The UK government on Tuesday defended its decision to slash aid funding to Yemen after fierce criticism from senior Tory backbench MPs and warnings that the humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country was worsening.
Britain revealed it had cut its aid earlier this week when it pledged £87m to Yemen as part of a United Nation’s humanitarian appeal in the year to the end of March 2022, sharply down on the £164m promised by the UK for the current 12-month period.
The cut is the first clear evidence of the effect of the government’s decision to slash the foreign aid budget by £4bn annually. It said in November it would temporarily scrap the target, enshrined in law, that requires the UK to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid.
At the time, Rishi Sunak said the “domestic fiscal emergency” caused by the coronavirus pandemic justified the move to reduce the target to 0.5 per cent of GDP.
Yemen is enduring what the UN describes as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis, with more than two-thirds of the population dependent on some form of aid.
Mark Lowcock, the UN’s senior humanitarian official, has previously complained that a lack of donor funding is hampering aid efforts. Last month he warned that Yemen was “speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades” as malnutrition rates hit “record highs”.
The crisis has been triggered by a six-year civil conflict that morphed into a proxy war after Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015 to lead an Arab coalition against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. The US and the UK have drawn criticism for supporting the Saudi-led coalition with billions of dollars of arms sales.
The UK government pointed out that its total aid contributions to Yemen had surpassed £1bn and insisted the additional £87m funding would still have a substantial impact within the country.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Tuesday that despite the cut, the UK would still have a significant economic and diplomatic role in Yemen. “We remain, as we have done over the past five years, between the third and fifth highest donors into Yemen,” he said.
But the government was widely condemned by some of its own senior backbenchers. Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell described the decision as a “harbinger of terrible cuts to come”.
“Everyone in this house knows that the cut to the 0.7 [per cent of GDP level] is not a result of tough choices, it is a strategic mistake with deadly consequences,” Mitchell told MPs.
Another Conservative backbencher Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, argued that even though the level of aid to Yemen was still “generous” the cut would result in a gap in international funding, leaving the world’s poorest communities to suffer.
Labour’s shadow international development secretary Preet Kaur Gill urged the government to publish a list of the countries where aid had been cut by the end of the week.