By U.N. estimates, 24.3 million people in Yemen — 80 percent of the population — are at risk of disease and hunger. In parts of the country, more than 60 percent of the population struggles to secure food, after a conflict-fueled economic collapse has made it harder for Yemenis to afford food and other basic needs. The humanitarian crisis and growing famine threat has mobilized the world’s second-largest contemporary aid response, and factored into President Biden’s decision to reverse the designation of Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization, which would have made food imports more costly.

How do Yemenis get by, given the difficult conditions? In our recent article, we show that people spent down household assets — and they turned to local “functional markets” to access critical goods and services. These markets have adapted to work within the constraints of the conflict, and their presence has important implications for policymaking toward Yemen. While “big-ticket” economic programs are tough to deliver and can be politically contested, our research suggests that supporting localized markets may have a more direct impact in assisting Yemenis.

How deep is the economic crisis?

To understand these markets, we used a stratified random sample to select 877 households across both sides of Yemen’s conflict. We selected 22 sampling sites along three dimensions: whether respondents live under Ansar Allah (the Houthis) or under the control of the internationally recognized government; higher vs. lower economic development; and higher vs. lower levels of violence. At each site, we employed a systematic sampling method, with survey takers approaching every nth house to interview the head of household. Our sample had a 91 percent response rate, for a final sample of 801 households. We also conducted focus groups and interviews across the country to validate our findings by talking with young people, women, officials, academics, security officials and businesspersons.

The survey results demonstrate the profound effects of the conflict on Yemeni households. Overall, respondents reported economic insecurity as among the most significant threats: 30 percent said lack of opportunity for income was the greatest threat they face, alongside 28 percent reporting “renewed violence.”

Income opportunities in Yemen’s private and public sectors have withered. For example, survey responses in Houthi-controlled areas reveal that public sector employment has dropped 11 percent since 2015. And since many who work in public-sector jobs have not been paid for months, even those who self-report as employed do not necessarily have an income. The result is that armed-group employment provides the most stable income. When asked about income opportunities for young men, 61 percent of respondents in the government-controlled areas and 35 percent of respondents in Houthi areas responded that joining the military or other security forces is consistently the best option.

Food prices have risen with the blockade of Houthi areas and the high cost of imported goods and transportation. The widespread drop in income compounds the affordability problems. Yemenis spend nearly four times as much on food as any other expense, including housing, health care and transportation. Across our sample, food made up half of reported household expenditures, a much higher ratio than in other countries in the region. To compare, Algerians spend 37 percent of household income on food.

How do households cope?

Yemenis have coped with loss of income by using savings and selling possessions. Since 2015, 62 percent reported depleting their savings, or selling off possessions to pay for food and water, most notably jewelry and family heirlooms. Our focus group participants reported almost entirely cutting meat, cheese and sweets from their diets to save on food costs. Some reported their households had switched to only sharing two meals a day. “We live by austerity,” they told us.

Yemenis have also coped by searching for opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, internal displacement can be a result of economic concerns as much as violence. Since 2015, 18 percent of our sample had relocated, 63 percent of them leaving areas under Houthi control. Half of those displaced to government areas reported “fleeing trouble” as their reason for relocating, and across the sample 40 percent stated economic concerns such as “to get work” and “tough to get by” as driving their displacement.

What do Yemen’s functional markets offer?

We also found that markets and businesses adapted to Yemen’s crisis. The economic crisis has left many Yemenis dependent on what we call “functional markets.” There’s some degree of regulation, although it’s not always clear which authorities have the right and ability to intervene — and those involved in these markets may be vulnerable to exploitation by outside groups. These markets have flourished in Yemen, meeting basic survival needs for many households by enabling steady access to fuel, clean water, cooking gas and currency exchange.

Businesses and individuals at the center of these markets have found ways to survive in the conflict context, negotiating the divergent political demands of Sanaa and Aden and protecting themselves against armed groups. Our focus groups revealed that business leaders have built networks of influence and support across conflict divides that enable them to operate. While most Yemenis appear unclear about what the market rules are, how enforcement works and which authorities have the right to regulate these markets, the pressure of conflict and survival pushes those concerns aside. These markets serve an essential purpose in mitigating the effects of conflict for many Yemeni households.

What does this mean for foreign aid?

A U.N. appeal for Yemen last month raised $1.7 billion, only half its target. As international organizations and private efforts seek to help, the dual nature of Yemen’s coping economy gives some important clues. Large-scale economic interventions — like agricultural reforms, support for specific sectors or unification of the central bank — can prove difficult to implement, given Yemen’s fiscal environment and competing authorities in Sanaa and Aden. Instead, identifying and supporting the existing markets that have risen to provide essential goods and services to struggling Yemenis, without taking sides, could prove an effective approach.

David Wood is a professor of practice in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, and director of peacebuilding and statebuilding in MENA at the school’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Joseph Huddleston is an assistant professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, and director of DiploLab: Undergraduate Diplomacy Research Lab.

Harshana Ghoorhoo is a research assistant in the School of Diplomacy’s DiploLab.

This original research was conducted with E.U. and German BMZ funding under the GIZ “Peace Process Support for Yemen” project. The views expressed are the authors’ alone.