Prof. Peter Little

I have carefully read both (1) Sandford’s and (2) Devereux and Scoones’ brief papers on the current state of East African/Horn of Africa pastoralism and possible policy scenarios and feel that Sandford’s contribution fails to capture the social and economic complexity of contemporary pastoralism in the region. The policy implications of his contribution also raise some troubling prospects. The notion of a herd ‘threshold’ to sustain pastoralism based strictly on a livestock ‘per capita’ indicator is an important means to assess viability in a relatively undiversified pastoral economy where livestock production is the only source of income.

However, most recent studies of eastern African pastoralism (including several from the 1980s) show multiple household income sources that supplement pastoral production, and in some cases actually subsidize it. Sandford rightfully shows that local income diversification in many pastoral areas is limited because of low levels of demand, urbanization, and job potential, but fails to acknowledge the most important (and rapidly growing) source of non-pastoral income in places like the Horn of Africa—and that is wage and trade-based remittances. In recent studies from northern Kenya, McPeak and Little (2005) and Little et al. (2004) show that placing a household member in waged employment outside pastoralism (and outside the range areas) increasingly is an important livelihood strategy that can enhance local food security and provide capital for reinvesting in the livestock sector. This is a growing trend—along with increased market sales, reliance on non-pastoral diets, and in some cases use of purchased feed supplements—that question the use of relatively high livestock thresholds (around 6.0 TLUs per capita) for estimating pastoral viability (also see Little et al. 2006). In fact, recent work shows that rather than treating pastoral and non-pastoral livelihood sources as competitive and/or contradictory, the latter can be an important reason why some members of families can pursue pastoral livelihoods in dry environments that are unsuitable for alternative uses without very high capital investments (in water and irrigation development, for example), while others work outside the pastoral sector (McPeak and Little 2004).

Another point to keep in mind when discussing ‘notions’ of pastoral viability and thresholds and policy is that of mobility. Mobility remains the key to managing risk in Africa ‘s rangelands but at least in the Horn/East African context it is critical to distinguish human (people) and animal mobility. With few exceptions, most of these systems no longer are nomadic (i.e., where both people and animals are mobile) but, instead, operate on a base camp/settlement and satellite herding camp model (the latter units called fora for Boran and other northern Kenyan/southern Ethiopian groups). In short, the animals remain mobile but only part of the family (often young herders) moves with the animals. Those who remain at base camps pursue a range of different livelihood strategies (milk sales, casual labor, petty trade, farming, schooling/education, etc.) that supplement pastoral incomes and make problematic the notion of ‘pure’ or specialized pastoralism, especially the nomadic version. Contrary to orthodox assumptions based on aggregate data, pastoral dependence on food aid in the region is considerably less widespread than one is led to believe. Other sources of food and income, both among base and satellite camp residents, is significantly more important than food aid (see Lentz and Barrett 2004; Little 2005; and Lind 2005). Thus, food aid dependence is not a good indicator of a ‘pastoral crisis.’

Finally, as Devereux and Scoones point out, it is important to be cognizant of how politicians and policy makers will interpret an assessment that sees mobile pastoralism as a costly, ‘dead end’ livelihood. For many state policy makers it will be used as supporting evidence for pursuing sedentarization, resettlement, and other development interventions that have an extraordinarily poor track record and have been shown to increase livelihood and food security risks for its victims. That many countries in the Horn and elsewhere in Africa have large expanses of dry lands that are unsuitable for agrarian livelihoods other than pastoralism, and investments in livestock still remain the most lucrative way of holding/storing value in these areas (both among pastoralists and non-pastoralists), means that pastoralism will be around for the foreseeable future. And pastoralism in Africa will continue to develop and evolve in response to new constraints, technologies, and opportunities, just as it has in the Middle East and North Africa where feed supplements, ‘modern’ breeding, and motorized transport (for example, trucked water) are common elements of mobile herding. African pastoralism has changed considerably in the past three decades and will continue to do so in the future. It is important, therefore, that governments and donors make the necessary infrastructural (e.g., transport and public security), economic (market infrastructure and policies), and social investments (education and health)—which they have not done to date!—to support and improve mobile pastoralism, while providing social and economic options to those who have been ‘pushed’ or opted out of pastoralism and are unlikely to reenter it.


Prof. Peter Little
Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky