Man-made hunger: The income famine of Yemen

Written by Zeke Marshall

While the World looks away, Yemen stands on the brink of a famine that the UN have warned may be the worst in 100 years [1]. Now in its 3rd year of a civil war, multiple groups vie for control of its territories. Primarily, Houthi rebels are embroiled in a bitter conflict with a Saudi Arabia led coalition and the Hadi government; caught in-between are Yemen’s 29 million men, women and children, 17.8 million of which are deemed food insecure by the WFP, with 8 million completely reliant on food assistance [2].

Commonly regarded as failures in food production or supply, famines are instead the result of a range of natural, social, political and economic factors. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network identifies economic factors as being the key drivers of Yemen’s crisis [3]. Yemen’s GDP has contracted by ~50% since 2014 [4] resulting in mass unemployment; combined with import restrictions and inflation, this has removed the ability of millions of Yemenis to buy food. As a result, Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, has termed this crisis “an income famine” [5]. Consequently, 400,000 children are acutely malnourished, along with 1.8 million children and 1.1 million pregnant or young mothers being severely malnourished [6].

Amartya Sen, through his work on the Great Bengal famines, identified these economic roots of famine as ‘failures of exchange entitlements’ [7] – a mass failure of basic livelihoods preventing access to food simply through the inability to pay. From an ecological economics perspective, this market failure which is resulting in the under-provisioning of a good essential to survival, invariably constitutes unfair distribution. With famine inevitable in the absence of a social safety net.

Alex de Waal author of ‘Mass Starvation’ [8] describes the Yemen conflict as “an economic war with famine as a consequence”; identifying that since 1870 all 58 major famines have had clear military or political factors [9]. Oxfam also recognise that the starvation of Yemen is intentional [10]. The degree to which the Saudi coalition is conducting an ‘economic war’ to weaken populations in Houthi areas is debated. However, Martha Mundy author of the World Peace Foundation Report ‘The Strategies of the Coalition’, identifies an intentional shift from military targets towards civilian targets in aerial bombardments [11]. Civil servants in Houthi areas (home to 80% of the population) have also not been paid in over two years – intentionally causing an ‘income famine’. Other punitive measures including a 100% tariff on goods crossing the Omani border, import restrictions via Hodeidah (Yemen’s major port), and remittances ceasing from migrant workers [5], have all compounded economic collapse. Despite this, food imports are still reaching Yemen in sufficient quantities [12], making starvation in Yemen an issue of unfair distribution.

For the impoverished, whose income is spent mostly on food, price increases and widespread unemployment make purchasing sufficient food impossible. The Saudi-led movement of the Central Bank from Houthi-controlled Sana’a to Hadi-controlled Aden and subsequent printing of YR600 billion fed into the inflationary spiral of the Yemeni Rial (YR). Given Yemen’s dependence on imports for ~80% of its food supply the depreciation of the YR is massively inflating the cost of food. Between July and August 2018 all basic foodstuffs rose in price substantially: wheat grain (+25%), wheat flour (+17%), sugar (+11%), rice (+37%) and vegetable oil (+26%) [13].

In contrast to most Yemeni’s immense poverty, recently enriched Houthi officials have been seen driving ostentatious cars and shopping in Sana’a’s luxury outlets [6]. Demonstrating the failure of relying on market mechanisms to ensure the fair distribution of resources, particularly in times of scarcity or crisis [14]. Importantly, this ‘failure of exchange entitlements’ highlights the vulnerability of all nations to food scarcity, especially those heavily reliant on food imports, or too few exports as in Venezuela [15]. The right to food is enshrined under international law, and man-made famine is recognised as a war crime [16], but it is poorly enforced.

No single strategy can ensure the fair distribution of food and prevent famine. A key strategy highlighted by La Via Campesina (the international peasants movement) is food sovereignty. Reducing the distance between production and consumption, and ensuring that the power in the food system is as localised as possible, reduces the capacity of the globalised food system and market mechanisms to fail to supply food [17].

Urgent political action is also needed to pressure the Saudi-led coalition into lifting sanctions, ceasing conflict and ensuring aid agencies access for relief efforts. Measures such as universal basic income [18], employment guarantees, or guaranteed food distribution supported by international agencies are examples of comprehensive social protections [19], likely to be increasingly important in preventing famines in a less food secure future. Recently the Houthi government have begun brokering for peace [20], signs that mass famine may be avoided.



[1] H. Summers, “Yemen on brink of ‘world’s worst famine in 100 years’ if war continues,” The Guardian, 15-Oct-2018.

[2] WFP, “Yemen | World Food Programme,” 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 07-Nov-2018].

[3] FEWS, “Yemen – Food Security ALert,” FEWS NET – Famine Early Warning Systems Network, Oct. 2018.

[4] World Bank, “Yemen’s Economic Outlook – October 2018,” World Bank. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 16-Nov-2018].

[5] D. Walsh, “The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen,” The New York Times, 26-Oct-2018.

[6] World Bank, “Overview,” World Bank, 11-Oct-2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 16-Nov-2018].

[7] A. Sen, “Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, pp. 1273–1280, 1976.

[8] A. de Waal, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2018.

[9] A. de Waal, “Ending mass atrocity and ending famine,” The Lancet, vol. 386, no. 10003, pp. 1528–1529, Oct. 2015.

[10] Oxfam, “The people of Yemen are not starving. They are being starved. | Oxfam GB,” The people of Yemen are not starving. They are being starved. | Oxfam GB, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 08-Jan-2019].

[11] M. Mundy, “The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial bombardment and food war,” World Peace Foundation, Oct. 2018.

[12] J. Ferguson, “Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?,” 11-Jul-2018.

[13] W. Alhariri et al., “The Yemen Review – August 2018 | Sana’a Center For Strategic Studies,” SANA’A Center for Strategic Studies, Sep. 2018.

[14] D. Nally, “The biopolitics of food provisioning,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 37–53, Jan. 2011.

[15] C. Armario, “Their money worthless, Venezuela’s desperate flee by foot,” Trinidad Express Newspapers, 18-Oct-2018.

[16] O. De Schutter, “Special Rapporteur On The Right To Food – Mission to Canada 6 to 16 May 2012,” United Nations, Aide-Memoire, Mar. 2018.

[17] F. Torrez, “La Via Campesina: Peasant-led agrarian reform and food sovereignty,” Development, vol. 54, no. 1, pp. 49–54, Mar. 2011.

[18] K. Wilderquist and M. A. Lewis, “The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee,” Taylor & Francis, 28-Sep-2005. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 20-Nov-2018].

[19] S. Devereux, “Social protection for enhanced food security in sub-Saharan Africa,” Food Policy, vol. 60, pp. 52–62, Apr. 2016.

[20] A. France-Presse, “Senior Houthi rebel calls for halt to attacks in Yemen,” The Guardian, 19-Nov-2018.