Yemen in Focus: Financial reports expose millions of dollars in lavish UN 'corruption' budget

Yemen in Focus: Financial reports expose millions of dollars in lavish UN 'corruption' budget
This week we focus on a financial report that has been slammed by rights activists as corrupt.
9 min read
11 March, 2020
The leaked reports reveal the UN's Yemen budget [Getty]
Financial reports that have surfaced online have exposed the United Nation's increasing budget for its Yemen office, where more than 22 million people are on the brink of famine.

The documents, first posted on Twitter by Yemeni activist and director of Peace Track Initiative, Rasha Jarhum, reveal millions of dollars in UN budgets across Yemen, including a $17 million 2019 budget for the office of UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths (OSESGY) as well as $56 million for the UN Mission for Implementing Hodeida Agreement (UNMHA).

The expected 2020 budget for OSESGY also shows an increased budget of $18 million, the documents reveal. 

The large increase is due to "the basic operational needs, including the high costs of maintenance and security services, the acquisition of armoured vehicles for security needs, and the high costs of telecommunications services, networks and information services,” the report details.

In contrast, the UN's Syria office receive a budget of $16 million, as shown on the report.

A breakdown of the documents reveal Griffiths' office $1.3 million for aviation resources per annum since 2019, a stark increase from 2018 when just $276,000 was spent.

In Hodeida, UNMHA spent between $2.4-4.6 million per month to cover the costs of the mission, including the 138 personnel employed. A 2020 forecast shows plans to increase the number of employees to 159. 

Most shockingly, a total of $3.8 million was spent by the UNMHA to rent a hotel for 2019 in Yemen's Hodeida city, as part of a total $56 million budget that is expected to decrease by $3 million in 2020.

Most shockingly, a total of $3.8 million was spent by the UN envoy's office to rent a hotel for 2019 in Yemen's Hodeida city

The revelations sparked outrage on the social media platform, which raised questions on the investments made in Yemen, where millions face poverty and starvation as the brutal conflict continues for a fifth year.

“Accessing the information about the budgets by political missions in Yemen was not easy. Even with these two reports produced by the UN advisory committee, not all information is available. Only the budget about core operational funding was available without detailed breakdowns,” Rasha Jarhum told The New Arab. 

“However, still the information was very shocking about exaggerated allocations on logistics. Especially when you think about what OSE and UNMHA have achieved in the peace process, which is nothing, while women led organisations doing the real peace-making work are facing so many challenges to obtain any funding at all,” she added.

As the war edges towards its fifth year, UN efforts to mediate between the warring Houthi rebels and Yemen's internationally-recognised government have failed to blossom into little more than prisoner swap deals and temporary ceasefire agreements.

Earlier this week, Griffiths made a passing visit to Marib, which has seen an influx of people displaced by fighting between the rebels and government forces in neighbouring al-Jawf, to reiterate calls for calm and the resumption of the political process.

“Last week I issued a public call for a freeze on military activities. Today, I am reiterating that call for an immediate and unconditional freeze and the start of a comprehensive and inclusive and accountable de-escalation process,” Griffiths told journalists.

“We will either silence the guns and resume the political process, or we will slip back into large-scale conflict and suffering that you have already seen here in Marib,” Griffiths warned.

The conflict, which escalated with the Saudi-led coalition intervention in 2015, has unleashed the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the UN.

Nearly 16 million people are just one step away from famine, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned, and figures suggest more than 100,000 have been killed.

A report by the International Red Cross this year warned 24 million Yemenis, or 80 percent of the population, need humanitarian aid, while millions are living on the verge of famine.

Rights groups and humanitarian agencies say the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is largely man-made, caused by the upheaval of war.

Among the many battlegrounds in Yemen has been the issue of expired food, with the Houthis accusing the United Nations of distributing maggot-ridden rice and flour, and aid workers saying that supplies due for needy families had been held for months until they spoiled.

The UN World Food Programme, which feeds 12 million Yemenis a month, halted deliveries in Houthi-controlled areas for two months last year as it pushed for a biometric registration scheme to avoid the diversion of supplies meant for Yemeni civilians.

"At a time when people are starving to death, health centres are lacking basic medical supplies to save children and heads of households are taking their own lives because they cannot provide for their families. We keep seeing these shocking amounts that are revealed in millions of dollars spent by UN organisations and the UN envoy without any impact on the ground," Chair of Food 4 Humanity and Co-founder of Women Solidarity Yemen, Muna Luqman told The New Arab.

What is happening now is that the warlords are getting stronger and richer and more violent

"As Yemenis we feel let down by the donor and international community and more let down by the UN and we believe that supporting the deteriorating economy could do more for the peace process and prevent violence and contribute to stability.

"What is happening now is that the warlords are getting stronger and richer and more violent," she added.

Responding to the leaked financial reports, Yemen's Minister of Information Muammar al-Eryani slammed the UN for its failures in implementing the Sweden agreement despite its huge annual budget.

"Despite the huge annual budget, the United Nations Mission in support of the Hodeida Agreement failed to make any progress in implementing the provisions of the Sweden Agreement or to alleviate the human suffering of the citizens.

"The international mission failed to force the Houthi militia to implement any of its obligations under the Sweden agreement, including to withdraw from the ports and city of Hodeida, and control its violations of the ceasefire," Al-Eryani added.

The official also claimed that the recent UN mission in Hodedia statement indicated that the UN “is hostage to the militia and is under pressure and blackmail, and is unable to perform its duties professionally and impartially.”

The minister called on the United Nations to evaluate the performance of its mission to support the Hodeida agreement during the last period and review its budget, which reflects the level of disregard for the suffering of millions of hungry and displaced people.

He also called on the United Nations to prevent it from becoming an umbrella for the activities of the “terrorist Houthi militia” which has targeted international shipping lines, security and regional and international peace.

Meanwhile, the Yemen Teachers Syndicate this week accused the Houthi rebels of kidnapping two teachers from Marib and blowing up two schools in the area.

The rebels also placed teachers from their own movement to help disseminate propaganda in the region, the organisation said.

The latest developments came after the Houthi rebels advanced in neighbouring al-Jawf earlier this week, after intense fighting against pro-government forces.

The rebels seized control of a strategic town north of the capital, government officials said on Sunday, in what analysts say could change the course of the five-year-old war.

The Iran-aligned militia captured al-Hazm, capital of the northern province of al-Jawf, enabling the rebels to pose a threat to neighbouring oil-rich Marib province, a government military official told AFP.

Al-Jawf has been mostly controlled by the Houthis, but its capital – only 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of the border with Saudi Arabia – had been in the hands of the government.

Yemen's internationally-recognised government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, has been battling the Houthi rebels since 2014 after they captured the capital Sanaa and swathes of the impoverished Arab nation.

"The Houthi rebels have taken control of al-Hazm, the regional capital of al-Jawf, after fierce fighting with government troops who were forced to withdraw to neighbouring Marib province," the official said.

According to other military sources, at least 30 government troops – including high-ranking officers – were killed in the battle over the past two days.

The Houthis also suffered dozens of casualties, the sources added.

Majed al-Madhaji, executive director of the Sanaa Centre, a Yemeni think tank, said the Houthis' capture of al-Hazm could be a game-changer.

"Control of the capital of al-Jawf could totally change the course of the war. Houthis have made an exceptional advance and are changing the balance" in their favour, Madhaji told AFP.

Read also: Yemen in Focus: Houthis introduce martyrdom lectures into Saada school syllabus

He said the advance would enable the rebels to surround Marib, the most significant territory in the hands of the government.

It also secures supply lines between Sanaa and the Houthi northern stronghold of Saada, al-Madhaji said.

Also this week, Saudi Arabia closed its only land border crossing with Yemen as part of measures to contain the spread of the novel deadly coronavirus.

Yemen, which has over the years witnessed its health sector destroyed, has not yet confirmed any cases of COVID-19. Saudi Arabia has diagnosed 20 people with the virus, though it has reported no deaths.

Yemen, which has over the years witnessed its health sector destroyed, has not yet confirmed any cases of COVID-19

The Al-Wadeeah crossing will no longer allow travellers to enter into the kingdom, though those wishing to cross over into Yemen will be allowed, Almasdar Online reported, citing an official at the border.

Meanwhile, Yemen has faced a shortage of facial masks across the country despite the lack of coronavirus cases, reports confirmed this week.

Masks, which used to cost 450 Yemeni Riyals per box, now cost 3,000 Yemeni Riyals ($5), according to pharmacists on the ground. The 500 percent increase in price is due to the recent export of masks to neighbouring countries, where hundreds of cases have already been confirmed.

Like its neighbours, Yemen has imposed a set of precautionary measures to help stem the spread of the virus, including flight restrictions and full health and travel disclosures upon arrival.

China, where the virus first emerged late last year, remains the most affected country with more than 80,000 cases, but authorities have enacted strict measures to prevent its spread. Experts have expressed hope that the Chinese outbreak has peaked.

Read also: Outrage after Israeli rabbi claims God sent coronavirus as punishment for homosexuality

Governments are scrambling to respond to the outbreak with countries across the Middle East, cancelling public gatherings, restricting public access to sporting events and closing schools.

The number of cases of novel coronavirus worldwide has crossed 119,000 people in 100 countries and territories with more than 4,300 dead.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino