The U.S. is set to resume humanitarian assistance to areas controlled by the Houthi rebels in Yemen, according to a notification from the Biden administration to aid groups and U.S. lawmakers Thursday.
The resumed funding, which will come with new monitoring mechanisms, could not come at a more urgent time. Six years of fighting has not abated and the war-torn Arab country teeters on the brink of famine, according to the World Food Program, with over 70% of the country requiring food assistance.
The Trump administration halted some funding to Houthi areas, citing the obstruction of their authorities, who imposed taxes, harassed aid workers and stole aid.
"This is going to open up new avenues to save lives. Life-saving programs that were taken offline will be able to be resumed and that is going to have a really important impact on those communities that a year ago, for reasons that had nothing to do with their situation, lost aid that they had depended on," said Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam America, which operates in Yemen.
An Iranian-backed Shiite movement formally known as Ansar Allah, the Houthis have been escalating their latest offensive to retake a major city from government forces, backed by Saudi Arabia and its coalition. Houthi forces have mirrored that deadly campaign with an increase in rocket and drone attacks across Yemen's northern border, even hitting civilian airports.
President Joe Biden halted U.S. support for the Saudi coalition, including offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, vowing to end the war. But his newly appointed special envoy, who's already made two trips to the region, has run head first into the conflict's bitter reality -- the fighting has continued and there's not enough funding.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, will allow up to $50 million to once again flow to Houthi-controlled territory, where approximately 80% of Yemenis live, a USAID official told ABC News.
But there will be new restrictions in place, according to the official, to "ensure we can closely monitor the programs" and "track different attempts at interference." Those include regular monitoring reports and updated assessments from aid groups that receive U.S. funding, as well as agreements between those groups and local Houthi authorities to ensure that U.S. assistance is reaching people in a timely manner.
The Houthis seized Yemen's capital Sanaa in 2015 -- a power grab that has been entrenched despite six years of war. They run government ministries and parts of Yemen's economy, which continues to collapse and suffer sky-high inflation. Yemen's powerful northern neighbor Saudi Arabia intervened with the United Arab Emirates and others to prop up the Yemeni government, with U.S. military support like arms sales, midair refueling and training.
Former President Donald Trump halted midair refueling, but doubled down on support -- selling billions in arms to the Saudis and Emiratis over Congress' objections and designating the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization. That second decision imperiled humanitarian assistance to the country, aid groups warned, because it left those working with the Houthis -- despite their widespread rule -- open to prosecution or sanctions.
All together, the war has left some 29 million people suffering in the crosshairs, facing starvation, the world's worst cholera outbreak and now the silent sweep of the coronavirus in a country with little to no health care infrastructure.
Both sides have faced allegations of war crimes, including targeting civilians. Saudi warplanes have hit civilian infrastructure like water facilities and warships have blockaded ports in a country where 90% of the food is imported -- while Houthis have stolen aid, indiscriminately shelled civilian areas and waged siege warfare, leaving civilians starving, too.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken lifted the terrorist designation on the Houthis last month, moving urgently, he said, because of the humanitarian risk. But it's opened the Biden administration to criticism that it's making concessions to the Houthis, just as the group accelerates its offensive on Marib, a key government-held city with over a million people, many of them already displaced from elsewhere in Yemen.
Amid the escalation in fighting, however, there have been improvements from the Houthis on humanitarian access, according to aid groups and the USAID official, including an end to their 2% tax and delays in access to folks in need, formalizing agreements with aid groups and allowing for routine assessments of the humanitarian situation in their territories.
"This is not a return to normal programming," the USAID official added. "We expect the Houthis to abide by these commitments they've made to the international community and continue to reduce their obstructionist behavior."
Those monitoring mechanisms may create some hurdles for aid groups though, especially the requirement of an agreement with Houthi authorities.
"It's really important for the U.S. to restore its practice and reputation as an impartial humanitarian donor driven by need with a policy that's consistent across a lot of difficult environments," said Paul, whose group Oxfam provides relief in Yemen, but is not funded by the U.S. government.
The USAID official said that level of local monitoring was necessary "to ensure taxpayer funding is reaching the intended beneficiaries," the Yemeni people.
"These are very basic standards that we apply to our programs across the world, and if partners aren't able to operate independently and neutrally, then they won't be provided humanitarian assistance," the official added.
While the change will allow up to $50 million frozen by the Trump administration to be released, it won't happen all at once. Most aid organizations partnered with the U.S. already meet the new requirements, according to USAID, but some will need more time. Because of that, the funds will initially help 170,000 people right away and then more as time goes on.
The USAID official also told ABC News there will be more funding for the Yemeni people later this year after Blinken announced an additional $190 million earlier this month at the U.N. donor conference -- bringing the Fiscal Year 2021 total to $350 million.
As of now, U.S. aid already meets 8.5 million Yemenis each month, according to USAID -- mostly through U.S. contributions to the World Food Program, which unlike the U.S., never ceased its humanitarian operations under Houthi-controlled territory.
But to date, the humanitarian crisis has faced a severe shortfall. That U.N. donor conference didn't meet half of its request, an even worse showing that last year's.