Yemen: Another Humanitarian Crisis That Poses a Test for Philanthropy

Yemen has been locked in a bloody civil war for over two years, leaving thousands dead and forcibly displacing 2 to 3 million people.

Children have perhaps suffered the most throughout the conflict. It's estimated that close to 500,000 Yemeni children suffer from severe acute malnutrition and overall child malnutrition rates have increased by 200 percent.  According to Save the Children, one Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes. And they aren’t dying from landmines or bombs, they’re dying from preventable illnesses like diarrhea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of children are unable to attend school because of the war. 

The conflict in Yemen shows no signs of slowing, and with the country’s economy and infrastructure near collapse, an estimated 10 to 18 million people depend on outside aid for their survival.

Earlier this month, the U.N. and its humanitarian partners launched an international appeal to help 12 million Yemeni people. The $2.1 billion appeal is still largely unfunded, but it’s only been a few weeks, so we’ll watch to see how that funding plays out. If history serves as a guide, I don’t expect that appeal to come close to being fully funded—or for private philanthropy to do nearly as much as one might hope. 

As we’ve seen time and again with complex humanitarian crises, philanthropy has been slow to step up. Funders may feel that the scale of suffering is such that philanthropic dollars can't make a decisive difference and that emergency relief is a job best suited to international agencies funded by national governments. Funders may also worry about the obstacles to ensuring their money is well spent when it's flowing into a conflict zone. 

In fact, none of these excuses stands up to scrutiny. There are plenty of tangible ways that private dollars can alleviate human suffering in crises like the one in Yemen, and every bit of help counts. As well, many top humanitarian organizations have strong reputations for effectively using philanthropic gifts and ensuring that help reaches the people who need it the most in complex conflict zones. 

If you want to see an example of a private funder that's made a huge difference in humanitarian crises, keep a close eye on the Ikea Foundation. Repeatedly in recent years, it's been quick to jump in to alleviate massive human suffering, and the crisis in Yemen is no exception.

Recently, the foundation announced a €2 million donation to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to support its continuing efforts to help the children and families of Yemen. MSF is currently working in two health facilities, with one just 20 kilometers from the front lines. This is particularly important work in Yemen, as less than 50 percent of the country’s health facilities are fully operational and continually face shortages of medicines, equipment and staff.

Ikea also gave Save the Children a €500,000 donation to support its work providing food, water, healthcare and education efforts to Yemeni families and children. So far, the organization has reached over 1 million people.

Who else cares about suffering in Yemen, beyond the Ikea Foundation? 

The Gates Foundation is one of the very few funders on the short list, having made just under $2.1 million in grants since 2014 to support emergency response efforts across the country. However, other funders that have played a big part in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, such as the Hilton, UPS, and Western Union foundations, have yet to pitch in. And while George Soros recently put up $500 million to assist migrant populations in Europe, we’ve yet to hear much from the Open Society Foundations about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen—although the foundation has supported work documenting the civilian suffering caused by U.S. drone strikes in the country. 

Related: Finally: New Data Shows That Private Funders Have Stepped Up Giving for the Syrian Crisis

The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is no doubt overshadowed by the much larger Syrian refugee crisis, which could partly explain the dearth of funding. Humanitarian crises are also ongoing in South Sudan and elsewhere, with a record number of people now displaced from their homes worldwide. 

Still, the situation in Yemen feels especially urgent right now, as the war rages on and famine looms large on the horizon. Which private funders are going to step up and do more?