Canada pledges $40M to 'avert catastrophe' in Yemen

Canada is pledging $40 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen as the war-ravaged country copes with a resurgence of cholera, dengue fever, malaria and diphtheria in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic, International Development Minister Karina Gould announced Tuesday.

Gould calls on donors to 'step up' as NDP criticizes Liberal government's aid record

Yazan, 1, sits with his mother before his heart surgery at the Tajoura National Heart Center in Tripoli, Libya, Feb. 27, 2020. Authorities in Yemen, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip warn that health care systems gutted by years of war and unrest have left millions of people doubly vulnerable to the pandemic. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

Canada is pledging $40 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen as the war-ravaged country copes with a resurgence of cholera, malaria, dengue fever and diphtheria in the middle of the global COVID-19 pandemic, International Development Minister Karina Gould announced Tuesday.

Gould made the announcement at an international pledging conference, co-hosted by the United Nations and Saudi Arabia, which aimed to raise $2.4 billion US for underfunded humanitarian programs run by UN agencies and humanitarian organizations in Yemen.

"Yemen has the fourth highest number of displaced people in the world. And in the first half of 2020, it experienced once-in-a-generation flooding that devastated communities and led to widespread killer diseases such as cholera, dengue, malaria and diphtheria," Gould told the virtual conference.

"Now, as COVID-19 threatens to compound the situation, we as donors and humanitarians must step up our efforts to avert catastrophe."

'A race against time'

Addressing the pledging conference from New York, UN Secretary General António Guterres said more than five years of conflict have left Yemenis "hanging on by a thread, their economy in tatters, their institutions facing near-collapse."

Humanitarian agencies in Yemen are "in a race against time," Guterres said.

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"Unless we secure significant funding, more than 30 out of 41 major United Nations programmes in Yemen will close in the next few weeks."

International Development Minister Karina Gould called on all donors states to "step up" their efforts in Yemen. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Some 75 per cent of UN programs in Yemen have shut their doors or reduced operations already because of a lack of funding. The global body's World Food Program had to cut rations in half and UN-funded health services were reduced in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.

Speaking on behalf of 37 international NGOs working alongside civil society organizations on the ground in Yemen, Audrey Crawford of the Danish Refugee Council said that because of funding shortages, humanitarian agencies are being forced to slash payments to health workers, stop providing clean water and scale down sanitation services – all in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

'A perfect storm of multiple crises'

In addition, humanitarian aid groups in Yemen have to take care of 280,000 refugees from Somalia and 3.6 million internally displaced Yemenis scattered in makeshift camps across the country, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Yemen, told Radio Canada International.

The humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic is also being complicated by war — the ongoing conflict between the Houthi movement, which controls most of the country, and the Saudi-led coalition, as well as conflicts between various Yemeni groups in the south of the country that oppose the Houthis and are backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said Thomas Juneau, a Yemen and Iran expert from the University of Ottawa.

"Yemen for years has been a perfect storm of multiple crises at the same time," said Juneau, a former Middle East analyst at the Department of National Defence. "There is a health crisis, there is a political crisis, there is a security crisis. So the coronavirus is just one additional layer on what was already an extremely complicated and difficult situation."

Houthi rebels reluctant to cooperate

The situation is further compounded by the reluctance of the Houthi rebels to cooperate with international humanitarian organizations and UN agencies, Juneau said.

"The Houthis are extremely suspicious of international organizations. It is just consistent with their worldview — they do not have experience governing outside of their small area before the current war and they are just extremely paranoid," Juneau said.

The United States, one of Yemen's largest sources of aid, decreased its aid to Yemen earlier this year, citing interference by the Iranian-backed Houthis. U.S. officials did not make any pledges on Tuesday but did not rule out additional funding in the future.

Buying influence with humanitarian aid

Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition of Arab states opposed to the Houthis, is another factor in the ongoing strife in Yemen, observers say.

"Saudi Arabia did not start the war in Yemen but it added to it when it intervened in 2015 and has been responsible for a good proportion of the destruction in Yemen," Juneau said. "At the same time, for political reasons, for diplomatic reasons, it is a large humanitarian donor to Yemen."

Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million US in aid for Yemen on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia is conscious of the fact that its international image has suffered — particularly in the U.S. — because of the war in Yemen, Juneau said.

"So it's trying to buy its way out of that damage, but at the same time on the ground in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is trying to buy influence with its humanitarian activities like any other country does," Juneau said.

Canada's foreign aid questioned

Gould's announcement of $40 million in aid on Tuesday brings Canada's total contributions to Yemen since 2015 to $220 million.

NDP critic for international development Heather McPherson said that while Canada's contribution is a step in the right direction, she "has been hugely disappointed by Canada's response to date."

Under the current Liberal government, Canada's official development assistance has fallen to its lowest level, McPherson said.

The NDP has also been vocal about its opposition to Canada's sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, she added.

"We know that these arms are being used potentially against the Yemenis, so it also feels very much like our government strategy is to give aid with one hand and perpetrate violence with the other," McPherson said.

Gould called on all relevant actors to work on finding a durable solution to the conflict in Yemen.

"The people of Yemen deserve decisive action. Their suffering must end and their rights and dignity must be protected," Gould told the pledging conference. "We must do everything possible to make this happen."