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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Champion

We’ve cut aid to Yemen and children will starve – is this what global Britain means?

A displaced Yemeni boy carries a UNHCR bucket at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen, 1 March 2021.
‘In Yemen, the UK could have chosen to help avert catastrophic famine and build foundations for peace, but has instead decided to turn the other way.’ A camp for internally displaced persons on the outskirts of Sana’a, Yemen, 1 March 2021. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

Three weeks ago, foreign office minister James Cleverly told me that in the face of drastic cuts to the UK’s aid budget, Yemen would remain a UK priority country and the government would use the full force of its diplomatic efforts to bring about peace.

On Monday, those words rang hollow when he announced the UK was slashing humanitarian aid to Yemen by more than 50% compared with last year. As a consequence, an already devastated country now faces the worst famine in decades and the prospect of lasting peace seems further away than ever.

Yemen is in the grip of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Since 2015, the country has been engulfed in a devastating civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead, including tens of thousands of civilians. Many millions more are dealing with the destruction of critical infrastructure including hospitals and homes, internal displacement and a deepening economic crisis.

This protracted and complex situation is only getting worse, with 80% of the population, including 12.4 million children, now in need of humanitarian assistance. Despite this clear need, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) suggests 3 million fewer Yemenis were receiving aid each month by late 2020 compared with the beginning of the year. Abeer Fowzi, of IRC Yemen, said “never before have Yemenis faced so little support from the international community – or so many simultaneous challenges”.

Today, the greatest threat Yemenis face is that of severe hunger. Mark Lowcock, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has warned that 50,000 Yemenis are already living in famine-like conditions and 400,000 under-fives are at risk of dying from hunger in the coming weeks.

The UN was seeking nearly $4bn (£2.9bn) of humanitarian funding to stave off immediate disaster and help 16 million people across Yemen survive. It was hoped the UK would maintain previous levels of aid at about £200m last year. Lowcock has said anything less would be catastrophic for prospects for peace in the country, making the UK commitment of £87m all the more tragic.

I was warned in January that British ambassadors in developing countries were being asked to cut their aid budgets by 50 to 70%. When I raised this with the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, he said he did not recognise the figure. Monday’s cut to aid for Yemen confirms my worst fears – that these figures are true and not even those in the most desperate humanitarian crises are safe.

There remains a shocking lack of transparency from government about where wider aid cuts will fall and I am not aware of any consultation with NGOs or partners in the global south to minimise their impact. I have heard about forthcoming cuts to projects seeking to empower girls to know their rights and report cases of violence, while warnings have also been sounded about programmes dealing with nutrition, water sanitation and hygiene and sexual and reproductive health. Analysis suggests that because of government cuts 5.3 million fewer children a year will be immunised and 4.5 million fewer will gain a decent education.

As other G7 countries step up their aid commitments, the UK, despite hosting the G7 summit later this year, isn’t doing the same. In Yemen, the UK could have chosen to help avert catastrophic famine and build foundations for peace, but has instead decided to turn the other way. The words often repeated are that Yemenis aren’t starving, they are in fact being starved.

It is even more perverse that the government made this decision while maintaining arms exports to countries connected to the civil war. On this, they’ve ignored calls from Labour, their own backbenches and President Joe Biden who, in his first foreign policy address, announced an end to all relevant arms sales to the war in Yemen.

There is a wider concern, however: these decisions are establishing a worrying precedent for what “global Britain” – still largely undefined – really means. Slashing support for Yemen not only puts us dangerously out of step with our allies, but we are consciously abandoning millions on the brink of starvation. Is this really what global Britain should be?

• Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the international development committee

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