The UK government has provoked a storm of condemnation after more than halving its aid to Yemen, where hundreds of thousands are living in famine conditions and millions more are short of food.
James Cleverly, the Middle East minister, announced at a UN donor conference on Monday that UK aid would fall to £87m, from £214m in 2020. The UN had been seeking a total of $3.85bn (£2.76bn) in assistance for Yemen.
The move was immediately met with outrage from charities and MPs.
Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary, said he was “deeply disappointed” and added that the “timing is inexplicable with the UN warning only last week that Yemen faces the worst famine the world has seen for decades”.
Andrew Mitchell, the Tory former international development secretary, said the decision was “unimaginable” amid the coronavirus crisis.
He added: “Britain is the lead country at the UN on Yemen, yet this decision will condemn hundreds of thousands of children to starvation.
“It makes no foreign policy sense at all. Rather, it is the consequence of breaking a promise made in our manifesto.
“The government should urgently put this issue to a vote in the House of Commons before they cut any more lifesaving projects which are clearly in Britain's national interest.”
Labour’s Sarah Champion tweeted: “This is dramatically below previous commitments from the UK and far below what is needed to save lives.” And Layla Moran, of the Liberal Democrats, called the decision “appalling and heartless”.
Save the Children accused the government of abandoning starving Yemeni children.
Kevin Watkins, its UK chief executive, said in a statement: “In September last year, the UK announced a global call to action to avert famine. Six months later, it is slashing aid to a country on the verge of the largest famine the world has seen in decades.
“Global Britain should be standing up for the 400,000 children under five who might starve to death in Yemen this year, not abandoning them in their hour of greatest need.”
Mr Watkins called on ministers to reverse course – and to scrap chancellor Rishi Sunak’s plan to cut overall foreign aid from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP, which breaks a Tory manifesto pledge.
Yemen’s war began in 2014 after Houthi rebels seized Sanaa, the capital, after which Saudi Arabia, backed by the US and UK, intervened to restore the internationally recognised government.
Some 130,000 people have been killed in a conflict with widespread civilian casualties.
Britain has faced criticism for selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Last summer, it was announced those sales would resume despite fears UK weapons had been used in war crime incidents.
Campaign Against the Arms Trade called Mr Cleverly’s aid announcement on Monday “heinous”.
Sarah Waldron, a spokesperson, said: “This is a devastating cut to aid and is all the more heinous given that this is a crisis that the UK has helped to create.
“The UK bears direct responsibility for this unfolding catastrophe through its weapons supplies, and unquestioning support for the Saudi-led coalition that has destroyed so much of Yemen’s infrastructure.
“This is a time to work for peace, not profit. The international community must step up to prevent famine – and the UK must show leadership by stopping the arms sales that are fuelling this tragedy and focus its efforts on supporting an inclusive peace process.”
A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “The UK remains steadfast in our support to the Yemeni people as one of the biggest donors of lifesaving aid and through our diplomatic efforts to bring peace.
“Since the conflict began, we have supported millions of vulnerable Yemenis with food, clean water and healthcare, and will continue to do so. We are using our UN Security Council seat and working with our allies to push for a lasting resolution to the conflict. Yemen’s leaders must meaningfully engage with the UN to agree a ceasefire.”
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