The failure of ‘resilience’ projects in northern Kenya: what can we learn?

by Tahira Mohamed and Ian Scoones

Moving across northern Kenya, roadsides are strewn with signs proclaiming projects creating ‘resilience’ amongst pastoral communities. The ‘Regional Pastoral Livelihoods Resilience Project’, the ‘Drought Resilience and Sustainable Livelihoods’ programme, the ‘Resilience Consortium’ and many more. Mission statements talk of creating a “prosperous and resilient community”, “ending drought emergencies” through resilience building, the generation of a “resilience dividend”, linking “resilience and accelerated economic growth” and so on.

The resilience buzzword is ubiquitous. But what does it mean, and what are the limitations of the current approach?

In a series of interviews in Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale over the past few months, combined with an excellent workshop in February hosted by Marsabit-based Centre for Research and Development in Drylands (CRDD) attended by around 30 people from government, NGOs and pastoral communities, we set out to find out. The discussions were not encouraging. Here are a few typical (and anonymised) quotes:

It’s resilience, resilience, resilience in proposals. The word resilience just attracts the donors.

We have spent billions and billions, but we have nothing to show, even if we try our best. There’s something we are not getting right.

We are working on the proposal in the boardroom only, and it automatically fails.

The top-down approach means that the suit is tailor-made without fitting the person.

We are agents of the problem, not the agents of development!

There are dozens of projects, millions and millions of dollars spent, with all projects seeming to be designed to tick a series of donor-designed boxes in a welter of development jargon in their documentation. As one frustrated programme officer commented, “These projects are so complex. Even understanding this project, you have to study the booklets. And all those who designed it have gone!”

The top-down, donor-driven approach is of course, not new, but what was perhaps more depressing during our discussions was how ‘resilience’ projects sometimes even undermine real resilience on the ground, creating dependency, undermining flexibility and squashing adaptability. How does this happen, despite years of experience?

Workshop participants at Centre for Research and Development in Drylands (CRDD)

The standard approach to resilience programming: why they miss their mark

Across the projects we have reviewed (which was a very small subset of them – see this extraordinary mapping from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa that shows hundreds scattered across the region), there was a fairly standard pattern.

Informed by standardised NGO/donor protocols, resilience projects ideally rely on forming groups (or committees), ideally of women or youth, who may do any number of things. The most common are fodder growing in farm plots, reseeding of pastures, marketing of animals, value addition to livestock products and a whole array of what are termed ‘livelihood diversification’ projects, involving moving away from dependence on pastoral production.  These are combined with investments in market infrastructure, drilling of boreholes and improving feeder roads.

There is nothing wrong with any of these interventions per se; indeed, all are useful in their own way, but do they generate resilience? As some of our interviewees observed:

You go to a village and there are so many groups – water, rangeland and so on. It’s confusing the community. The roles and people are almost the same. They are just funded by different projects.

Who is the legitimate committee? There’s confusion due to devolution, which is weakening the traditional systems.

This word resilience is so ambiguous. We must understand it better. There is a gap – the projects don’t work.

With the emphasis on decentralised activities following devolution, there are many, many groups, many, many committees and, as Leigh Johnson and colleagues point out, the ’labour’ of doing resilience (or climate adaptation) is burdensome for many, especially women. The benefits may come in the form of some facilitation for attending meetings, but too often the projects that are invested in quickly fold as soon as the funds dry up. In turn, the popular cash transfers that are aimed at improving livelihoods may get inappropriately targeted or redistributed in ways that the project designers never imagined, and in the process local relations of ‘moral economy’ may be undermined.

However, the wider infrastructural investments may be beneficial if well thought out and sometimes are transformative. For example, the new A2 highway built by the Chinese from Isiolo to Moyale and beyond into Ethiopia has reduced travel times and costs dramatically, allowing for example for hay to be transported for hungry livestock across the region from the farming areas of Meru and further south. Boreholes dug by government and maintained by the county government, now often with solar pump facilities, have been essential for keeping animals alive during the drought, and large numbers gather daily to drink.  

But all too often such projects aren’t well-designed and don’t fit the context. The fancy new markets are frequently in the wrong place, and no-one uses them as the bush markets nearby are more accessible and cheaper to use. Many boreholes function for a while, but the costs of repairs are often too high and so they fall into disrepair. The roads may go to the wrong places, diverting trade and transport from places that matter.

The idea that resilience can be generated by a technical or financial fix is prevalent; and in so many cases the same interventions that failed a few decades before are just repeated with a new branding and new jargon. Sadly, the list of basic development failures across northern Kenya is seemingly endless – and as our workshop revealed it seems everyone knows it!  

Pastoralists with animals in Kenya.

Misplaced narratives are framing ‘resilience’ interventions

A prevalent narrative cuts through these interventions – that pastoralism is finished and alternatives to livestock keeping must be found. In the context of such a serious, sustained crisis, such a view is perhaps understandable, but it repeats the storyline from the colonial era onwards, always accentuated during and after major droughts.

Pastoralists, such commentators argue, would do better if they didn’t adopt flexible, mobile livelihoods and would settle and farm (like the ‘civilised’ citizens of elsewhere in the country). The biases against mobile pastoralism are very evident: education programmes are designed to get people out of pastoralism; water investments are for irrigated farming as an alternative to livestock keeping; and ‘diversification’ projects often don’t link to the pastoral economy.  We heard such narratives across our discussions. For example:

We have to change these people through education. Only then can children get jobs. They will better off than their parents whose livestock have died.

Decisions are affected by culture. For example, pastoralists don’t destock and they hold on to their animals; we must support pastoralist to commercialise and adopt modern husbandry practices.

We must expand irrigation so pastoralists can farm. With technology and funds, we can reclaim the desert.

Even with some rains having fallen in March and April, one of the most severe droughts of the past century has hit the region, following on from multiple failed rainy seasons. Governments and aid agencies are in ‘emergency’ mode, with people scrambling to avoid serious loss of human life. With millions of livestock having already perished, how can remaining ones be saved so that herds and flocks can recover after the drought? This is the current context for discussing the billions spent on ‘resilience’ projects (and their predecessors, under different buzzwords with different signboards) over decades.

The widespread acknowledgement of repeated failure to build long-lasting resilient pastoral systems, as expressed again and again by participants in our scoping study, is seriously concerning.

In the subsequent two blogposts in this short series, we will explore what some of the alternatives might be. How can we build on existing pastoral system and capacities so that the same mistakes are not made into the future once this current emergency has (hopefully) passed? As one informant observed, “All the NGOs are talking about ‘livelihood diversification’, but the main livelihood is still pastoralism. We must improve on what is existing.”

This is the first of a series of three blogposts written as part of a scoping study and supported by ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). Elements of this blog appeared in an article in The Conversation.

3 thoughts

  1. This is hard hitting findings but so true and we have to agree projects are not addressing community needs in a participatory approach. This is sad when there’s bureaucracies in organisations implementing projects where top positions are know-it-all management.


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