Saturday, May 15

UK ‘balances books on the backs of starving Yemeni people’, says UN diplomat | Yemen

The ministers have decided to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen” in an act that will see tens of thousands die and damage the UK’s global influence, said the head of the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs.

Speaking with rare frankness after the UK cut its funding to help Yemen by more than half, former permanent secretary of the Department for International Development Mark Lowcock said he was shocked by the decision. It is understood that he did not have the opportunity to appeal to the UK for reconsideration.

Mark Lowcock
Mark Lowcock will soon retire as head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Photograph: Federico Parra / AFP / Getty Images

He described the UK’s decision as “an act of self-harm in the medium and long term, and all to save what is actually, in the grand scheme of things at the moment, a relatively small amount of money.”

“The decision, in other words, to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen, has consequences not only for Yemenis now, but for the world in the long run,” he said.

The UK has announced that it will give Yemen around £ 87 million in aid this year, down from £ 164 million in 2020. Boris Johnson has said the decision is due to “current difficult circumstances” caused by the pandemic and has insisted that the public would think the government had its “right priorities.”

The conflict in Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and UN officials warned that it is fast becoming the most severe famine the world has seen in decades. The UK government is intimately involved in the conflict, as the leading provider and supporter of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the war.

The ferocity of the intervention is likely to embolden several conservative supporters who are furious at the aid cut and who hope to use the implications for people in Yemen and counties like Syria to persuade their colleagues to reject the policy. The decision to temporarily cut the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income was announced in the November spending review. As enshrined in law, the government will need a parliamentary vote to change it, although a date for this has yet to be announced.

Lowcock said that effectively cutting aid to Yemen by 50% would cause “direct harm” and that it was clear there would be “other drastic cuts” in programs in other countries. “There is no way around the fact that it will have the effect of large-scale loss of life and accumulation of misery in many places.”

On Saturday, a leaked Foreign Ministry report revealed that officials were considering cutting the aid program to Somalia by 60% and South Sudan by 59%. The planned cut for Syria was 67%, for Libya 63% and Nigeria 58%.

“I think it is indisputable that the UK has particular responsibilities in Yemen,” Lowcock said. “He is the pencil holder in the security council, a major provider of humanitarian assistance in the past and has historical responsibilities. So I think it’s quite shocking that there is such a large cut. “

It is rare for Britain to be criticized in this way by a UN official, especially a former British official. He is the last to express his dismay at the government’s decision. Aid organizations described it as a “death sentence” and former conservative secretary for international development Andrew Mitchell called it an “unimaginable decision.”

Warning of the long-term damage to the UK’s international position, Lowcock said: “The UK has a strong reputation as a leading donor and a leading player in international development. That has had wider reputational benefits for the UK and that is obviously no longer the case. There is a very substantial reputational impact, particularly since this is a commitment that was made at the UN.

“Everyone can see that the aid budget has been selected. The government is still borrowing on an unprecedented scale, but has signaled that the aid budget will be drastically reduced. “

Lowcock said the aid cut would affect the UK’s ability to influence other countries and that while there was no evidence of this yet, the move could lead others to follow suit.

“The result would be much more loss of life and misery, additional instability and fragility, and more substantial problems at these critical points, which, as we know from bitter experience, have a tendency to spread and create their own bad dynamics, with increased international breadth. consequences, even for countries like the UK. “

The UN had hoped to raise $ 3.85 billion (£ 2.76 billion) for Yemen from more than 100 governments and donors at a virtual pledging conference last Monday, but received $ 1.7 billion. “That means a lot of people are basically going to be in a state of slow starvation,” Lowcock said. “Then there will be a significant loss of life. We would have avoided a lot of that if we had been much better funded. “

He said he feared a knock-on impact on the UN’s efforts to raise money for Syrian refugees at a fundraising conference later this month, and more directly on the UN’s efforts to raise money to fund mitigation of the climate change, an issue on which the UK is looking to take a leadership role as chair of the UN Cop26 conference in Glasgow in November.

“A big problem for the Police will be the promise of £ 100 billion a year for the poorest countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, which is a promise that has not been kept,” he said.

He urged the West to anticipate the knock-on impact of aid cuts. “People don’t remember this very well now, but in 2014 the UN call for Syria’s response received much less support than in 2012 and 2013,” he said.

“One consequence of that was the exodus in 2015. It’s an unusually clear example of how not keeping a situation stable and supporting people where they are had pretty direct consequences.”

He urged all parties to reach a diplomatic agreement in Yemen and that the Houthis not go ahead with their current bloody assault on Marib, one of the few strongholds of the Yemeni government in northern Yemen.

He said: “There is quite a vibrant debate within the Houthi movement about whether to continue the Marib attack or whether to decide now that they will accept the deal that is available to them. They can achieve a lot now: the blockade of seaports and airports will be lifted, there will be a ceasefire, there is a clear recognition that the Houthis are going to play a prominent role in a power-sharing government. “

Lowcock will soon retire as head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and will return to the UK to spend more time with his family. He rarely condemns aid decisions by individual countries, and has so far insisted on not commenting on UK policy.

The Foreign Ministry has been contacted for comment.

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