The UK Government has announced a significant cut in aid to Yemen—home to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and aid operation. The UN warns that Yemen is on the brink of famine.

The situation arises from a decade of political conflict and civil war between the Hadi Government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi rebels. The conflict has raised questions over whether the UK should be selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which Oxfam and Save the Children argue intensify the conflict.

The UK has recently secured a resolution on the conflict in the UN Security Council. The Government says the UK will remain “one of the largest donors,” to Yemen.

This Insight outlines reactions to the cut, the Government’s position and international efforts.

What has the Government announced?

At the UN Pledging event for the Humanitarian situation in Yemen on 2 March 2021, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly said that UK aid to Yemen in 2021/22 will be “at least £87 million.”

The pledge represents around 54 percent of the £160 million announced for 2020/21, and 40 percent of the £200 million for 2019/20 (both unadjusted figures). In fact, the UK exceeded the total pledged for 2020/21, delivering £214 million in aid to Yemen in 2020.

A chart shows the UK Bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Yemen
Source: FCDO, Final UK Aid spend 2019: Table A4b. , October 2020; real terms figures calculated using GDP deflators from OBR, Public finances databank, January 2021.

Over £1 billion of UK aid has been provided since 2015. James Cleverly said the UK would remain “one of the largest donors,” to the humanitarian relief effort in Yemen.

Pledges for the humanitarian situation in Yemen made at UN High-Level Pledging Events

US $ millions, not adjusted for inflation, 2017-21

Note: Figures pledged may differ from the amount provided. Selected contributors only.
Sources: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Yemen 2021; Yemen 2020; Yemen 2019, Yemen 2018, Yemen 2017.
Year Total Saudi Arabia Germany United Arab Emirates United States United Kingdom European Commission Kuwait
2017 1,100.00 150.00 53.01 100.00 94.00 173.10 123.14 100.00
2018 2,010.00 500.00 40.74 500.00 87.00 239.77 132.71 250.00
2019 2,620.00 750.00 114.16 750.00 23.91 261.44 184.42 250.00
2020 1,350.00 500.00 137.97 225.00 196.56 78.21
2021 1,670.00 430.00 244.80 230.00 191.00 123.23 116.28 10.00

There’s been an overall cut in the aid budget

Critics say the cut reflects the UK Government’s announcement in the November 2020 Spending Review to reduce Official Development Assistance (ODA) from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI).

Five former Prime Ministers opposed the reduction—a position reiterated by David Cameron in an appearance before the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy on 1 March 2021. On 3 March, Prime Minister Johnson said “current straitened circumstances […] mean that we must temporarily reduce aid spending.”

What is UK aid in Yemen spent on?

UK aid to Yemen is channelled through multilateral institutions including the World Food Programme, the UN Children’s Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It is primarily humanitarian aid, focusing on the provision of basic services. An aid package to tackle the spread of the coronavirus in Yemen was announced in June 2020.

What is the current situation in Yemen?

In February 2021 the World Food Programme said that 16.2 million people face hunger which is “unprecedented”. It forecasts that famine-like conditions will triple in the first half of 2021, affecting 47,000 people.

A UN Refugee Agency official underlined the seriousness of the situation in February:

Probably two-thirds of the population relies on our humanitarian assistance for their daily survival. Half of the health facilities have been destroyed by five years of conflict. One person in eight has been displaced by conflict. There is cholera, malaria, chikungunya, and dengue fever and, on top of all this, we now have coronavirus, which is not even the main concern in terms of communicable diseases.

UN Security Council Resolution- renewing sanctions

In February, the UN Security Council supported a UK-drafted resolution calling for a nationwide ceasefire and renewing financial and travel ban sanctions to February 2022. It also condemned the escalation of fighting in Marib, where there are rising concerns for civilians in the Hadi-Government controlled city, and the continuation of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, including the attack on Abha International airport in February.

US suspension of arms sales

In February, President Biden announced that the United States was ending American support “for all offensive operations,” in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

This has led to increased scrutiny of the UK’s sale of weapons.

Reaction to UK Government’s reduced pledge to Yemen

Much reaction has been critical, though some MPs have stressed that a resolution to the conflict ultimately requires international co-operation. UN officials state an early end to the conflict and the humanitarian crisis are not in sight.

The Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion MP, said the decision “is completely at odds with the Government’s assertions that the UK should be a global leader, especially in the year with the G7 and COP presidencies.” The Chairs of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committees have called on the Government to revisit the pledged amount.

Former Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, and former FCDO Minister, Baroness Sugg, have also criticised the pledge.

In an Urgent Question on 2 March 2021, Andrew Mitchell argued that the decision was “a harbinger of terrible cuts to come” in the UK’s aid budget. He also emphasised that any decision to move away from the 0.7 per cent aid target should only follow a vote in the Commons.

Government response

The Minister for the Middle East, James Cleverly, told the Commons:

The UK will provide at least—I repeat, at least—£87 million in aid to Yemen over the course of financial year 2021-22. […] [It] will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 health clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. We will also provide one-off cash support to 1.5 million of Yemen’s poorest households to help them buy food and basic supplies. Alongside the money […] we continue to play a leading diplomatic role in support of the UN’s efforts to end the conflict.

The Minister said: “the commitment […] represents a floor, not a ceiling and that the figures we have ultimately distributed in previous years have, in every one of those years, exceeded the figures pledged.”

Further Reading

UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia: Q&A, House of Commons Library, January 2021.

Timeline: Ten years from uprising, Yemen lies fractured and hungry, Reuters.

Spending Review: Reducing the 0.7% aid commitment, House of Commons Library, November 2020.

About the authors: Anna Dickson is Head of the International Affairs and Defence Section and Philip Loft is a researcher specialising in international development at the House of Commons Library.

Image: UK aid shelter kits are loaded for shipment, by UK Department for International Development under CC BY-ND 2.0

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