How do changing policies affect pastoralists in Sub-Saharan Africa?

A new policy paper by Michele Nori examines the changing policy landscape for pastoralists in Sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on the regions of the Sahel and Horn of Africa. (For other posts in this series, read about the papers on West Asia and North Africa and on Europe.)

Pastoral livestock production systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are mostly found in the vast arid and semi-arid areas of the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, where raising small ruminants, cattle, and camels provides one of the main sources of livelihoods. In 2010, the African Union estimated pastoralists in Africa at 268 million – generally living in isolated and remote areas, often close to borders and frontiers. Their culture, products, and services are key features of African drylands.

However, despite these large numbers and the sector’s cultural importance, governments in the region generally remain blinkered to the economic relevance of pastoralism.

Pastoralism does formally enjoy a longstanding and fairer recognition and appreciation throughout the Sahelian setting, while the situation is much more controversial in the Horn of Africa. But many policies, laws, investment and programs have poorly served herding economies, and have failed to harness their potential. Instead, they have worked to dismantle the mobility patterns and social networks that make them viable.

Dryland livelihoods are intensely reshaped by population growth, climatic and environmental changes, the encroachment of external forces and interests, and broader institutional reconfigurations. Meanwhile, rangelands are increasingly being incorporated into wider arenas of politics and trade.


In the latter twentieth century, most development interventions and investments in pastoral settings aimed to use technological advances to maximise and stabilise the productivity of drylands.

Investments in livestock addressed mainly animal health, genetic improvement, water development, and forms of controlled grazing such as ranching schemes and enclosures, as well as support to livestock commercialisation. Ending pastoral mobility, settling pastoralists around permanent water points, feeding animals through crops and promoting exotic breeds aimed to reduce livestock interactions with the environment.

These visions clashed with those of traditional pastoral practices, which aim to optimally benefit from the high variability in pasture and water availability.

Evidence based policy?

Research since the 1970s has found that pastoral mobility is a strategic way to harness environmental variability in space and time. But conventional policy and investment frameworks have continued to pursue goals of stabilising, controlling, and reorganising the ways that pastoralists produce, live, and market their produce.

The pastoral sector has experienced the greatest concentration of failed development projects in the world: in many cases, they failed to improve income or productivity in rangelands, while often contributing to their degradation. Apart from technical misfits and disappointing results, what is even more striking is the lack of concern for involving pastoral communities, their skills and agency in local development. Scant regard was paid to indigenous knowledge and customary institutions.


The 1977 UN International Conference on Desertification, and the narratives around it, helped to legitimise the idea of moving pastoralism towards more ‘rational and sedentary’ systems, by blaming ongoing degradation processes on pastoral practices.

Donor agencies and international policy agendas allied in pushing the conversion of pastoral territories and livelihoods. This process was particularly intense in eastern Africa, through villagisation schemes in Ethiopia, land privatisation among Maasai in Kenya, and land gazetting and forced mobility reduction in Uganda. It is also visible in more recent programmes, such as the so-called ‘Great Green Wall’.

cows in an enclosure in dryland
Keeping cattle in Senegal. Photo: Sergio Magnani

Impacts of neo-liberalism, structural adjustment and beyond

Sub-Saharan Africa drylands, already stressed by the impact of dramatic droughts, also suffered under the neo-liberal policy agenda of the 1990s. Vast and remote territories with limited and scattered populations implied too high investment costs for a presumed limited political return.

Structural adjustment programmes led to a scaling down of public investment in remote drylands areas and the drastic reduction of many essential services for pastoralists by the central State, including, in most countries, the privatisation of animal health and veterinary care.

However, since the turn of the millennium, national democratisation, power devolution, and forms of decentralisation have provided some room for reconfiguring power relationships and the social contract between different communities and the State.

The scaling up of regional integration and evolving transnational networks have reconnected territories, providing for new opportunities and exchanges, and the emergence of new interests and relationships. More recently, several governments in the region have also developed Pastoral Codes to provide some legal protection for customary tenure arrangements and rights.

Regional perspectives

Regional coordination and integration are critical in supporting grazing and trading. They can help harmonize policies, and facilitate trade and exchanges between countries.

Cross-border mobility, migration, and commerce are necessary for the survival of both sedentary and nomadic populations in the Sahel, whose drylands and southern coastal countries historically depend on regional networks of trade and communication.

At the interregional level, other forms of marketing, migratory flows, and traffic shape the regional connections between northern and western Africa, and between the Arabian peninsula and countries of the Horn.

Changing land use

Economic transitions and environmental changes are also reconfiguring relationships between herding and farming communities and territories. For example, in the Sahel, the land used to grow crops has doubled over the past four decades, at the expense of natural shortgrass savannas.

Policy and interventions over decades have encouraged farmers to expand their livelihoods by acquiring their own herds and herders to settle and turn to crop farming. The crop-residues and water facilities that herders traditionally acquired in exchange for manure and milk are now paid for with cash rather than by barter, as customary collaborative mechanisms have been replaced by those centred on markets and money.

Large-scale farming and development corridors have also been established: here, investments in physical and commercial infrastructure aim to ‘unlock the potential’ of inner rangelands and to enhance their contribution to the national economy and regional integration.

All the above result in intense encroachment on pastoral territories, involving the displacement of grazing communities, privatisation of water resources, growth of small towns, development of mining industries, and major rearticulation of territories and reconfiguration of power and influence in drylands – further fuelling competition amongst different land users.

The conversion of large rangeland chunks into other land uses not only undermines the common property regimes governing the entire territory, but practically excludes herders from critical hotspots for dry season grazing and during drought events, often relegating poor strata and minority groups into degraded or marginal lands.

Policy frameworks

At the continental level, a main turning point has been the adoption in 2011 of the African Union Policy Framework for Pastoralism in Africa. The AU policy framework is articulated through two main complementary and intertwined axes: on the one hand it aims to protect and secure the lives, livelihoods, and rights of African pastoralists in order to strengthen their contribution to national, regional, and continental economies. Regional integration and movement are an important aspect.

On the other hand, it emphasises the need to fully engage pastoralists in national and regional governance, and in defining development processes and approaches, in order to avoid the shortcomings of past policies and interventions.

Sub-regional policies and structures have also evolved. Several policies and legislative texts regulate cross-border relationships and related movements of livestock, people, and goods in a transnational, regional perspective – for example, in ECOWAS countries (in West Africa) livestock passports aim to allow animals to cross borders, though in practice the system is imperfect.

In the Horn of Africa, the degree of regional integration and coordination amongst countries is less advanced, especially on matters related to rangeland management, pastoral development, and cross-border movements, though some bilateral agreements are in place. In 2020, a Protocol on Transhumance was endorsed to facilitate cross-border mobility of livestock and herders in East Africa, but its full impacts are yet to be seen.

herders with goats in dryland
Herding in Turkana County, Kenya. Photo: Greta Semplici

Progress and frustration

Despite good intentions, many pastoral-friendly proclamations and related institutional arrangements fail to convert into legislation, directives, and guidelines because of dwindling political commitment, cumbersome bureaucracies, and weak enforcement mechanisms.

Implementation has consequently often lagged too. A persistent bias towards crop farming and sedentarised livestock-keeping heavily influences development narratives and related policy and investments frameworks.

A set of institutional agencies have been established over time at different levels with the mandate to specifically address crises in drylands, particularly droughts. Other, more innovative efforts to reduce pastoralists’ exposure to livelihood shocks and related food security problems in the Sahel and Horn regions have included the establishment of strategic food and feed reserves, extending animal health service coverage, and testing livestock insurance schemes. These interventions often evolve from paradigmatic lens that embraces stability, equilibrium, and certainty rather than providing opportunities to harness variability management.

The longstanding inconsistencies of the policy framework have not been free from implications, as recent decades have witnessed a dramatic erosion of pastoral livelihoods, with growing demographics, changing climate, and shrinking rangelands. Despite the growing calls for change, inclusion, and investments, the situation in most Sub-Saharan Africa drylands has worsened, and development perspectives have given way to humanitarian and security agendas..

The intense integration of pastoral economies into market mechanisms has corresponded to dramatic impoverishment and inequalities among pastoral populations, leading to frustration, grievance and political radicalisation among some groups. Networks of smugglers and traffickers, including in human beings, weapons and drugs, capitalise on pastoralists’ political and economic grievances by co-opting their skills, networks and labour to seize control of extensive territories and the added-value of operating across borders.

The incorporation of pastoral regions, communities, and economies in the wider (capitalist) economy shifts the rules of the game, the role of actors, and the playing field.

On the one hand, this has opened the way for external, non-pastoral interests and agendas, from climate change financing, to transnational corporations to global jihad, to contribute significantly to diverting the configuration of new socio-political landscapes. On the other hand, the ongoing dynamics are contributing to the recognition that pastoral communities are strategic allies in the pursuit of sustainable governance and political stability in the region.

The key policy question is how to disentangle and redress these dynamics, translating the wider recognition of the rights and interests of pastoralists into their integration in local, national, and regional institutional and economic structures, aimed at ending their sense of structural exclusion and socio-political marginalisation. A flourishing pastoral economy is essential to political stability.

Involving pastoralists in the future

The paradigm of pastoralism as a backward, inefficient, and unsustainable practice remains quite pervasive, even in new generations of public officers, authorities, and policymakers throughout the African continent. This makes formal institutions and development agencies poorly suited and ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of pastoral systems, and undermines their capacity and legitimacy among local communities.

The lack of involvement of pastoralists’ capacities, interests and needs in societal development and policy dialogue is a main acknowledged shortcoming. So part of the solution undoubtedly depends on providing pastoral communities with full political and legitimate representation.

The testing ground rests no doubt in securing pastoralists’ livelihood assets, starting from their land, their livestock, and their mobility. A new social contract is needed, and redressing the political economy in Sub-Saharan African drylands by protecting the rights and needs of pastoralists from prevailing political and economic interests is the key to redress current governance failures.

Read the paper

Assessing the policy frame in pastoral areas of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)
Working Paper, EUI RSC PP, 2022/03, Global Governance Programme
by Michele Nori

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s