Nearly 40 percent of Yemen families forced into debt to pay for food and medicine

Nearly 40 percent of Yemen families forced into debt to pay for food and medicine

  • Number of families using debt to buy food has risen by 62 percent  

  • Pharmacists estimate 44 percent increase in debt being used to buy medicine 

Nearly two out of every five families in Yemen currently buy food and medicines using debt, according to Oxfam research published today. The research finds that Yemeni families are trapped in a cycle of informal debt, living precariously and reliant on good will of shopkeepers as they lurch from one month to the next. Many of the people Oxfam spoke with say they can’t borrow essentials unless shopkeepers know they have a monthly income and for many, this means the cash transfers they receive from humanitarian agencies. 

Last year, donors only provided half of the aid money needed for the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and with the 2021 UN humanitarian need budget for Yemen due out imminently, Oxfam is urging the international community to be generous when pledging funds.   

Oxfam’s research found that Yemeni shopkeepers estimate that the number of families using debt to buy food has risen by 62 percent since the conflict in Yemen started in 2015. While pharmacists in estimate an increase of 44 percent in debt being used to purchase medicines.

Layla Mansoor (31) and her family were forced to flee from their home in an active conflict zone in Hodeidah three years ago – they escaped with barely more than the clothes on their backs. Layla says she is often in debt to the shops she buys their food from and each month they owe between 10,000 and 12,000 YER (around USD $11-$15). 

Layla said: “At the moment we’re living a nightmare. Thankfully, until now, we haven’t needed any kind of medical treatment – but I’m afraid that we won’t afford it, if one day we do.” 

Ibrahim Alwazir who carried out the research for Oxfam in Yemen said: “To struggle this hard to be able to provide food and medicine for one's family is an avoidable hardship that millions have to overcome on a daily basis. We need peace so no more Yemenis are forced to flee their homes and live in poverty. Peace will allow people to rebuild their lives and businesses. 

“This war has turned my country into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and it’s only getting worse. We all just want to get back to normal life.”  

Hind Qassem (45) was pregnant when her husband was killed by an artillery shell forcing her to flee with her children.  At first, they lived under a plastic sheet, relying on leftovers given by neighbouring families. Three of her sons suffer from sickle cell anaemia and need blood transfusions every month. 

Hind said: “Now, I receive YER 45,000 (around US$70) every month, yes, it is not enough to cover all our needs, but it helps a lot. I am now able to pay for my children’s treatment and buy some flour and vegetables for us to eat. Shops will now allow us to buy food on credit because we are receiving monthly assistance.” 

Food shop and pharmacy owners both told Oxfam staff that they allow customers to take items on credit because they sympathise with the harsh difficulties they are facing. Some also said that it makes economic sense for their business, while pharmacists said they did not want to feel responsible for someone’s death if they refused credit for medicines. 

Grocery store owner Abdulkareem Salaeh from Sana’a said: "We are left with no choice … We only agree to lend people with a reliable source of income, like employees, business owners, daily wage labourers, or those receiving humanitarian aid, else it will be a loss that we can't afford. We are barely able to cover operational costs and the costs of goods we sell. It's unfortunate."

Concerned business owners told Oxfam that they feel the debt situation is unsustainable as their customers are increasingly unable to pay off all their debt each month and so the rising levels of debt their businesses are carrying mean their future is looking uncertain.  Oxfam is also worried that if shop owners do not have funds to replenish stock the resulting shortages will drive food prices even higher. 

It is estimated that in parts of Yemen one in five children are already severely malnourished and will grow up with life-long medical conditions if they do not receive more food. If business owners are unable to continue offering credit, people will be unable to eat, which will result in even higher levels of malnourishment. What we are witnessing in Yemen now, is potentially just the tip of a much bigger hunger crisis. 


Caroline Reid: | 087 912 3165

Notes to editors:  

  • Images are available for use upon request
  • Research findings are based on 30 surveys by Oxfam in Yemen of grocery and pharmacy store owners across Sana’a, Hajjah, Ibb and Aden Governorates in November and early December 2020. All surveys were collected near poor and densely populated neighbourhoods within cities and suburban areas, with some of them being close to IDP settlements where humanitarian aid groups are active
  • Oxfam, along with other agencies in Yemen, provides support for struggling families in the form of cash transfers that enables people to choose what they buy and helps stimulate local markets. 
  • Many families who are struggling with debt say that they are living permanently in arrears - using their transfer to pay off what they owe and then run up more debt as they wait for their next aid payment.  This situation is worsening because high levels of inflation, fuelled by the conflict, mean that the value of money is decreasing. In practical terms the same amount of cash buys fewer groceries each month. 
  • Some 24.3 million Yemenis, over 53 percent of the population, currently need humanitarian assistance. This year, 16.2 million Yemenis will rely on food aid to survive, with 17.9 million lacking access to healthcare in a country where only half of health facilities are fully functional. It is estimated that in parts of Yemen one in five children are severely malnourished and will grow up with life-long medical conditions if they do not get more food.  
  • Aid relief information and update  
  • Health care facility information from UN Yemen HRP 2020 
  • Figures for numbers facing starvation and reliant on food aid taken from here 
  • Child malnutrition figures from UNICEF   
Posted In: