Of the billions of dollars pouring into Yemen from international donors, only a trickle is actually reaching the people who need it the most reports Ahmed AbdulKareem.
SANA’A, YEMEN — The phenomenon of mercenarism in the impoverished Arab country of Yemen is not limited to the foreign fighters joining the Saudi-led coalition for money, but also includes UN relief organizations, international agencies, and their local partners who are ultimately denying Yemenis the food, healthcare, money and other aid they urgently need. Regardless of their goodwill.
According to a recent report, every ten minutes a child under the age of five dies from extreme hunger in Yemen, while six newborn babies lose their lives every two hours as a result of the continued deterioration of the health situation in the country. This, at a time when the country is riddled with aid agencies.
There are 22 million Yemenis in need of relief, including seven million at risk of starvation, and nearly two million children on the verge of dying from malnutrition according to UN reports, despite the massive sums of money allocated to Yemen from both the international community and regional organizations.
Moreover, 100,00 people die every year in the country as a result of diseases and epidemics, most of them children. Now, four years after the flow of donor funds into the war-torn country, these diseases and epidemics are increasingly emerging where aid, particularly medical assistance, was supposed to prevent their expansion.
According to United Nations Development Program (UNDP), poverty in Yemen has jumped from 47 percent of the population in 2014, before the war began, to a projected 75 percent by the end of 2019. That figure betrays the reality on the ground and suggests that donor money is simply not reaching Yemenis in need.
In 2018, the UN praised international donors for raising large amounts of money to tackle Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Almost all of the $3 billion pledged has been either received by the UN or formally committed. In 2017, when the first pledging conference for Yemen was held, 94 percent of the pledges, $1.1 billion, was fulfilled, according to the UN.
However, this year, the United Nations announced that humanitarian needs in Yemen for this year amount to $2.96 billion, $2.1 billion of which has already been collected, while other countries pledged the remaining amount.
Where does the aid money go?
The United Nations annually declares and approves a public response plan involving local authorities including Yemen’s National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Recovery (NAMCHA).
By investigating official documents of the annual public response and its actual outcomes, as well as tracking the flow of millions of dollars of supplies and funds from aid programs, it becomes apparent that most donor funds go to the coffers of UN relief organizations and international and local NGOs. In other words, more than seventy percent of the aid is stolen off the top.
That money is distributed to dozens of UN agencies, international organizations and local NGOs. The largest recipients include the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.
According to budget lists in the UN’s annual public response, 15-20 percent of grants are taken in the form of dues before they reach Yemenis. Then, an additional 45-60 percent of the grants go to relief organizations to cover operating and support expenses.
Moreover, a review of the UN budget shows that grant money allocated to Yemen has been wasted on projects that are not a part of the UN’s annual public response plan. That money is supposed to go towards serving the needs of Yemenis based on research by civil society organizations and local authorities.
At a time when hundreds of residents, mostly women and children, die every day due to shortages of food and medicine, millions of dollars are being funneled into reproductive health projects such as the International Child Welfare Organization’s reproductive health project with a budget of $4,592,632 to distribute contraceptives and educational sex dolls.
The Yemeni minister of public health and population, Taha al-Mutawakel called on the United Nations and humanitarian organizations to clarify the fate of funds allocated to Yemen. Al-Mutawakel bemoaned how aid money has been squandered on cars and services instead of alleviating the sufferings of Yemenis. “Stop shedding tears for our children who get killed, whilst there is no credibility whatsoever in your international reports and they do not help assuage this tragic situation, he said from inside the Sabeen Maternal Hospital in the capital Sana’a.
We are not demanding toys and video game consoles, but we are calling for incubators and other related devices to give children the right to life.”
Relief agency corruption trickles down to Yemen’s locals
Further analysis of public documents shows that a portion of aid money goes to the accounts of UN relief organizations via its procurement policy. Those organizations often allot excessive amounts of money to buy imported products, yet often end up buying those products from local markets or from abroad at lower prices than specified in their detailed humanitarian plan.
For example, in 2019, the World Food Program (WFP) budget included money to purchase 70 million liters of diesel at 92 cents per liter, for a total cost of $64.5 million. However, the domestic market price for diesel in just 75 cents per liter and the organization buys the diesel from Yemen Oil Company at the local price according to official agreements which have been reviewed by MintPress. That disparity means that a staggering $21,700,000 will end up in WFP coffers.
Relief organizations that have diverted donated food, medicine, fuel and money from desperate Yemenis amid their country’s five-year war also receive significant financial benefits by leveraging currency exchange rates. The procurement process and projects carried out by many of these organizations are paid for in local currency, not in U.S. dollars. In this way, organizations save substantial sums of money by engaging in a sort of currency speculation.
In addition, organizations workers have been caught selling relief items to local merchants who then trade them on the black market. Two merchants, as well as eyewitnesses, confirmed to MintPress that they were sold relief items bearing the WFP’s logo by the organization’s workers. Some residents engage in the sale of these items out of desperation and the need for money for medical treatment or to pay rent according to residents who spoke to MintPress.
Moreover, the scant food aid which millions of Yemenis rely on for their daily sustenance often doesn’t reach people until it is already expired, by that time often crawling with worms and cockroaches because of lack of proper storage facilities, constant power outages, or long hours in transport. Rotten food aid is sometimes burned as it is not fit for human consumption. To make matters worse, coalition forces have bombed bridges linking Yemen’s main port in Hodeida with Sana’a, the capital city, which has meant trucks loaded with vital supplies have to take other routes adding many hours to the journey.
Current conditions on the ground are seriously hindering the delivery and distribution of aid as the Saudi-led coalition is enforcing a commercial blockade on sea and air routes into the country, and placing restrictions on relief supplies where aid is subject to long inspection delays and in some cases, rejected altogether. The fate of the rejected aid is not known.
Inflated salaries and internal waste
Aid money isn’t just being squandered away on expired food and operating expenses. Some relief organizations, which often do not provide detailed financial reports on how aid money is spent, are riddled with financial mismanagement, corruption and nepotism. Donor money often goes to pay the inflated salaries of senior staff of international organizations, particularly to UN relief agency workers. The salary of just eight staff at the World Food Program in Yemen amounted to around $50 million.
According to the outcomes of a project for internally displaced people (IDPs) implemented by the UNHCR, the percentage of staff salaries, expenses and additional petty cash, which included the hiring of cars and houses for staff, makes up 64.3 percent of the project’s total budget. Just 35.7 actually went to IDPs. The salary of the manager for another UNHCR project implemented by the CARE organization reached $15,500 per month, although his contract stipulates a salary of $9,500 per month. Other documents showed his salary at $11,500 per month.
Yemen’s National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Recovery (NAMCHA) said there has been a deliberate waste of humanitarian aid funds allocated to the people of Yemen which amounts to a total of $4.2 billion, despite the humanitarian needs the Yemeni people not being met in 2019.
The United Nations has admitted to some incidents of corruption by aid workers, including a case in which a dozen of its aid workers enriched themselves from the billions of dollars in donated aid flowing into the country as well as from financial mismanagement.
In one particularly egregious case uncovered by the Associated Press, UN World Health Organization (WHO) employee Nevio Zagaria, an Italian doctor, arrived in Yemen in December 2016 after a four-year stint in the Philippines to lead the agency’s humanitarian efforts in Yemen. According to the AP’s investigation, the WHO’s Yemen office under Zagaria was riddled with corruption and nepotism.
Zagaria brought in junior staffers who worked with him in the Philippines and promoted them to high-salary posts that they were not qualified for. Two of them – a Filipino university student and a former intern, were given senior posts but their only role was to take care for Zagaria’s pet dog.
Even American organizations, whose work in Yemen carries an heir of exceptionalism since the United States in the largest single supplier of lethal weapons, information, and experts to the Saudi-led Coalition, has given Yemenis little more than crumbs. For example, in two projects implemented by American World Communities Organization, as well as a project from the American Mercy Corps, only 25 percent of aid went to people in need, while 75 percent went to the organizations and their workers.
The loss of donor funds by organizations is not without precedent. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) froze more than $239 million of funds intended for Syrian aid programs due to significant fraud after it investigated 25 reported cases, some two-thirds of which were directly related to outright theft and fraud. As in Yemen, most of the $5.5 billion in American aid was distributed through the United Nations and a host of partner organizations.
The simultaneous funding of war and aid
Areas along the frontline of Yemen’s ongoing war, such as the country’s western coast as well as border areas, are a priority for many relief organizations. Yet those organizations often provide little in the way of humanitarian support and instead have been found to be gathering intelligence or recruiting new fighters on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition, according to local residents. Many relief agencies have paid huge sums of money to the heads of local tribes. Two Yemeni tribal leaders, known locally as sheiks, told MintPress on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject, that they received payments from Mercy Core as an incentive to carry out secret tasks for the Coalition. The nature of those tasks was not revealed.
According to documents reviewed by MintPress and interviews with employees of relief organizations as well as eyewitnesses who spoke to MintPress, many organizations are working with groups classified by the United States as terrorists, including Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). For Example, the American Mercy Core allegedly contracted Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen’s Abyan province through an unauthorized Somali merchant to supply the group with foodstuffs and money.
Last week, authorities in Sana’a detained a number of U.N. humanitarian workers accused of spying, including two Jordanians who have since been released. Authorities accuse UN relief organizations of funding and conspiring with intelligence services to secretly target Yemenis, along with importing expired drugs and withholding fuel shipments.
Jordan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that two of its citizens conducting a humanitarian audit in Yemen were released and later flown home. The World Food Program, for its part, said that none of its workers were being held by authorities in Sana’a.
Amongst the largest donors and financiers of U.N relief organizations are the very same countries participating in the war on Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and supported by the United States.
Most of these organizations’ workers have political loyalty to ousted president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, or to the UAE or Saudi Arabi.
As a result of the lack of neutrality of a number of organizations, many Yemenis have not only been denied humanitarian aid, the risk to aid workers working in the country has grown. Last week, UN Deputy Humanitarian Chief Ursula Mueller warned the Security Council that attacks on aid workers have escalated in Yemen.
Corruption undermines the trust of civilians and donors
A number of Yemenis that spoke to MintPress said that they are not receiving any humanitarian assistance. Fatima, a 45-year-old mother of four, said she had not received food or medicine from aid organizations in four years. Fatima suffers from Inflammation of the spinal cord and relies on aid to get by. “No organization has helped us, where does the money go?” she asked.
Yemenis activists say that relief organizations, including UN organizations, are making a fortune in Yemen, asking the UN and international agencies to provide financial reports on how hundreds of millions of dollars that have been poured into Yemen since 2015 have been spent.
For its part, NAMCHA has called for the formation of an international committee to investigate the corruption of international organizations working in Yemen. However, the UN puts much of the blame on the Houthis, saying they have diverted donated food, medicine, fuel and money from desperate people over the course of the country’s five-year war.
The UN accuses the Houthis of corruption and stealing food and medicine for its own use. Yet most of the money squandered during humanitarian operations has been lost in the financing of marginal projects, procurement, transport and the distribution of medicines, food, and building materials, responsibilities which lie exclusively with relief organizations according to Transparency International.
The corruption of international relief organizations, as well as the bias they seem to harbor, undermines the trust of Yemen’s civilians on multiple levels. War-weary people don’t trust aid agencies to provide assistance and local authorities don’t trust the principled rhetoric around impartiality. Ultimately, this leads to donors not trusting that their money will reach the people who need it most.
Feature photo | A displaced Yemeni carries donated World Food Programme aid at a school in Sana’a, Aug. 25, 2019. Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.