The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The people of Yemen want to be seen and heard, and above all, to survive.

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clean water young child yemen war conflict us policy Clean water is essential to help communities affected by conflict in Yemen to avoid cholera, which has already claimed the lives of thousands of people. While Oxfam and other aid groups are doing everything possible to reach people with clean water and other aid, the best way to help them is to end the war. Photo: Mohammed A. Quatab/Sam2Suns Media/Oxfam

Here’s how we can end US support for the war, and give the Yemeni people hope.

“We are already living under the ground,” Ibrahim told me. An elderly man from Hodeidah, he had spent the last of his money traveling to al-Ma’afarah district, roughly 175 miles from home. He bent down and patted his open palm on the dusty earth in his new home—one of a few small, partly enclosed, corrugated metal houses on the side of the road.

“Under the ground” was the central message I heard from women and men in al Dhal’e, Taiz, Lahj, and Aden governorates during my recent visit. The meaning was clear: We’re as good as dead, and nobody seems to care.

Nearly 14 million people in Yemen are teetering on the brink of what would be the largest famine in decades. The scale of this kind of calamity is difficult to process. You can see it through the tiny one-room health clinic I visited in Lahj, set up two years ago by local businesspeople so their neighbors wouldn’t have to travel for hours to the closest hospital. It now receives 30 to 60 malnourished children every day.

Following years of skyrocketing inflation and restricted imports, Yemeni communities are past their breaking points. War-damaged infrastructure and politicized governance make survival all the more challenging. Malnourished and starving Yemenis will die with food in sight, available in markets but outside of their price range. “We blame everyone,” Rageh, a man in the Qa’tabah district of al-Dhal’e told me, before adding: “You came all the way from America to learn about why we suffer. The political leaders—many of them are close, but they don’t care.”

Oxfam is working with local partners in Yemen and has helped provide essential aid to more than three million people caught in this crisis with clean water and sanitation, cash assistance, and food vouchers. The humanitarian response is saving lives, but while the conflict continues, the need will only grow.

Not a proxy war

In the US, media coverage and public policy on Yemen have been shaped by politics, not realities on the ground.

Leaders view Yemen principally through the lens of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Contrary to media reports, however, the war in Yemen is not a proxy war. Life-and-death decisions are being made based on political posturing and fear, while the people of Yemen are killed in fighting and from curable diseases like cholera. All of the many parties to the conflict, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Houthis, are pursuing their own interests—not those of their foreign patrons. They believe their vital interests are served by continuing to fight, which they do with appalling indifference to the suffering they cause.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Obama and Trump administrations have made a set of earnest efforts to promote peace in Yemen. Unfortunately, under both administrations, efforts to promote peace and relief have been overshadowed (albeit in different degrees) by a policy of solidarity with Saudi Arabia and against Iran.

Recent developments have followed this similar pattern. At the end of October, Secretaries Mattis and Pompeo called for a cessation of hostilities between the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition and the Houthis within 30 days. It seemed to be a significant shift, with strong demands placed on both sides.

In the ensuing weeks, however, the Trump administration has demonstrated it is unable or unwilling to muster the kind of robust and focused diplomatic effort needed to move toward recovery. Facing Congressional pressure to end mid-air refueling of Saudi and Emirati air raids in Yemen, the administration allowed Saudi Arabia and the UAE to announce that they no longer needed the refueling service—rather than seize the moment to show the coalition, the Houthis, and the entire international community that they are scaling back support for the war effort to promote peace.

The Trump administration has also failed to champion a new UN Security Council Resolution which would put muscle behind its own calls for de-escalation. This is in line with the views of Kuwait and the coalition, which have argued that Security Council calls for a cessation should come only after political talks. Yet again, the prerogatives of Yemen’s warring parties are being privileged over the needs of its civilians.

Finally, in his appalling dismissal of the Khashoggi assassination, President Trump undercut any positive contributions by members of his administration by mischaracterizing Iran’s role in the conflict and promising US support for Saudi Arabia regardless of the consequences for Yemenis.

As the Trump administration has fallen far short, it’s now up to Congress to reassure the people of Yemen and the international community that the US stands for more than a dollar sign, and that its foreign policy is more thoughtful and humane than “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Help end US support for war

In a time when it can feel we are surrounded by hopeless causes, this is a time when we can speak up and see real results. There are concrete measures in the works to end US support for the conflict in Yemen, which will have major ripple effects in how the international community acts, and how this conflict is resolved.

Senators should support a measure by Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to end US involvement in the conflict. All Members of Congress, in the House and Senate, should support a new bill led by Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Todd Young (R-IN) to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and demand steps towards peace and humanitarian relief by all parties to the conflict. Both Houses of Congress should mark up and adopt this legislation urgently. With President Trump personally weighing in to guarantee he will not interrupt Yemen’s brutal war so long as Saudi Arabia aims to continue fighting, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents need to stand together against America’s ongoing complicity in this horrific war.

We can show Ibrahim, Rageh, and others in Yemen that we see them and that we care. Take action now by signing a petition asking your representatives to vote for and co-sponsor any legislation to cut US support of the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen. You can also donate here.

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