In a Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday, Ms Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough and chair of Labour Friends of Yemen, urged the Government to rethink its plans given the scale of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the country.
This year, the UK’s annual aid budget has been reduced from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent in a bid to save £4bn.
Yemen has been devastated by a war between Saudi-backed pro-government forces and the rebel Houthi movement for seven years and is now facing what the UN has called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.
Ms Furniss said: “The already bleak situation in the country has been made worse over the past 20 months, as violence has escalated, torrential rains have caused flooding and we have seen a locust infestation, a fuel crisis, covid-19 and the devaluation of the rial. In its latest update, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that there are 20.7 million people in need, including 12 million in acute need.”
She added: “The conflict and humanitarian crisis have caused an estimated 233,000 deaths. Those are mostly due not to the conflict itself but to indirect causes, such as a lack of food and a deterioration in the health service infrastructure. That does not include the country’s covid-19 deaths, which are very likely to be higher than the official statistics.
“The war has created an environment that has allowed a multitude of disasters to take root. The country’s health infrastructure has been significantly damaged; half of its health facilities are no longer functioning, and those that are lack equipment as basic as masks and gloves.
“Diseases such as cholera and typhoid have been allowed to run rampant: the UN has estimated that there have been more than 2.5 million cases of cholera in the country, with more than 4,000 deaths. Famine is widespread, with more than half of Yemenis not having enough to eat, and a quarter of Yemenis, including 2 million children, are suffering from malnutrition.
“The problems have been made worse by natural disasters such as widespread flooding. The worst flood in a generation hit just as covid arrived in the country in spring 2020. It impacted on more than 100,000 people. Furthermore, the flooding season often brings with it the risk of a cholera outbreak. The Centre for Disaster Philanthropy stated that the outbreak that occurred during the rainy season in 2019 was the second worst outbreak in global history. It is still not officially under control.
“I draw particular attention to the impact of all that on children. UNICEF stated that the country has become a “living hell for children”, with the damage to schools and hospitals severely limiting access to education and health services, robbing children of their futures.”
Ms Furniss said: “Given the wide-ranging impact of this humanitarian crisis, it is frankly unfathomable that the UK has cut its aid to Yemen. It flies in the face of the ever increasing challenges that face an ever increasing number of Yemenis. Cutting this vital lifeline has cost lives and will continue Toggle showing location of to do so.
“The Minister has said that the aid funding that has been announced will be a floor, not a ceiling. If there is a country where the Government could make good on those words, Yemen is it. If funding remains at the level announced, there will be a staggering 59 per cent cut from the amount spent in the 2020-21 budget. Human suffering is of such a scale that the Government must do more both to push for lasting peace and to save lives in the meantime. As the UN Security Council penholder on Yemen, we have a significant role to play in bringing about peace.”
James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said in response: “The situation in Yemen is beyond despair.
“It remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with two thirds of Yemenis — more than 20 million people — requiring some form of humanitarian assistance. The crisis results from a perfect storm of poverty, war and economic collapse, and has been exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic. It is clear that any sustainable solution can only really begin when the conflict comes to an end.
“We will continue to work with anyone and everyone we feel can help to bring about peace in Yemen, so that the real work of rebuilding the country and its society can start in earnest."
He admitted that the Government's aid contribution "is smaller than in previous years" but said the UK was still providing important support.
“In terms of humanitarian support, the UK Government have been one of the largest donors since the crisis began, having contributed more than £1 billion in aid. We pledged £87 million this year and have already distributed 85 per cent of it. While I am conscious that our contribution this year is smaller than in previous years, for reasons the House is very familiar with, the importance of the timely distribution of our aid cannot be overstated. Despite financial pressures at home, we remain of the largest donors to the UN appeal.
“Our funding this year will provide at least 1.6 million people with access to clean drinking water. It will support 400 clinics to offer primary healthcare and it will feed 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month. We are working with partners to ensure that priority is given to those suffering the most from food insecurity, to marginalised communities and vulnerable displaced people, and to those living in conflict-affected areas.”
Mr Cleverly hoped the UK would soon be able to increase its aid commitment again.
“The reduction in official development assistance spending is driven by the worst economic crisis this country has faced in 300 years. Thankfully because of our world-class vaccine roll-out programme, our economic recovery seems to be working at pace. We have the fastest recovery among our G7 partners. Hopefully that will mean we are able to recover to the 0.7 per cent level, which we are committed to returning to as soon as possible.
"Unfortunately, I am not able to give an accurate prediction of the future trajectory of the UK economy and, therefore, cannot give the hon. Lady a specific point in time. It remains our aim and commitment to return to 0.7 per cent as soon as the economic conditions allow.”
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