LONDON: The British government has decided to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen,” in an act that will see tens of thousands die and damage the UK’s global influence, the head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs has said.
In a rare direct criticism of a British government decision, Mark Lowcock — formerly a senior figure in the UK’s Department for International Development — said he was shocked by the decision to slash the country’s Yemen aid budget.
The decision is “an act of medium- and longer-term self-harm, and all for saving what is actually — in the great scheme of things at the moment — a relatively small amount of money,” he added.
“The decision, in other words, to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen has consequences not just for Yemenis now, but for the world in the long term.”
The British government has announced that it will provide £87 million ($120.3 million) in aid to Yemen this year — down from £164 million in 2020.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the decision was due to “current straitened circumstances” caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
As part of measures introduced to manage the pandemic’s economic shock, the British government has temporarily reduced its aid budget from 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to 0.5.
The decision will impact a number of countries and vulnerable populations currently in receipt of British support.
A leaked Foreign Office report revealed that officials are considering slashing the aid budget to Lebanon by 88 percent, to Syria by 67 percent, to Libya by 63 percent, and to Somalia by 60 percent, among other countries.
Lowcock said: “The UK has had a strong reputation for being a leading donor and a lead player in international development. That has had wider reputational benefits for the UK and that obviously isn’t the case any more. There is a very substantial reputational impact, particularly because this is a commitment that was made in the UN.”
He added that the aid cuts would harm Britain’s ability to influence other countries, and that the move could prompt other donors to follow suit.
“The result would be much more loss of life and misery, additional instability and fragility, and more substantial problems in these hotspots, which, we know, from bitter experience, have a tendency to spread and create their own bad dynamics, with wider international consequences, including to countries like the UK,” he said.
A recent escalation in fighting between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Iran-backed Houthi militias has prompted UN warnings that the poorest Arab country is on the brink of the world’s worst famine and humanitarian catastrophe.
In a recent round of fundraising, the UN had hoped to raise $3.85 billion in aid from donor countries, but expressed “disappointment” that despite generous donations from countries such as Saudi Arabia, current total pledges failed to reach even half that amount.