David Miliband on Yemen: A forgotten crisis in the Arab world’s poorest country

It has appalling malnutrition, the capital city is running out of water, and most of its people rely on aid. But, as the Friends of Yemen group meets in London, a former Foreign Secretary argues that a long-suffering people desperately need our help

 

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On 27 January 2010, as UK Foreign Secretary, I chaired a meeting in London that brought ministers from 21 countries together to discuss the myriad problems facing Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. We launched the Friends of Yemen, a grouping of states and global institutions that through regular meetings and systematic, structured engagement was to help the country tackle the political, social and economic causes of those problems.

The Friends of Yemen has  met five times since, and today will again gather in London. Much has changed in Yemen over the past four years. It has undergone a significant political transition and recently concluded a national dialogue process that will pave the way for a new constitution, general elections and a federal system of government. But the appalling humanitarian crisis in the country continues to receive little or no attention from the international community, despite the fact that it ranks alongside the Syria crisis in scale and threatens to undermine Yemen’s fragile political process.

Simply put, stability in Yemen is not possible if more than half of the population do not know where their next meal is coming from, or cannot access safe water and sanitation. Such is the challenge confronting the country. Some 14.7 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, hundreds of thousands of them driven from their homes by successive waves of violence over the past decade. Yemen’s malnutrition levels are the second-highest on the planet: more than 4.5 million people are severely food insecure, and around half of Yemen’s children under five are stunted.

These figures are terrifying. Yet Yemen is a forgotten crisis. Amid so much need and suffering, the UN’s appeal for Yemen for 2014 is just 11 per cent funded. Previous appeals for the country do not instil confidence. Last year, the UN received just 53 per cent of the money it needed to help Yemen, down 5 per cent from 2012.

Progress is not impossible. The Friends of Yemen knows well the factors – endemic poverty, chronic underdevelopment, poor governance, demographic pressure, environmental stress, political instability – that have brought the country to this point, and has, with the government of Yemen, taken steps to try to address them. The food-security and nutrition situations have improved in areas with substantial humanitarian agency presences. The International Rescue Committee’s programmes in the southern governates of Aden and Abyan are providing hundreds of thousands of people with health, nutrition and water services.

But Yemen remains in the throes of a complex emergency. A further shock could easily reverse these gains and could emanate from any one of a number of sources.

A quarter of a million of those in need in Yemen are refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries. Their presence in Yemen’s urban areas has placed a huge strain on its overstretched, under-resourced basic services and further heightened competition for jobs in an employment market struggling to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Yemenis recently deported from Saudi Arabia. Economic prospects are so meagre that many returnees, refugees and Horn of Africa migrants attempt to enter Saudi Arabia illegally through trafficking networks, leaving them vulnerable to kidnapping, robbery and rape.

Secondly, Yemen is one of the most water-starved countries in the world. Its rapid population growth rate of more than 3 per cent a year means shortages are set to continue and intensify, driving further conflicts across the country; hydrologists warn that in just over a decade Yemen’s capital, Sanaa – one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet – risks becoming the world’s first capital to run out of water. Oil resources, Yemen’s main source of revenue, are also dwindling, and the pipelines that transport its hydrocarbons are vulnerable to sabotage attacks: last year, for the first time in nearly three decades, Yemen spent more money importing oil than it generated from exports.

Finally, the country’s miserable poverty rate, worse today than when the Friends of Yemen was established, has allowed al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula to suck in Yemen’s youth with promises of cash and status – especially in the south, where a five-year-old insurgency continues to uproot families and thwart Yemenis’ efforts to build better lives. Tribal and religious battles in the north also rage on, casting a shadow over the country’s political transition.

In September 2012, in recognition of the magnitude of the crisis, donors pledged nearly $7.9bn (£4.7bn) of financial assistance for Yemen. More than half of that money was committed by members of the Gulf Co-operation Council;  Saudi Arabia alone pledged $3.25bn. Yet 19 months on, only a third of the total pledges have been honoured; at the current rate, the government of Yemen estimates that the remaining 65 per cent will take more than four-and-a-half years to be disbursed.

Yemen simply does not have that kind of time. The government and donors must speed up the disbursal process. Donors must deliver, support the UN’s humanitarian appeal for 2014 and co-operate and co-ordinate their efforts to make sure aid reaches those most in need. In particular, money must be made available for underfunded sectors like health, water and sanitation, as well as for the building up of capacity and infrastructure in rural areas and local government structures.

A long-term, durable solution must also be found for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Yemen. All stakeholders in the region must work together to alleviate the plight of migrant workers, and donors must meet the needs of those returning and mitigate the impact on Yemen’s economy.

No one is under any illusion as to the scale of this crisis. The  Friends of Yemen meeting will see a brief spotlight shone on the country as progress on the political, security and economic fronts is assessed. But the emergency on the Arabian Peninsula lies largely in darkness, driven down the global agenda by conflicts, disasters and priorities elsewhere. The people of Yemen deserve better.

David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former UK Foreign Secretary

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