Pastoralism, the extensive, mobile grazing of
livestock on communal rangelands, is the key production system
practiced in the world’s drylands. Recent estimates
indicate that there are about 120 million pastoralists / agropastoralists
worldwide, of which 50 million reside in sub-Saharan Africa
(SSA). Worldwide, pastoralists constitute one of the poorest
population sub-groups. Among African pastoralists, for example,
the incidence of extreme poverty ranges from 25 to 55 percent.
In SSA, therefore, any attempt to achieve the Millennium
Development Goal of halving extreme poverty needs to include
pastoral people. The crucial policy question is whether it
is preferable to invest in pastoral development, or whether
it would be more appropriate to design exit-strategies for
pastoralists allowing them to abandon livestock keeping.
There are good economic reasons for investing in pastoral
development. First, pastoralism is the best, if not the only,
means to make productive and sustainable use of natural resources
in arid and semi-arid areas that would otherwise remain unexploited.
Second, in SSA pastoral people produce a large share of the
meat supply, being as efficient per unit of land as ‘modern’
At the same time, however, increasing human and livestock
pressure in the drylands needs to be addressed by strategies
that support adoption of alternative income generation activities
by some pastoral/agro-pastoral people.
The Vulnerability of Pastoral People
The dryland areas of SSA where pastoral people make a living
are characterized by soils with low organic matter and low
nutrient content, subjected to extreme year-to-year variability
in rainfall, which regularly takes the form of droughts.
In the course of centuries pastoralists have developed effective
mechanisms to survive in this erratic and risky environment.
Traditional risk-management strategies include livestock accumulation,
regular and opportunistic herd movements depending on rainfall
patterns, breed and species diversification, and herd dispersion
between community members.
For a number of reasons these traditional risk management
strategies have become increasingly ineffective over the past
decades and poverty levels among pastoral populations have
risen. First, increased human populations and the associated
growing animal stock coupled to land degradation are reducing
the relative abundance of natural resources. Second, the expansion
of agriculture from semi-arid into arid areas (the ‘greening’
of the Sahel) and the common tendency to establish private
property rights over land have reduced the mobility of pastoral
people. Third, as the preferences of pastoral people have
changed, their integration into markets has strengthened,
and their exposure to market risks and to competition from
large and often capital intensive production units has grown.
Pastoralists are therefore ever more vulnerable to a number
of risks, which are beyond the direct control of individuals,
households and communities. The prime challenge for policy
makers thus is to create an economic and institutional environment,
which reduces the vulnerability of pastoral people to risks.
This environment should reduce conflicts over resource access
and enable pastoralists to effectively cope with weather and
market risks, escape out of poverty and contribute to economic
The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach
The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) provides a framework
for assessing how risks, shocks and long-term trends affect
the livelihoods of pastoralists.
The SLA first identifies the main assets of people, which
encompass natural, physical, human, financial and social capital.
The crucial assets for pastoralists are their livestock, access
to land and water, and their social network. On the other
hand, pastoralists are often poorly educated and have limited
financial assets, which are typically constituted only by
The SLA then examines how pastoral people, given the broader
economic and institutional environment, combine their assets
for survival and production purposes.
Within this framework, risks can affect pastoralists at two
levels. First, some of the assets are per se subject
to risks: for instance, a drought or an epidemic may significantly
reduce herd size; ethnic conflicts may reduce social capital
within the community. Second, the transformation of assets
into welfare/income benefits is subject to risks: for example,
encroachment of land by settled farmers may deprive pastoral
people of access to water points; declining terms of trade
for livestock might make their sale unprofitable.
Towards Policies and Strategies that
Policy-makers face a challenging task when designing policies
and strategies aimed at reducing the vulnerability of pastoralists.
In fact, many aspects of vulnerability and its reduction are
still not fully understood and require applied research.
A first important distinction policy makers should make is
between idiosyncratic risks, which affect single
households (e.g. the death of the main income earner), and
covariant risks, which affect larger regions and
even countries (e.g. a drought or an epidemic).
Policies designed to reduce idio-syncratic risks are embedded
in the standard poverty reduction strategies formulated by
most countries in SSA. They include, for example, schooling,
public health programs and the establishment of micro-finance
institutions. These measures aim at enhancing peoples’
capacity to cope with specific individual or household risks,
largely irrespective of their initial (livestock) assets.
On the other hand, specific policies and strategies are required
to address the vulnerability of pastoral people to covariant
risks, which impact on pastoralists as a group. These policies
vary according to the risks they attempt to address, but should
be based on some common principles. In particular, they should
combine strategies for risk reduction, risk mitigation and
risk coping. The most desirable outcome would be to reduce
the probability of any risk to zero. As this is unachievable,
it is necessary to concomitantly develop strategies that reduce
the impact of shocks on the livelihoods of pastoral people,
as well as strategies for their rehabilitation and/or diversification
after a shock has occurred.
A review of policies in countries of SSA suggests that major
efforts have so far focused on dealing with the risk of droughts,
epidemics, market exclusion, and social conflicts. There are
no blueprint solutions, but some interesting and innovative
strategies are emerging. Kenya provides an example of the
design and implementation of effective drought management
policies. Burkina Faso has developed successful approaches
of managing conflicts between pastoral people and farmers
in arid and semi-arid areas. A number of West and East African
countries have been offering public off-farm employment to
pastoral people in order to promote diversification of their
income sources and reduce their vulnerability. At the same
time, of course, there are several instances of policies that
have been ineffective and failed.
Three main lessons have emerged so far. First, since policies
targeted at pastoral people cannot follow those applied to
settled areas, there is a need to explore new and innovative
ways to serve the interest of pastoralists. Second, policy
makers often refrain from investing in risk-reducing interventions,
because it is virtually impossible to document ‘shocks
prevented’ and to attribute their non-occurrence to
any previous intervention. Third, policies and strategies
aimed at reducing vulnerability need to be embedded in a broader
development process, whose ultimate objective goes beyond
helping pastoralists overcome single exogenous shocks, but
to make them resilient to the plethora of environmental, health
and economic shocks, which is an increasingly common characteristic
of the globalizing economy.