How the UK became an accomplice in Yemen's famine

How the UK became an accomplice in Yemen's famine
Comment: Taking away over half of Yemen's aid budget while still providing the weapons of war is beyond contempt, writes Aniqah Choudhri.
5 min read
11 Mar, 2021
More than 3.3 million have been displaced across Yemen [Getty]
Earlier this month, the UK government revealed its decision to cut aid to Yemen, nearly halving the amount from last year and representing a loss of over $95 million for the war-ravaged country.

This is just one of the planned cuts to foreign aid, with more to come in the following weeks. Somalia too, is facing cuts of up to 50 percent, at a time when poverty is on the rise due to Covid-19. 

James Cleverly's announcement at the virtual donor's conference sparked cross-party condemnation of the decision and the devastating consequences it will have for Yemen and the world's worst humanitarian crisis . It is a decision the UN's chief has called a "death sentence". 

More than 80 percent of the population in Yemen is in need of urgent aid. The country is home to a deadly and ongoing cholera epidemic. Many do not have access to clean water and the country is in the grip of a devastating famine.

All this was the situation before Covid-19. While the focus in the West has been on a deadly global pandemic, for Yemenis Covid is just one of many life threatening factors.

Before the cuts were announced this month, the UN warned that 400,000 children may starve to death in Yemen this year alone. Funding for aid means food packages that can save people from starving to death. It means access to drugs that can prevent and cure disease, like the cholera vaccine.

Before the cuts were announced this month, the UN warned that 400,000 children may starve to death in Yemen this year alone

It's funding so the hospitals and medical centres - half of which are not operational - can function. It's funding for sexual and reproductive health for women. It means thousands - many of them children - will not die from preventable causes in what the UNICEF director called a "waking nightmare". But by cutting this aid by half, the UK is indeed condemning these people to death.

This action has provoked a Tory rebellion, even among members associated with the party's right-wing, condemning the move on the grounds that aid was good for the UK's "international standing".

Such reasoning belies a key misconception; a wilful misconception, of the horrors the people of Yemen are facing: that this has nothing directly to do with us.

But we are not bystanders in the crisis Yemen is facing. Instead, the UK is directly responsible for much of the upheaval that has led to famine, unrest, disease and poverty. Former cabinet minster Andrew Mitchell even addressed this in parliament, questioning the government's "position of supporting the Saudi coalition, where Britain is complicit in creating a famine." 

Read more: UK's 'inexplicable' cut to Yemen aid sparks outrage

Last month, Biden announced that the US would be suspending arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. Although this is only the first step in a long journey to ending US complicity in this crisis, it is one the UK has so far refused to follow. Between 2010 and 2019, 40 percent of the arms exported from the UK were to Saudi Arabia. 

According to the Yemen Data Project, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out more than 22,700 airstrikes on Yemen since the start of the war. This works out on average to 12 attacks a day. The strikes have hit hospitals, schools, buses, fishing boats and farms. Human Rights Watch has documented that many of these attacks were unlawful and specifically targeted civilians. The weapons used in these strikes were often sold to Saudi Arabia from the UK. 

In light of this history, the decision to cut aid so severely is even more unjustifiable. The act of sending aid while also providing the tools of Yemeni suffering is painfully hypocritical. Taking over half that aid away while still providing those weapons is beyond contempt. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has used the pandemic as an excuse for cutting aid, not just to Yemen but to other countries also in pressing need. He added: "I think the people of this country will think that we've got our priorities right," - a grim tactic for ensuring the support of the country's nationalists and far-right supporters. 

We are not bystanders in the crisis Yemen is facing. Instead, the UK is directly responsible for much of the upheaval

It is worth pointing out that public spending since Johnson has been in office has not been focused on prioritising the people of this country. Earlier this year it was reported that the UK has the highest Covid death rate in the world. This, in spite of spending the stunning amount of $30 billion on a test and trace system (run by a Conservative peer), that has fallen spectacularly short. There was also the $2.7 billion worth of Covid contracts handed out to companies linked to Conservative Party members and donors during the pandemic.

The UK, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, has money to send to Yemen. That gives it a moral obligation to do so, even if it were not also partly responsible for its current crisis - which it is.

While the US government, four former UK prime ministers and other figures have all voiced their strong opposition, the cuts to foreign aid will play well with some in the Conservative support base. The fact that their government does not care for the vulnerable and destitute at home will matter very little, as long as their nationalist pride is appeased.

Aniqah is a freelance journalist based in Manchester. Her work has appeared in The Independent, gal-dem and Exeunt Magazine. She also writes fiction and poetry and has been published in several anthologies.

Follow her on Twitter: @aniqahc 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.