Yemeni humanitarian aid feeds U.N. corruption

By Lt. Col. James Zumwalt

While the five-year civil war in Yemen continues – Iran backing Houthi rebels and the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia (KSA) backing the recognized government – the huge funding of humanitarian aid intended for 20 million suffering Yemenis has raised a question about what else is being funding.

Last month, the United Nations announced it is forced to close several humanitarian programs in Yemen because financial pledges by member states have “failed to materialize.” The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, claimed, “We are desperate for the funds that were promised. When money doesn’t come, people die,” referring to a February pledge promising $2.6 billion. Needed to relieve the terrible deprivations of the Yemeni people, less than half of that sum had been received.

Ms. Grande denounced two nations, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – together pledging the largest contribution ($1 billion) to the U.N. relief plan for Yemen – for suspending their payments. In fact, all the KSA and UAE have requested is U.N. accountability before they resume funding.

The condemned two nations have already pledged more funding for Yemen than has the rest of the world combined. Sadly, when the U.N. jump-started an anti-KSA/UAE bandwagon, most of the media jumped onboard without asking why the two countries applied brakes on further funding. Had they done so, they would have learned that the KSA and UAE request for accountability might cure a disease plaguing the U.N. for decades: corruption.

Any U.S. donor making a large pledge to an American charity would seek verification of its bona fides, and might even consult with a non-profit authority like Charity Navigator to obtain it. As America’s largest and most-utilized evaluator of charities, it has developed a rating system that measures credibility by analyzing two important factors: the charity’s financial health plus its history of accountability and transparency.

It is just as imperative that any donor making a substantial donation, in this case to the U.N. for humanitarian aid for Yemen, knows that their funds are being expended as advertised. Accountability and transparency should reveal good governance, best practices, and open access to data so that donors are assured that they are not feeding a corrupt system. In the case of Yemen, the U.N. has failed to provide the KSA and UAE the requested proof that U.N. officials are not lining their pockets with donation funding.

When Ms. Grande publicly criticized KSA and UAE for non-payment she wrote, “When money doesn’t come, people die.” She failed to add, “When accounting comes, corruption dies.”

The U.N. certainly lacks a positive track record as far as operating programs that maximize benefits for those intended, and we need not go back too far to find instances of extensive corruption in United Nations operations.

In 1996, for example, an oil-for-food program was initiated to help feed the Iraqi people, but it left the door wide open for massive corruption because of a questionable structural setup. Although oil-for-food did accomplish some of its goals, “the program also resulted in billions of dollars of graft and was subject to corruption in businesses, governments and at every level of the U.N. Thus, the most vaunted international institution in history enacted the largest financial scandal in history.” Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, as well as U.N. officials, profited immensely while people went hungry.

Iraq’s oil-for-food program was not the only program to make undeserving officials rich while denying benefits to those in need. Ironically, one Arab government official benefited exorbitantly from the U.N.’s lack of accountability while representing some of the poorest Arabs.

Before his death in 2004, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat accumulated an investment portfolio estimated to be some $3 billion, courtesy of the U.N. While his people lived in deplorable conditions, Arafat was busy counting his money. Upon his death, his wife Suha negotiated with the PLO to turn over assets for which, it is believed, she is still being compensated to the tune of millions of dollars annually.

The current PLO leadership naturally yearns for a lifestyle like that which Arafat had. Indeed, many of them enjoy it today, safe from the abject poverty in which their own people live. One such leader is Arafat’s replacement at the PLO helm, Mahmoud Abbas, who last year purchased a $50 million private luxury jet. It is little wonder the PLO leadership refuses to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel – doing so would drastically reduce their personal cash flow.

With such a background, it is not unreasonable that the KSA and UAE want transparency in investigations now underway. The U.N. reports it is looking into more than a dozen U.N. aid workers deployed to Yemen who were “joining with combatants on all sides to enrich themselves from the billions of dollars in donated aid flowing into the country.” Allegations have also surfaced that unqualified people were placed in high-paying jobs, millions of dollars were deposited in staffers’ personal bank accounts, dozens of suspicious contracts were approved without appropriate paperwork, and tons of donated fuel and medicines went missing. Additionally, payrolls were padded with “ghost” employees and, in some cases, even Houthi fighters. While these investigations are a start in identifying rampant corruption and nepotism in the U.N., they are by no means a quick cure to end such abuses.

The Charity Navigator organization mentioned above provides corruption ratings for 180 countries. When its data suggest something is seriously wrong with a charity, it puts it on a watch list before dropping it from its rating system. That was the fate suffered by the Clinton Foundation when its reports showed no more than 15 percent of what it received benefited charitable causes. If Charity Navigator monitored it, the U.N. would likely would suffer the fate of the Clinton Foundation.

The U.N. treats donations from member nations for causes like humanitarian aid to Yemen as an unending fountain of cash with zero accountability. That the KSA and UAE have now turned off that fountain until the U.N. acts more responsibly will work to the benefit of all U.N. member nations.

Leave a Comment