President Joe Biden took a big step toward resolving the world’s worst humanitarian crisis earlier this month by ending U.S. support for a Saudi-led coalition that is pummeling Yemen. But experts say that to truly alleviate suffering there, he needs to immediately end a Trump administration hold on more than $70 million in U.S. aid to the country.
By releasing the assistance, Biden would dramatically boost supplies of medical equipment and other life-saving material for the most populous areas in Yemen, where the coronavirus pandemic has created additional misery on top of the mass starvation, civilian deaths and devastation caused by years of war. And the U.S. president could send an important message globally ahead of a March 1 international conference to raise donations for the crumbling country.
On Thursday, activists working on Yemen policy at prominent progressive, relief and faith organizations released an open statement urging Biden to lift the pause. The message, shared with HuffPost before its release, praises the president’s “critical Yemen policy resets” but notes that, given the extent of Yemen’s collapse, “millions more are needed [in funds], in particular, for emergency stocks of personal protective equipment, ventilators, ICU beds, and other vital supplies.”
“The United States, through USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], is one of the few countries that can mobilize the money and resources to procure and distribute them,” continues the message, which was organized by the Friends Committee on National Legislation and signed by dozens of advocacy groups.
Members of Congress are also expected to lobby Biden on the matter.
Citing interference in deliveries by authorities in northern Yemen, then-President Donald Trump suspended most U.S. aid to the region in March 2020, days before the country reported its first case of COVID-19.
Humanitarian groups slammed Trump’s move, saying the meddling was a problem but that slashing support would be deadly ― and skeptics of America’s role in the conflict noted that the policy had political overtones because the U.S. was helping the Saudi-led coalition fight the militia in control of the north, a group known as the Houthis.
Critics of Trump’s decision also worried that it would cause a broader slump in aid because non-American donors would follow Washington’s lead for strategic or logistical reasons.
That fear was borne out: In 2020, Yemen only received 56% of the humanitarian support the United Nations believed it needed, U.N. figures show ― compared to receiving more than 80% of what the U.N. sought in 2019 and in 2018. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia provided hundreds of millions of dollars less than they had previously, while the United Arab Emirates ― also part of the alliance battling the Houthis ― gave the U.N. nothing at all.
Meanwhile, the Saudis and Emiratis continued a blockade of Houthi-run areas that drove up food prices and slowed down deliveries of essential items.
Lawmakers repeatedly blasted Trump’s action. His administration acknowledged those concerns by promising new food aid for Yemen, but Trump failed to reverse the policy, instead taking further anti-Houthi actions with alarming humanitarian implications like designating the Yemeni rebel group as a terror organization.
After pulling U.S. military support for the Saudis and their partners and pausing the Houthi terror designation, Biden can complete his turn away from Trump’s disastrous policy with the shift on aid.
“Yemen can’t wait any longer as it teeters on the edge of catastrophe,” Hassan El-Tayyab of the Friends Committee told HuffPost.
On Friday, a USAID spokesperson defended the suspension of aid in an email to HuffPost. The spokesperson said the agency was tracking whether “changing conditions necessitate a shift in our approach,” adding that officials “have begun to see the Houthis make some progress in reducing their obstructionist behaviors.” The U.S. goal is to fully restore humanitarian operations in Yemen, the spokesperson continued.
Though the Houthis have badly exacerbated Yemen’s pain, including with an ongoing offensive on the heavily populated region of Marib, the broad consensus among analysts and relief workers remains that tactics like using aid to pressure them are unacceptable in a country where 24 million people need some kind of help.
“In future years, scholars will study [Trump’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,” Scott Paul of Oxfam America wrote of the policy last summer.