In March, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) suspended most aid for Yemenis living in territory controlled by the authorities in Sana’a, known as the Houthis. In addition to halting $73 million in ongoing assistance programs, the suspension blocks any additional USAID funding for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 from reaching Yemenis in these areas. Although USAID has publicly justified its decision on humanitarian grounds – claiming that it will reduce the diversion of aid and pressure local authorities to halt interference with aid delivery – the move violates the same humanitarian principles that USAID is purporting to uphold. Instead of a whole-cloth suspension of aid to the North, USAID should pause only those specific aid activities that are most vulnerable to interference and diversion – in all parts of the country.

Compounding Desperation

For more than five years, Yemeni and international forces have waged a war that has created a colossal, nationwide humanitarian crisis. Though the parties to the conflict understand that they cannot win militarily, they refuse to make the compromises needed to piece together governing arrangements that can provide life-saving services and a better future for their country. The regional and global powers fueling the war seem to appreciate the damage done by the war, but appear to place greater value on their prestige and alliances than on the lives of Yemenis.

Yemen’s state institutions, currency, and private sector are in ruin. Most Yemenis lack a dependable source of income with which to buy food, water, fuel, and other basic commodities – items for sale at extravagant prices because of inflation, war profiteering, import restrictions, and double taxation. Health services are scarce, with most health care professionals working without their regular pay and roughly half of all facilities damaged or destroyed by the conflict, including many by U.S.-supported Saudi bombing. One of the only reliable businesses in Yemen has been the war business.

“You can’t imagine how desperate people are,” says Hakeem, one of Oxfam’s paid community health volunteers. Displaced from his home by the conflict, Hakeem is living with his seven children in an informal settlement of 45 families in al-Qaflah district, Amran governorate. He is helping to raise awareness and educate his community about the threat of COVID-19 and on how to stay safe from the disease. “I can see them during the night, worried, sad and totally unready to face another day. I try to calm them down and tell them it will be alright. Even with the payments from Oxfam, I am struggling, too. The other day I couldn’t afford to buy milk for my child. He was malnourished two years ago and I took him to a hospital to receive medical care on credit. I couldn’t pay back until now and I can’t follow up on his condition because of that.”

The situation in al-Qaflah is typical of those most vulnerable Yemeni communities that are at least fortunate enough to receive aid. Though the crisis in Yemen can be resolved only through a nationwide ceasefire, political settlement, and economic revival, humanitarian assistance has prevented a descent into widespread famine. In this sense, humanitarian aid resembles an ongoing blood transfusion: insufficient to completely heal the patient, but vital to her continued survival. For most of the past five years, international humanitarian assistance has reached the majority of Yemen’s approximately 30 million people. Remittances sent from the Yemeni diaspora (which have steeply declined in recent months due to COVID-19), locally funded assistance, and everyday generosity between neighbors, family, and friends have been at least as important as international aid in preventing a greater catastrophe in Yemen – but these sources cannot compensate for a sudden evaporation of humanitarian assistance from foreign donors.

 Challenges to Humanitarian Principles

As the conflict continues, the parties have increasingly focused their civilian institutions on winning the war at the expense of serving Yemeni people. Accordingly, they have stepped up their attempts to control the flow of aid. In both the North and the South, authorities are increasingly aiming to dictate the types of assistance provided, limit the movement of aid workers, and restrict project budgets. In response, humanitarian agencies have discontinued activities that would be subject to the undue control or direction of a party to the conflict. This has been necessary in order to respect the humanitarian principles that guide our work. In particular, the principle of impartiality requires that we provide assistance on the basis of need and need alone. The principle of humanity requires that we address suffering and save lives wherever we can. And the principle of independence requires that humanitarian agencies deliver assistance without interference and irrespective of the policies of governments and parties to the conflict.

Humanitarian decision-making in these circumstances is rarely straightforward, but the conundrum facing humanitarians in Yemen is unusually complex. The decision to scale back humanitarian action in an emergency of this scale means that many people will not receive aid they need to survive. This strains the principle of humanity and, especially to those of us who feel a connection to Yemeni communities, is extraordinarily difficult to bear. But if the alternative path risks perpetuating the conflict and damaging the integrity of humanitarian aid in Yemen and elsewhere, pausing activities subject to undue interference is appropriate and necessary.

All that said, the blanket USAID decision to suspend aid to northern Yemen introduces yet another challenge for humanitarians operating in this extremely complex environment: the gross misuse of humanitarian principles to deny the assistance that Yemen so desperately needs.

USAID’s “Humanitarian” Suspension

USAID’s response to authorities’ attempts to interfere with provision of aid was to announce that the agency would stop the flow of aid to the approximately 24 million people living under the authorities in Sana’a. The suspension immediately reduced funding for life-saving activities in Yemen by at least $73 million and cut future programs just as USAID’s global COVID response was scaling up. USAID’s NGO partners in the North continue to receive only limited funding for basic operational costs and narrow carve-outs for the treatment of severe acute malnutrition and cholera (Oxfam does not accept USAID funding in Yemen).

At the virtual pledging conference for Yemen on June 2, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker justified the suspension by claiming that USAID’s approach is in accordance with “globally accepted humanitarian principles.” In fact, the suspension is not an expression of humanitarian principles; it is a flagrant abuse of them.

USAID argues that its suspension is necessary to prevent funding from being diverted or interfered with. However, humanitarians familiar with the circumstances in Yemen will recognize this argument as hollow and pretextual. The most effective way to reduce aid diversion is to identify those activities that are uniquely vulnerable based on their individual circumstances and take steps to mitigate these specific vulnerabilities or pause the specific activities, as the rest of the humanitarian community has done throughout Yemen and many other countries. A blanket suspension of aid to an entire region – home to 80 percent of the country’s population – neither solves the problem of aid diversion nor vindicates the principles of humanity and impartiality. The fact that USAID is proceeding with business as usual in the South, where many programs are facing similar constraints as in the North, demonstrates USAID’s hypocrisy (as of July 12, a total of 95 NGO projects are stalled due to lack of approval from authorities in Yemen; 37 of these are in the South).

In addition to justifications on the basis of aid diversion and waste, U.S. officials maintain that suspending aid is intended to push the authorities in the North to drop their demands of aid agencies and allow aid to flow to people in need. But by withholding funding to leverage better humanitarian access, USAID is guilty of the same sin as the Yemeni authorities: holding vulnerable people hostage to political bargaining which has nothing to do with necessity. This violates the basic premise of humanitarian assistance: to distribute aid on the basis of need and need alone.

USAID Fails to Adapt to the New Reality: Access Improvements and COVID-19

The USAID suspension becomes even more difficult to justify in light of new developments on the ground. Since the suspension was announced, U.N.-led negotiations with the authorities in Sana’a have resulted in progress on each of the seven humanitarian access benchmarks jointly identified by donors. For example, the authorities have dropped a mooted 2 percent levy on all humanitarian activities and allowed independent assessments of needs to proceed without interference. Many unacceptable conditions remain and negotiations continue, but this progress has allowed agencies and donors to resume some of the activities that had been paused.

Of course, the most important change in circumstances since the suspension was announced is the coronavirus pandemic. When the virus arrived in Yemen, it found more than half of the country’s people malnourished and immunocompromised, without access to soap or safe water. Over three million people have been forced from their homes, many of them living in overcrowded camps and settlements in which distancing is impossible. For many Yemenis, staying home to avoid exposure to the virus could lead to another disease going untreated or a reduction in income, leading to greater food insecurity – and a more suppressed immune system.

The results have been predictably gruesome. Inadequate testing and suppression of test results make accurate infection counts impossible, but we know the disease is sweeping across the country at an alarming rate. A shocking 25 percent of the Yemenis who have tested positive have died. Though we strongly suspect that confirmed positives do not reflect the overall case load, it is nonetheless worth reflecting that this is five times the average global mortality rate.

“[Coronavirus] gives us two cruel choices: to stay home and die from hunger or go out and die from the disease,” A’eshah Yahya Dahish a 20-year-old woman from Abs, told my colleagues. Five years ago, U.S.-supported Saudi airstrikes destroyed her home in Haradh, where she had hoped to pursue a career in midwifery. Now in Abs, she has had to give up her education in order to support her ten siblings, her elderly father suffering from diabetes and hypertension, and her mother, who suffers from poor mental health. Recently, she has been preoccupied with the predicament facing her two-year-old brother, Maydan. “Maydan was malnourished in 2019, [so] we took him to hospital where they gave him some medicines [and] then he recovered, thankfully. After the coronavirus spread and our situation worsened, he was only eating bread crumbs mashed with water for either breakfast or dinner beside the lunch with us; that is all we give him. Now he is malnourished again, and I am very worried about him. But we can’t take him to hospital now; he may get infected with corona and die as his immune system is weak.”

As COVID’s rampage continues and access conditions improve, USAID has stubbornly stayed the course. USAID maintains that any funding for COVID-19 prevention activities would be wasted given the interference of the authorities, but this is flatly wrong. Oxfam is currently helping communities throughout northern Yemen access clean water, sanitation, and hygiene to prevent the spread of coronavirus. These ongoing projects are the result of detailed and sometimes-difficult negotiations with governing authorities to ensure independence and access. While I am immensely proud of my colleagues and their ability to secure this access, I have no doubt that our many peer agencies that receive USAID funding could carry out similar activities to expand assistance in the North if supported by USAID. But without USAID funding, these agencies cannot provide the assistance needed. Due to a funding shortfall exacerbated by USAID’s suspension, six million Yemenis, including three million children, will lose access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Failing to resume – or even adjust the conditions of – the provision of life-saving aid under these radically changed circumstances shows just how little the principle of humanity truly figures in USAID’s understanding of humanitarianism.

In future years, scholars will study USAID’s suspension as a paradigmatic example of a donor’s exploitation and misuse of humanitarian principles. Today in Yemen, it is not an academic question; it is a question of life and death for the countless Yemenis facing the coronavirus pandemic, hunger, and violence, whose lives might be saved but for the suspension of U.S. funding.

Images: A’eshah with her family having their lunch. Photo credit: Ahmed Alfadeel, Oxfam. Hakeem stands near his tent in the settlement for displaced families, where he lives and works with Oxfam to promote good health and sanitation, with a focus on how to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Haafedh Almattabi, Oxfam.