US Cuts to Foreign Aid Exacerbate Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis


Over the last six years, the Yemeni people have endured a conflict that threatens millions of lives, leaving the population grappling with extreme conditions and in need of humanitarian assistance. The Houthi rebel movement, aligned with Iran, has diverted and disrupted aid sent to Houthi-controlled areas, leading the Trump Administration to cancel tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid and fail to meet U.S. aid pledges. The cutting of U.S. foreign aid to Yemen, a country already experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, further aggravates the food insecurity that has left millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation.

The conflict in Yemen began in 2014 when the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and forced President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadis’ government to flee to Saudi Arabia. Since 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has waged war against the Houthi rebels, seeking to restore Hadi to power with the support of western nations such as the U.S. and U.K. The conflict has forced over 3.6 million people to flee their homes, and approximately 80% of the population—24 million people—direly need humanitarian assistance. In particular, food insecurity remains one of the largest humanitarian crises impacting Yemenis. In September 2015, 12.9 million Yemenis suffered food insecurity, a 21% rise since March 2015, and an estimated 323,000 children under five years old required nutritional services due to malnutrition. By 2019, an estimated 20.1 million people (67% of the population) were food insecure, including 10 million who were severely food insecure. With a 55.8% increase in food insecurity as a result of the war, Yemenis across the country are in dire need of food aid—support that only robust foreign aid can provide.

Map of the Yemeni War showing areas controlled by opposing forces
Image by International Crisis Group.

As the Yemeni War entered its seventh year in March, 12 million Yemeni children required food aid. The conflict has exposed the unique vulnerability of Yemen’s children, with millions suffering and dying from acute malnutrition. According to a report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “children have been affected disproportionately with one-half of children under five undernourished, and nearly 400,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM).” Additionally, international aid organization Save the Children estimates that “between April 2015 and October 2018 … SAM caused the death of over 84,000 children.” 2020 experienced the greatest growth of SAM cases in young children with a rise of 15.5%. Malnutrition continues to impact children across Yemen, and according to United Nations (UN) research, the governorates of Al Hudaydah, Lahj, Taizz, Aden, and Hadramaut have acute malnutrition rates that exceed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 15% emergency threshold. These five governorates comprise areas controlled by both the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition, including predominantly Saudi-controlled areas with a jihadist presence. Restrictions levied by the Saudi and Houthi forces have prevented the delivery of food aid and restricted access to international humanitarian assistance from agencies such as the UN and World Food Programme (WFP). The WHO has warned that even with a partial lifting of restrictions on food and aid delivery, millions more Yemenis could be pushed into hunger, endangering the lives of thousands of children.

These restrictions have deepened the humanitarian catastrophe as “more than 90% of food in Yemen is imported, exposing the nation to food shortages when ports are not accessible or food is unaffordable due to exchange rates and price fluctuations,” according to the WFP. Beginning in March 2020, the Trump Administration, concerned that the Houthi rebels were diverting, disrupting, and stealing foreign aid, pressured the UN to scale back its vital aid to Yemen. Later that month, the Trump Administration froze tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid to Yemen and halted USAID programs in Houthi-controlled areas. These cuts sought to leverage foreign aid to improve operating conditions in Yemen, hoping to “prompt the rebels to lift measures in areas of Yemen they control that have made it difficult for aid groups to operate.” However, the reduction in USAID programs continues in Houthi-controlled areas because the rebels have failed “to demonstrate sufficient progress towards ending unacceptable interference in aid operations.” U.S. foreign aid comprises a fifth of all foreign funding for Yemen, and without it, aid groups on the ground struggle to provide the lifesaving food and nutritional services desperately needed by citizens and children suffering from malnutrition. Further compromising humanitarian efforts, the Trump Administration’s withdrawal of funding from the WHO hampered the organization’s ability to provide food and other aid to Yemen. As the conflict continues, the Trump Administration’s freeze of foreign aid and its scale back of USAID programs will have a lasting impact on extreme food shortages and mortality, especially among children. Millions of Yemenis rely on U.S. aid as conditions during the war worsen.

With neither the Houthi rebels nor the Saudi-led coalition signaling for a nationwide ceasefire, the scale back of U.S. aid during the crisis contributes to the surge in food insecurity and internally displaced people. In February 2020, USAID predicted that Yemen’s food security situation would worsen, “as foreign currency shortages and a northern de facto ban on new Republic of Yemen Government (RoYG)-issued banknotes are anticipated to increase food and fuel process and disrupt imports.” Moreover, a UNDP report estimates that by 2022, 37.3 million Yemenis (31% of the population) will suffer from malnutrition, including 4.4 million (24%) of children. The UNDP assumes “… reduced conflict intensity relative to 2018, but continued large-scale violence through 2022,” and it warns that with continued conflict, child mortality will grow.

The UNDP report also goes a step further, describing that an ongoing conflict into 2030 will increasingly and disproportionately impact the lives of children, with an estimated 22.7 million children (55% of the estimated 2030 child population) living with malnutrition. Of the general population, the UNDP anticipates malnutrition to impact 220.3 million Yemenis—comprising 84% of the 2030 population. If the U.S. freezes foreign aid to Yemen for at least the next two years, a sharp surge in food insecurity will likely occur. Although conflict often leads to food insecurity, the lack of U.S. aid will exacerbate food shortages, malnutrition, and acute malnutrition among the general population, and especially children, across the war-torn country.

While worsening Yemen’s food shortages, U.S. cuts in foreign aid have risen the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Yemen and forced Yemenis to flee their homes for safety and nutritional services. Yemen struggled with displacement prior to this conflict, but the number of people fleeing violence has increased sharply since the war began, and 3,635,000 people lived in internal displacement at the end of 2019. Although the war has constrained data collection on the relationship between Yemen’s IDPs and food insecurity, a lack of access to food can contribute to and worsen the effects of internal displacement. Freezing support to a country where 80% of the population depends on foreign aid makes the conflict worse. The UNOCHA warns that “the mass displacement of populations has increased the need for basic food and non-food items to sustain minimum living standards. Such needs, if not immediately met, will further increase the vulnerability of the population.”

As blockages set by the Houthi rebels and Saudi-led coalition deprive millions of Yemenis of adequate food to feed their families, food shortages threaten the survival of millions of people. Article 25, Section 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social service.” By freezing millions of dollars in foreign aid to Yemen and reducing USAID programs, the Trump Administration built a barrier between the Yemeni people and their human rights, barring Yemenis from receiving necessary food aid and nutritional services. As the war continues, millions of Yemenis will be left suffering without their basic human right to food and other aid, aggravating a crisis that has already left millions of Yemenis near starvation. With the new Biden Administration transitioning into power, it will be imperative for the U.S to restore its foreign aid to Yemen and support robust funding of the WHO in its efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of Yemeni civilians. Facing scaled back USAID programs and a freeze to U.S. foreign aid, President Biden and his team confront an international emergency, and the new administration must enact a policy solution to end the blockade of humanitarian and food aid in Yemen.

Featured image by Ellie Van Houtte/USAID.