Ministers have 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 UKs global influence, the head of the UNs Office for Humanitarian Affairs has said.
Speaking with rare bluntness after the UK more than halved its funds to help Yemen, the former permanent secretary at the Department for International Development Mark Lowcock said he was shocked by the decision. It is understood he was given no chance to appeal to the UK to rethink.
Mark Lowcock is due to retire shortly as head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Photograph: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images
He described the UK decision as 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.
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, he said.
The UK has announced it will give Yemen about £87m in aid this year, down from £164m in 2020. Boris Johnson has said the decision is due to the current straitened circumstances caused by the pandemic and has insisted the public would think the government had its priorities right.
The conflict in Yemen is the worlds worst humanitarian crisis, which UN officials have warned is fast becoming the most serious famine the world has seen in decades. The UK government is intimately involved in the conflict, as a leading supplier and supporter of the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition fighting in the war.
The ferocity of the intervention is likely to embolden a number of Conservative backbenchers who are furious at the aid cut, and who hope to use the implications for people in Yemen and counties such as Syria to persuade colleagues to push back against the policy. The decision to temporarily cut the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income was announced in Novembers spending review. As it is enshrined in law the government will need a parliamentary vote to change it, although no date for this has been announced yet.
Lowcock said effectively cutting the aid to Yemen by 50% would cause direct harm and that it was clear there would be other swingeing cuts to programmes in other countries. There is no getting away from the fact that it will have the effect of large scale loss of life and the piling on of misery in lots of places.
On Saturday a leaked Foreign Office report revealed that officials were considering slashing the aid programme to Somalia by 60% and to South Sudan by 59%. The planned cut for Syria was reported at 67%, for Libya 63% and Nigeria 58%.
I think its indisputable that the UK has particular responsibilities in Yemen, said Lowcock. It is the pen holder at the security council, a substantial provider of humanitarian assistance in the past and it has historical responsibilities. So I think it is quite shocking that there was such a huge cut.
It is rare for Britain to be criticised by a UN official in this way, especially by a former British civil servant. He is the latest to express dismay at the governments decision, with aid organisations describing it as a death sentence and former Conservative international development secretary Andrew Mitchell calling it an unimaginable decision.
Warning about the long-term damage to the UKs international standing, 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 isnt the case any more. There is a very substantial reputational impact, particularly because this is a commitment that was made in the UN.
Everybody can see that the aid budget has been singled out. The government is still borrowing at an unprecedented scale, but it has singled out the aid budget to be slashed.
Lowcock said that the cut to aid would impact the UKs ability to influence other countries and that while there was not yet evidence of it the move could lead others 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.
The UN hoped to raise $3.85bn (£2.76bn) for Yemen from more than 100 governments and donors at a virtual pledging conference last Monday, but received $1.7bn. That does mean that a lot of people will basically still be in a state of slow starvation, said Lowcock. So there will be significant loss of life. We would have avoided a lot of that had we been much better financed.
He said he feared a knock-on impact on the UNs efforts to raise money for Syrian refugees at a fundraising conference later this month, and more directly on the UNs efforts to raise money to finance climate change mitigation, an issue on which the UK is seeking to take a leadership role as chair of the UNs Cop26 conference in Glasgow in November.
A huge issue for the Cop will be the promise of £100bn a year for the poorer countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change, which is a promise that hasnt been met, he said.
He urged the west to foresee the knock-on impact of aid cuts. People dont remember this very well now, but in 2014 the UN appeal for the Syria response was much less well supported than it had been in 2012 and 2013, he said.
One consequence of that was the exodus in 2015. Its an unusually clear example of how failing to keep a situation stable and supporting people where they are had quite direct consequences.
He urged all sides to come to a diplomatic settlement in Yemen and for the Houthis not to press ahead with their current bloody assault on Marib, one of the Yemen governments few strongholds in northern Yemen.
He said: There is quite a vibrant debate going on inside the Houthi movement about whether to keep going with the Marib attack or whether to decide now that theyll take the deal which is available to them. They can get a lot now the blockade of the seaports and the airports will be lifted, therell be a ceasefire, theres a clear recognition that the Houthis are going to have a prominent role in a power sharing government.
Lowcock is due to retire shortly as head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and to return to the UK to spend more time with his family. He rarely condemns individual countries aid decisions, and has made a point until now of not commenting on UK politics.
A government spokesman said: The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid. We are still working through what this means for individual programmes and decisions have not yet been made.
We remain a world-leading aid donor and we will spend more than £10bn this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health.