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Fighting hunger: the endless plight of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa

Written by Sara Pavanello


In the prelude to today’s World Food Day, the United Nations confirmed that more than one billion people – a sixth of the world’s population – are undernourished. The annual report on food security by FAO and WFP says that there are more hungry people than at any time since the 1970s. 

These vast numbers hide the daily reality of those plagued by hunger. I have seen what hunger and drought really mean to one group of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa.

In the dusty small settlement of Takaba in the Mandera District of Northern Kenya, I met a group of pastoralists who were waiting under a tree, shielding from the blistering sun.  Here, there has been no rain since April 2009. The prolonged drought has left their livestock either dead or dying, and sales are drying up as quickly as the land around them. Traders are no longer willing to buy drought-stricken, emaciated animals that cannot be re-sold or slaughtered at a profit. For pastoralists, options for livestock marketing that would let them buy much-needed basic foodstuffs are increasingly limited.

As one pastoralist told me, with frustration: ‘Today I hope to sell four goats. I need to buy food: this morning I did not have tea, and yesterday I did not even eat.’  He has been trying to sell his livestock since last June, but sales have been sporadic and have not brought in enough money to provide his family with food or basic necessities.

For pastoralist communities, livestock represents the main physical, financial and social asset and the marketing of livestock products generates the majority of the household income. For decades, the livelihoods of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa have been undermined progressively by economic, social and political marginalisation, adverse national land policies and practices, and by persistent negative perceptions of pastoralism, which is often seen as a less sustainable and viable form of production than agriculture both at national and international level.  More recently, the increasing frequency and intensity of drought in this region has further undermined their resilience and their ability to recover.

 Once again, international organisations have launched emergency appeals and international donors are mobilising significant amounts of resources to provide food aid in order to avert a humanitarian disaster. While drought is a recurrent climatic occurrence in the Horn of Africa, its impacts can be limited by timely and appropriate livelihood-based interventions. Extensive studies and evaluations of drought response carried out in the region, including those by ODI, show that dramatic consequences can be averted by strengthening and protecting pastoral livelihoods systems, and by building their resilience and capacity to survive the inevitable occurrence of drought.  Current efforts such as hunger safety nets in Northern Kenya  have shown some initial potential to help pastoralists survive droughts more effectively, but remain too limited in size and scope to have a meaningful impact.

It is time that national and international actors act seriously to refocus their interventions on long-term pastoral development strategies supported by timely and flexible funding mechanisms so that the seemingly unending cycle of drought and food relief in the Horn of Africa can finally be broken.