1 March 2021
As the UN asks today for $3.85 billion for aid to Yemen at an international pledging conference, The New Humanitarian has learnt that a new fund with deep pockets has emerged on the scene, looking to give hundreds of millions of dollars towards hunger relief in the country.
While some UN aid agencies and at least two large NGOs are in talks with the new Famine Relief Fund, others are shying away due to concerns over where the money is coming from and unusual requirements for how quickly it should be spent.
The large – and troubled – Yemen aid operation is underfunded in a time of severe hardship for many civilians. Needs for food, jobs, healthcare, clean water, and safe shelter have soared as the economy craters and the war causes new displacement, disrupts trade and jobs, and damages civilian infrastructure.
As of late last year, 13.5 million Yemenis were facing high levels of acute food insecurity, a figure only projected to get worse as fighting escalates in the central province of Marib, forcing thousands of civilians into flight. Aid groups are warning that “disaster looms” if donor governments don’t step up and contribute more to the Yemen aid effort.
The new fund could change this. According to a document shown to TNH by sources in the aid community but not made public, it is looking to prevent “widespread famine” by mid-year with a “rapid funding injection” to be spent within months.
It has invited proposals from international aid groups already working in Yemen, and sources close to the negotiations suggest it has plenty to spend. While agreements have not yet been signed, the sources told TNH that around $400 million in contracts to UN agencies and NGOs are in discussion. If this amount is reached, the fund would be in the top 15 humanitarian donors worldwide – bigger than many European nations – and in the top three to Yemen.
‘Private Gulf entities’
Almost nobody, including aid groups who confirmed they had applied for money from the fund, has been willing to say where the money comes from. The one exception is a spokesperson for Action contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger, or ACF) who told TNH the charity was “in the process of submitting a proposal to the fund”, and that the donors are “private Gulf entities, as far as we know”.
Incorporation documents show that the fund’s director is Timothy Collins, an American investor and financier who is CEO and managing partner of the New York-based private equity firm Ripplewood Advisors.
In addition to Collins, according to leaked emails shared with TNH by sources in the aid industry and interviews with UN and NGO officials, management is being headed up by two former aid bigwigs: John Ging and Neal Keny-Guyer.
Until late 2018, Ging oversaw operations for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body. Keny-Guyer was the CEO of the US-based NGO Mercy Corps from 1994 until 2019, when he resigned after the charity acknowledged it had mishandled long-standing accusations of childhood sex abuse against its co-founder.
Neither Ging nor Keny-Guyer responded to requests from TNH for comment. Collins declined to comment.
The fund’s emergence comes as the UN asks donors at today’s pledging conference, organised with Switzerland and Sweden, for more money to respond to what has been called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.
After nearly six years of war between Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition that supports an internationally recognised government, Yemenis are facing intensifying violence, widespread hunger, and economic collapse.
Despite the spiralling crisis, donor governments have been less willing to give to Yemen as the conflict rattles on and they face their own COVID-19 related economic problems. Some have also expressed concerns about aid obstruction and diversion in the country.
Last year, the UN asked for $3.38 billion for the aid operations it coordinates in Yemen in 2020, a number that was upped from the original $2.4 billion appeal because of new needs that emerged from the coronavirus pandemic. It has received only 57 percent of that appeal, leading to cuts in food rations, and forcing some aid programmes to shut down. By comparison, the $2.6 billion Syria appeal for 2020 is 83 percent funded.
‘Special purpose vehicle’
The Famine Relief Fund was registered in Bermuda as a limited company as of 3 February 2021, according to a document seen by TNH. With Collins as director, three Bermuda-based individuals appear to form its interim board.
In an email to prospective grantees obtained by TNH, Keny-Guyer wrote that the organisation is a “special purpose vehicle to alleviate hunger and prevent famine in Yemen”. It continues: “[We] know this structure is novel. Everything is designed to ensure that a rapid response fund can be stood up and administered with optimal speed, low bureaucracy, and high accountability.”
According to well-placed sources, the World Food Programme, UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency), and UNICEF are negotiating sizable amounts from the fund. The first two confirmed to TNH that they had submitted proposals but not yet signed any agreements. The latter did not respond to requests for comment. ACF and another large NGO, the Norwegian Refugee Council, also confirmed that they had sent proposals to the fund but not yet finalised deals.
“Everything is designed to ensure that a rapid response fund can be stood up and administered with optimal speed, low bureaucracy, and high accountability.”
Other international aid NGOs have opted not to work with the fund, including Mercy Corps, the Danish Refugee Council, and CARE. The International Rescue Committee said it would not be receiving anything from the fund, while the International Committee of the Red Cross did not respond to questions, and International Medical Corps said it hadn’t been approached.*
Speaking on condition of anonymity, some aid groups said they were concerned by, among other things, the requirement that grantees spend the money within four months: This is unusual in the aid industry, where NGOs and aid agencies are usually given at least a year to carry out projects.
Aid access in Yemen is notoriously difficult, and all parties – especially Houthi rebels – have been accused of delaying the aid effort. Several NGO officials told TNH they could not responsibly spend large grants in a four-month time frame, and that they worried rushing things would increase the chances of waste, fraud, and other unintended consequences. Setting up new treatment facilities and procuring supplies takes time, especially as some agencies have been shrinking due to cuts.
One official from an NGO working in Yemen said their organisation decided to turn down the opportunity to request money from the fund after “intense debate” internally, largely due to the four-month time limit, which would make it hard to assure programme quality and effectiveness.
Several other NGO and UN sources, who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorised to speak to the media, have raised questions about transparency and governance.
Despite its anticipated spending power, there has been no public announcement about the Famine Relief Fund, and, according to emails seen by TNH, it has until recently been conducting business on the personal Gmail accounts of its management. The domain name faminerelieffund.org was set up on 16 February, but the website is not yet up and running. All of this makes the fund “a bit mysterious”, according to a senior UN official, who insisted on anonymity due to the ongoing negotiations.
Several other humanitarian officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fact that there are so many unknowns – including the fund’s structure, oversight, and who is on the staff beyond Collins, Ging, and Keny-Guyer – has made them wary.
"It's unclear why funding is being spent through such an elaborate construct instead of funding the [UN-coordinated] response directly,” said one senior NGO official.
The lack of an announcement about where the money is coming from has led to plenty of off-the-record speculation.
All the sources TNH spoke to, including UN and NGO officials familiar with the issue, said they believed that significant money for the new fund is coming from the Gulf region, namely coalition members Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have – sometimes controversially – been major donors to the Yemen aid effort. However, while some believe the cash is from governments, others, including the ACF spokesperson, mentioned the possibility of private wealth, public donations, or sovereign funds. Officials from the two countries did not respond to requests for comment.
The two Gulf countries, along with Kuwait, provided 32 percent of funding to the UN-led response operation from 2016 to 2020, according to UN data. But this money has petered out in the past few years, or come late. Last year, Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million and gave $314 million (in addition to other money through its own channels), while the United Arab Emirates gave nothing through the UN appeal, and Kuwait gave $102,000.
This may be a sign of discontent with how the UN has spent its money in the past. Speaking to TNH after last year’s donor conference, Dr Abdullah al-Rabeeah, supervisor general of the King Salman Relief Centre, Saudi Arabia’s aid body, called for “stronger monitoring programmes so there will be no misdirection of this money for other purposes”.
Asked by TNH, several prospective recipients – including the WFP, UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and ACF – said they had done their “due diligence” but did not answer questions about the ultimate source of the Famine Relief Fund’s money.
A WFP spokesperson, for example, said “due diligence was performed on the fund’s incorporated entity and on Tim Collins”. The UN, NGOs, and the Red Cross movement maintain policies that prohibit accepting funding from sources such as arms or tobacco producers, and a range of other sensitive criteria.
“Citibank will bank the fund,” Keny-Guyer said in an email to applicants. “In this role, they will ensure that the fund meets philanthropic and other regulatory requirements, including due diligence on grant recipients.”
While the UN hopes to raise money despite donor fatigue, the Famine Relief Fund looks set to shake things up. But as Yemenis head into a seventh year of conflict, some aid groups are left questioning if those taking money from the new outfit are jumping on the bandwagon too soon. As one senior NGO official told TNH: “This is just proof that if enough money is at play there is no wisdom left, just FOMO.”
*After publication, a spokesperson for ICRC confirmed that the organisation was in discussions with the fund.