Pastoralism: Good News from a Troubled Region of Africa


Camel market in Hargeisa SomalilandBy: Ian Scoones

Where in the developing world do you see the growth of a $1 billion per annum export trade, the creation of export corridors, the flourishing of the private sector, the expansion of towns with the inflow of investment, and the emergence of a class of entrepreneurs commanding a profitable market, and generating employment and other business opportunities; and all of this driven without a reliance on external development aid?

No, this is not another story about China or India. This is the livestock trade in the Horn of Africa, across Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia, Sudan and Kenya. This is not to say that the media images of conflict, famine, destitution and death are not real. They are shockingly so. But there is another story unfolding in the Horn. The livestock trade — south to the markets of Nairobi, Kinshasa and beyond; from Somaliland, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan across to the Gulf, and to Egypt and North Africa — has long been part of the economy of the region.

Pastoralists — livestock keepers who make use of the dry range often through complex, mobile patterns of use — have driven such trade for centuries, linked to traders, brokers, feed suppliers, transporters, milk processors and a host of others engaged in the livestock economy of the region.

A new book, Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins, argues that the trade, much of it unrecorded, informal and often illegal, amounts to around $1 billion each year. In this region, so plagued by poverty, this is no small sum of money. This economic activity generates wider benefits. Around the rapidly growing small towns of the region, many now grow animal feed for sale. Others, particularly women, process and sell milk. Some provide private veterinary services to herders. And others still offer services to the booming populations in these newly urbanizing centres in the drylands.

But, as in other emerging economies, growth comes with inequality. Not everyone is benefiting from the boom. Only relatively few have the larger herds of cattle, camels, goats and sheep, and can employ people to herd, hire transport and negotiate with traders, border officials or tax agents. The poor, without access to livestock, land or employment, lose out. In times of conflict or drought – and especially when such shocks combine as in 2011 – some are driven to destitution, fleeing the area or becoming reliant on hand-outs and relief aid in camps, such as Dadaab in northern Kenya. Studies in Somali region in Ethiopia, for example, show pastoral societies are becoming increasingly unequal over time. In the long term this is a threat to prosperity and security. This is where development aid can make a difference, fostering inclusive growth and income diversification for those unable to make it in the core livestock economy, supporting approaches that avoid the default of destitution and relief camps.

The dryland areas of the Horn are therefore changing fast, but development efforts are not keeping up. If we shift our gaze to the margins, and away from the capital cities where the development and policy elite congregate, the range of innovative activity is phenomenal. This is not passive adaptation, but active enterprise, where new development paths are being carved out.

Pastoralism and Development in Africa offers case after case of how this is happening. The book argues that a view from the margins and shifting our perspective to ‘see like pastoralists’ themselves opens up a whole new vista of opportunities in these seemingly backward, deprived and desolate areas.

But pastoral development linked to the growth of the livestock economy in the Horn is not all plain sailing. There are many obstacles in the way. Central governments have always seen these marginal areas as troublesome, sites of potential uprising and secession. They have tried to incorporate such peoples in nation states through settlement, taxation and development programs. These efforts have been resisted, with pastoralists being deemed backward, awkwardly rejecting modernity. Now there are further threats from so-called ‘land grabs’, as pastoralists’ land is being eyed up by investors, speculators and wildlife conservationists as places to transform into new private business opportunities. However, the legacy of dryland development in the Horn of Africa is a miserable catalogue of disasters; grand schemes that have failed, from settlement programs to irrigation projects.

Yet, lessons from the past show that the best use of such land is mobile livestock keeping. Pastoralism can be modern, efficient and highly profitable too, and out-compete the alternatives many times over. More effective policies towards pastoralism and the livestock economy could bring more riches, more widespread development and stability to this troubled region, if only we noticed and tapped into what is already going on.

Ian Scoones is Co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre and professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies