As Houthis block humanitarian aid, a ceasefire alone won't prevent catastrophe in Yemen

Analysis- Yemen ceasefire
7 min read
04 April, 2022

In war-torn Yemen, seven years of fighting between the Houthi movement and the Saudi-led coalition backing the internationally recognised government have created the world’s most dire humanitarian disaster, according to the UN.

Despite the civilian toll of the conflict, a UN-held pledging conference last month only managed to secure $1.3 billion in funds to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, less than a third of the $4.3 billion needed to reach Yemen’s most vulnerable. 

The UN conference’s failure to secure the necessary funding comes as little surprise, following a similar scenario last year. The apprehension of donors stems from obstacles on the ground, such as capture and diversion of aid by warring parties like Houthis and other Islamists groups, that severely limit the amount of aid that reaches the Yemeni people.

However, with a UN-brokered two-month ceasefire between the coalition and the Houthis established, analysts and humanitarian organisations have expressed cautious optimism that the flow of aid can be restored. 

"UN agencies and international organisations made their appeal to donors once again, transmitting the urgency to deliver aid to nearly twenty million Yemenis, but failed to assure governments their contributions would not fund Houthis"

While obstacles rooted in the war economy and the seizing of aid by Sana’a-based Houthi rebels to profit from international humanitarian organizations are likely the main hindrances, new challenge surfaced after the UN Security Council listed the Houthis as a terrorist group and the EU Parliament condemned Houthi crimes against Yemenis and Gulf states.

UN agencies and international organisations made their appeal to donors once again, transmitting the urgency to deliver aid to nearly twenty million Yemenis, but failed to assure governments their contributions would not fund Houthis.

Yet, Khaled al-Yamani, Yemen’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, is optimistic over potential aid to flow directly to projects in order to avoid Houthis weaponising humanitarian aid, or coercion of international organisations.

Houthi capture and profiteering

In 2019, UN agencies publicly denounced Houthi tactics and the impact of their obstruction of delivery of humanitarian aid across territory under their control. The UN suspended the delivery of aid in order to force Houthis to loosen their grip on the delivery process and improve transparency over distribution.

The process to consolidate a monopoly over State institutions and delivery of humanitarian aid delivery may have taken the Houthis a few years, but their profiteering began from day one. A major issue for UN agencies distributing millions of dollars in aid was the lack of transparency at the point of distribution.

Millions of Yemenis face famine as humanitarian aid struggles to reach the country. [Yemen]
Millions of Yemenis face famine as humanitarian aid struggles to reach the country. [Yemen]

The World Food Programme (WFP) proposed a biometric system to improve the distribution process and better target the population in need, aiming to prevent Houthi capture of food aid or cash subsidies diverted to support their patronage network and military forces. WFP resumed delivery of aid within a couple of months, but has yet to launch the biometric project across Houthi held territory. As of February this year, the biometric program has only been implemented in the interim capital of Aden.

Houthi control has evolved from the deployment of an elaborate network of supervisors to co-opting economic and civil society actors. Now controlling the entire supply chain from importers to transportation and warehouse companies, the Houthis have maximised profits from humanitarian aid in the absence of ordinary economic activity. This process also allows Houthis to financially support an extensive patronage network of civilian and tribal allies.

In 2019 alone, it is estimated that the Houthi movement diverted about $1.8 billion in humanitarian aid intended for civilians. 

Even with the announcement of a two-month ceasefire agreement under the auspices of UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg, Yemeni civilians and humanitarian organisations are discouraged by the situation on the ground.

The chief of the Yemen mission at the International Organisation of Migration Christa Rottensteiner said “shortages have forced IOM to scale down its activities across the whole country” despite over 23 million people relying on outside assistance.

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Taiz: Houthis, Islah and the war economy

Prior to the start of the war in March 2015, Houthi rebels prioritised military positions inside and around the city of Taiz in central Yemen. Taiz province lies at the intersection of north and south Yemen with a coastline along the Red Sea beginning at the Bab al-Mandab.

Historically a Sunni Shafi’ area, the city is recognized as a cradle of resistance movements, and in the late twentieth century it grew as a base for the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate al-Islah party. As such, the whole of the province has been a political and military priority for Houthis.

Soon after Houthis were expelled from Taiz in mid-2015, their rivals began to fight each other for control of the city. Fighting relatively dissipated by late 2019, not only having exacerbated the humanitarian crisis but also deepening Houthi presence around the city.

Ultimately the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliate party al-Islah survived intact and now exerts control over the city as an ally of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Similar to Houthis in northern areas, al-Islah has moved to monopolise distribution of aid, although utilising different methods.

"This has allowed al-Islah to not only control the aid itself but also shape perspectives and priorities of organisations delivering humanitarian assistance"

Civilian and security forces allied with al-Islah control the flow of aid through their affiliates, who dominate the ranks within local and international organisations. For years, the party benefited from its partnership with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and placed loyalists as employees with the UN and NGOs based in Sana’a. This has allowed al-Islah to not only control the aid itself but also shape perspectives and priorities of organisations delivering humanitarian assistance.

Over the past three decades, al-Islah has also established its own extensive network of charity organisations, partially funded through international programs and donations from ally governments such as Qatar and Turkey.

Cautious optimism amid ceasefire

Since 2015, the Houthis have imposed a siege on Taiz, which was a central issue during the Stockholm negotiations of December 2018. Thus far, diplomacy has failed to advance the lifting of the siege, as the crisis inside and around the city of Taiz continues.

Now, new hope has surfaced as the agreed ceasefire includes discussions to open roads into the besieged city. The call for a ceasefire comes as clashes escalated late last year between Houthis and the Joint Forces under Tareq Saleh. UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg visited the city in November 2021, raising expectations among residents for an increase in aid and an end to the monopoly in hands of al-Islah and its charity network.

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While the UN hoped that donors this year would be more generous than last year, when pledges fell short by over $2 billion, efforts were hindered when several expected donors pledged no funds at all, including all the Gulf States except for Kuwait, which pledged$10 million.

The US topped the list of donors with $584 million pledged, the European Union with $173 million, Germany with $123 million and another thirty-one countries contributing to a total of US$1.3 billion, short by $3 billion from the amount officially requested by international organisations. The IOM alone requested US$159 million “to respond to the urgent needs of over 4.6 million people,” said Rottensteiner.

As the UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg manoeuvres to secure a lasting ceasefire, humanitarian organisations must work to assure donors their funds will not fall further in hands of Houthis. The European Union and the US praised the agreement as the first step toward a comprehensive peace dialogue bringing sustainable relief to millions across Yemen.

International observers hope talks hosted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also serve to build confidence among parties and deliver much needed funds, despite the talks being rejected by the Houthis. 

However, given the failure of previous attempts to reach a political settlement, the durability of the current ceasefire remains to be seen, and the future of humanitarian aid to Yemen hangs by a thread. 

Fernando Carvajal served on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts of Yemen from April 2017 to March 2019 as an armed groups and regional expert. He has nearly 20 years of experience conducting fieldwork in Yemen and is a specialist in Yemeni politics and tribal relations.

Follow him on Twitter: @CarvajalF