Food aid is needed desperately — but ultimately it's not the answer

The images of Africans affected by the drought in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya paint a grim picture — thousands of people are again in desperate need and are being provided with food aid to allow them to survive. But what the photographs fail to show is the reason why so many people have reached this state of destitution.

Helen de Jode's picture
Insight by 
Helen de Jode
25 July 2011
Man walking with two camels over a sandy landscape.

Man walking with two camels over a sandy landscape. Credit: Curt Carnemark / World BankCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sustainable way of living disrupted by modern world system

Underneath the high visibility famine lies an age-old and sustainable way of living that has been disrupted by a modern world system, and whose ability to adapt to the cycle of drought has been severely undermined.

An estimated 20 million people live in the dryland areas of the Horn of Africa; nomads, or pastoralists, who own livestock and feed themselves, their communities and the regional economy with milk, meat and other livestock products.

Pastoralists have lived in the harsh and erratic dryland environments of the Horn for centuries, surviving its regular and repeated cycle of droughts through their unique production strategy that depends on mobility.

While a farmer waits for the rain to arrive, a pastoralist moves to where the rain has already been — feeding their camels, cows, sheep or goats on the new grazing opportunities and accessing the water sources. Complex social systems that cross national borders, and the reserving of key areas of land for drought periods, have traditionally ensured that pastoralists have adapted to the extreme climatic variability they face.

Pastoralist land increasingly taken over by agriculture and commercial farms

But in recent decades vast areas of the pastoralist land in the Horn of Africa have been taken over by agriculture and large-scale commercial farms — often in the key strategic riverine areas previously reserved for times of drought. This has undermined the whole system and reduced yields of milk and meat.

When livestock are forced to stay in the same place, they also become more susceptible to disease. With the loss of so much of their grazing areas many pastoralists now prefer to herd camels, which can survive on the remaining degraded habitats, need less frequent watering and can also feed at night when it is cooler. The conflict and insecurity of the region further restricts livestock mobility and affects the long-distance livestock trade, particularly from Somalia.

In periods of drought, when milk yields are low, pastoralists will sell their livestock for grain, but as far as possible will always retain a core breeding stock for building up their herds when the situation improves. When food prices rocket and livestock prices plummet at the same time, many will lose all their assets. Without any social support they are forced to drop out of pastoralism altogether and become a drain on the state rather than a contribution to it.

Food aid: temporary solution

Food aid provides a temporary solution when drought hits, saving the lives of the pastoralists, but it often fails to save their livelihoods.

Fortunately there are a number of initiatives that seek to protect herds before they are decimated by drought — vaccinating livestock, providing temporary food and water for animals, or selling the animals for slaughter before their condition deteriorates. Development agencies are also making important progress in understanding and managing the cycle of drought — recognising that in the Horn of Africa pastoralists are always expecting, surviving or recovering from a drought.

When this drought is over the pastoralists who have not dropped out of the system will need support from national governments and the international community to rebuild their herds and secure the future of the production system on which so many depend. So while food aid is crucial in a crisis, more imaginative solutions are needed to stop the cycle repeating itself.

Helen de Jode is the editor of Modern and Mobile: The future of livestock production in Africa's drylands, published by IIED and SOS Sahel.

This blog was first published on