation of the distribution and illegal seizure of aid, WFP has called for the introduction of a biometrics-based registration system in Houthi controlled areas to prevent the theft of rations from those who need it. This system was welcomed by the legitimate Yemeni government but was rejected by the Houthis.
Returning to attacks on relief and food aid convoys in Yemen, they come in the context of a systematic policy that Houthi militias have long practiced in order to starve Yemenis, cut off life supplies and destroy their will to live.
And concerning that, according to our sources 70 percent of the humanitarian aid funds go towards operational costs, 60 percent of the remaining funds are confiscated by the Houthi group, and 50 percent of the final funds are barely seen due to obstructions and limited organisational capacity of the receiving institutions. So, the big question is: What remains? Will these funds solve the humanitarian crisis? Just to give you a living example, Somalia received over $55 billion since 1991, being the top recipient of aid globally. These funds, unfortunately, did not help the Somalian economy; rather these donations have deepened corruption, weakened the economy, and fuelled more conflicts.
 Humanitarian Response Plan 2019, UNOCHA
 MEE Correspondent, “Yemen War: Corruption stops food aid reaching us, say desperate families”, Middle East Eye, 6 January 2018 (updated 26 February 2018), accessed at http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/yemen-war-corruption-stops-food-aid-reaching-us-say-desperate-families-802764333
 Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen, 25 January 2019.