On April 17, as its bombs fell across Yemen, the government of Saudi Arabia pledged $274 million dollars in aid for the country, meeting entirely the UN's emergency "flash appeal" for humanitarian funding less than 24 hours after it was announced. But more than two months later, the money has not been delivered.
According to a UN memo obtained by VICE News, the Saudi government has applied unprecedented conditions that could complicate and delay its disbursement — conditions that the UN appears to have quietly acquiesced to.
According to aid workers and officials who spoke with VICE News, ever since its April 17 pledge, the Saudi government has pushed for restrictions on how the aid would be given out, including that it not be spent in areas controlled by Shia Houthi rebels, which a Riyadh-led coalition has bombed since late March.
Humanitarian organizations are wary of having any strings attached to emergency funds that are meant to be overseen by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and quickly doled out. That the entire emergency appeal was funded by the most active foreign combatant in Yemen further unnerved non-governmental organizations that are in a position to receive grants from UN agencies. Only the day before the Saudi pledge, Human Rights Watch released evidence of 31 civilian deaths that it said had resulted from an airstrike on a dairy factory.
Suspected of possible war crimes in Yemen, staff members at some aid organizations saw the Saudi promise of funding as a way to distract from its human rights record, and privately cautioned VICE News that they wouldn't take the money if and when it was delivered to the UN.
On Tuesday, amid dire reports of a worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the Saudi government finally announced that $244 million of the total would be divided among nine separate UN agencies. The following day, Stephen O'Brien, the UN's undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, sent a letter to the Interagency Standing Committee, a global humanitarian coordinating body includes both UN humanitarian agencies and outside NGOs. The letter was attached to a Saudi press release announcing the nine-way cut, and explained that the funds would go through the recently created King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Works (KSC).
"Having agreed to the overall envelopes, however, the KSC would like to negotiate individual Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with each recipient agency," wrote O'Brien in the letter, which was obtained by VICE News. "They would also like to be assured that the Government of Yemen in exile is consulted."
While bilateral aid often is accompanied by conditions from donor countries, and UN aid calls do involve some back-room stipulations, the letter alarmed many who said it reflected micromanaging on the part of the Saudis that had little precedent. The memo, said aid workers, was vaguely worded, and seemed to leave the door open for further delays at the whim of the Saudi government.
'The UN has punted and handed off the problems to these agencies. I've never seen that before.'
"The charitable way of saying it is this is a compromise — the less charitable way of saying it is that they folded," said an aid official involved in the Yemen response who spoke to VICE news on condition of anonymity, referring to the UN's decision to cooperate. "It's really unusual for a single donor to have any substantive role once they contribute funds, let alone negotiate individual MoU's with agencies."
What is unprecedented is that the Saudi kingdom essentially filled up the entire UN flash appeal and are requesting unacceptable terms, added the official.
"Now the UN has punted and handed off the problems to these agencies," the official said. "I've never seen that before."
Upon taking office as the head of OCHA at the start of June, O'Brien inherited a massive global funding gap across the more than two dozen countries where the UN operates, including war-torn Syria, South Sudan, and Libya. In Yemen, where the UN's overall $1.6 billion humanitarian call is only 11 percent met (the Saudi pledge, as it has not yet been delivered, does not count), OCHA estimates that more than 21 million people — roughly 80 percent of the population — need some form of aid. A Saudi naval blockade of the country has only worsened access for the UN and NGOs.
In his letter, O'Brien appeared to recognize the awkwardness of the Saudi stipulations that had been agreed upon. He also indicated that some NGOs might refuse to take Saudi money, and urged that other financing be made available to them.
"With regard to NGOs, I am aware that there are sensitivities in receiving funding directly from the KSC and we therefore must work actively to mobilize additional funds to be allocated directly, or via the Pooled Fund, to our front-line partners," O'Brien wrote.
O'Brien proposed that Amer Daoudi, the regional humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, "be the principal focal point for strategic-level engagement with the KSC, while individual agencies continue their bilateral discussions and negotiations." He added that Daoudi would "help facilitate agreement amongst agencies on common parameters for MoUs, including on difficult and sensitive issues such as visibility/branding and to ensure no conditionality regarding geographic areas for the distribution of assistance."
Another aid worker whose organization is delivering humanitarian supplies in Yemen told VICE News that the letter, while paying heed to some concerning issues, still clearly reflected an unorthodox arrangement that gave the Saudis the last word.
"The thing about this communication that we all got, it's really vague," the aid worker said. "We are trying to assume and guess what they mean by this plan, but it's not clear. The Saudis might very well sit on it for a long time."
UN-brokered talks in Geneva aimed at achieving a ceasefire concluded this week without an agreement. With more than 2,800 people killed and 13,000 wounded in fighting according to local health facilities, the Saudi-led coalition does not appear close to rolling back the Houthis and reinstating Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has fled to Riyadh. On Thursday, O'Brien said that at least 1,400 of the dead were civilians.
VICE News spoke with O'Brien on Thursday prior to obtaining his memo. He said that the UN is "very clear" that as a general rule it does not "condone any modality based on geography" — for instance, restrictions on disbursing aid UN-channel aid in Houthi areas.
"It would be normal to enter into a series of discussions to work to find out what the modalities are of transferring these pledged humanitarian funds to get the direct result," he said. "Sometimes that can go quite quickly if there is already an established channel. In other cases it can take as long as three to four months."
Asked specifically about the UN's relationship with the KSC, Clare Doyle, a spokesperson for UNOCHA, said on Thursday evening, "It's up to our donors to coordinate their donations as they see fit."
"We are still working on the modalities of the donation," she added.
Joel Charny, humanitarian vice president at InterAction, an umbrella group of American relief and development NGOs, said that the memo made it appear as if the Saudi government is "contracting the agencies" of the UN.
"The whole thing has been really odd from the beginning," said Charny. "There is an understanding that a flash appeal is going to support the most urgent needs in the judgment of UN agencies working with their NGO partners."
"It's not that donors don't care where the money goes, but there's a sense that in an urgent case like Yemen you let the professionals make the call," he added.
Reached by telephone on Thursday, a spokesperson for the Saudi mission to the UN declined to offer comment.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford