By Rahma Hassan (Tufts), Jackson Wachira (CRDD) and Peter Ballantyne (Jameel Observatory).

Facing variability and insecurity due to climate change as well as environmental and human-generated shocks and uncertainties, policies on East Africa’s drylands need a ‘reset’ – where pastoralism is recognized and not renegotiated; where community resilience and reliability are valued and prized, and where actions and investments of governments and agencies are re-connected to local realities, relationships and contexts.

Unpacking and addressing these policy disconnects and drivers was the focus of a February 2024 convening hosted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and co-organized by the Center for Research and Development in the Drylands, (CRDD), the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action, and the Feinstein International Center of Tufts University.

On 8 February 2024, fifty-three people from community organizations and pastoralist groups, governments and regional agencies, national and international humanitarian organizations and research institutes examined ways to overcome disconnects between policy and practice in pastoralist areas.  

The meeting was opened by Siboniso Moyo, Deputy Director General of ILRI. Opening remarks were provided by Leah Ndung’u, Regional Manager, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. After short project presentations, participants identified policy disconnects in the Horn of Africa Drylands – what causes them and their effects, and they identified a joint ‘action agenda’ and set of collaborative actions designed to overcome policy disconnects and promote ‘resilience from below.’

Here, we provide an overall synthesis of the themes emerging from the discussions, the alternative approaches mapped out by participants, and areas for collaboration and policy engagement going forward. A report with more detail will also be available. 

Framing our collective understanding

Ian Scoones of the University of Sussex framed the discussions. He opened by challenging participants: Despite ambitious plans and investments, recent years saw a sustained drought with widespread impacts – What’s gone wrong; what’s going wrong? Do we need to rethink how we go about early warning, anticipatory action, humanitarian response and resilience building? We need to ask together, honestly and openly whether these efforts genuinely build resilience in the drylands – so that people are building their capacities to avert disasters, sustain livelihood, and rebuild after inevitable shocks arise.

He posed three key challenges: 

First, we need people to recognize that the systems in drylands usually have pastoralism at their core. Rather than looking for alternative livelihoods or getting out of pastoralism, as many projects aim for, resilience must be built in pastoralist systems that, for the foreseeable future, are central to most people’s livelihoods in drylands. Even as pastoralism evolves and changes, we must improve our understanding of these systems and banish forever some of the myths about pastoralism that have long plagued and influenced policy making on drylands.

Second, let us look at the ways that droughts and other disasters are seen ‘on’ the ground and ‘from’ the ground. These events emerge from complex systems, they are always uncertain, and they are always compounding and combining. Seen from an office, disasters and emergencies seem like singular moments where an emergency response must be organized. From the ground however, then the time and the framing of these looks very much different. Where experts bring their individual crisis expertise, a pastoralist typically confronts simultaneous multiple crises all the time, over and above day to day challenges. We need more attention to the ways that different interventions work within these systems and the contexts where they will be used.

Third, we need to ask how reliability is generated in variable and uncertain settings, so disasters are averted on the ground. This reliability is provided by professionals in the system and their networks – not just external experts but most crucially by the people on the ground who continuously manage grazing, assure water supplies, keep the peace, transport products to markets, supply emergency fodder and so on. Understanding – and supporting and extending – how this is done is vitally important for building resilience from below. Instead of another project, we should build reliability at the heart of people systems – building resilience from below.

Country perspectives

Following Scoones, Bakari Mwachakure, Marsabit County Drought Coordinator for Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority explained that its early warning systems inform the anticipatory and other actions of stakeholders at county and national levels, and even by communities. Yet, in the face of recent droughts, the systems were not enough to achieve the national goal to ‘end drought emergencies’ in Kenya by 2022. He suggested this is a good time to go back to the drawing table to look at any disconnects – in policy directions, in normal practices, in implementation – looking for responsive approaches that can end drought emergencies and deal with the compounding hazards that come along with the drought.

Expanding from his personal pastoralist perspective, he argued that his priority is not to end his current pastoralist livelihood system, but instead to diversify and have other complementary opportunities that can strengthen his modes of pastoralism. Reflecting on the recent multi-year droughts, he noted that pastoralists’ natural optimism – ‘next season will be better’ – was overcome by uncertainty and variability. “We are realizing that we are no longer able to predict how the seasons are going to behave, and the uncertainty is real in the wake of climate change and the effects that are happening, and also the issue of emerging threats and hazards over and above what we already experience.”

In conclusion, he looks for approaches that are more focused on anticipatory elements that provide thresholds above which response activities and mechanisms are triggered to help cushion livelihoods against shocks.

From Ethiopia, Fitsum Kore of the Government’s Borana Zone CSO coordination office and Guyo Denge of CIFA Ethiopia provided insights from the recent drought responses.  Kore explained how the droughts decimated livestock in the zone, with close to 3.3 million head of livestock lost and 60,000 householders displaced and destitute. The crisis for these people is that, without animals, they are divorced from their pastoralist livelihoods, and they search for other opportunities.

On the drought responses, he noted that they have good coordination overall, but, he observed that the focus of the coordination efforts tends to be on the emergency phase, with post-emergency coordination rather weak. Further, among the NGO projects in the area, close to 95% are on relief or emergency responses, with hardly any focusing on resilience or for the longer term.

Denge reflected on the way we speak about the latest droughts, noting that when we speak to communities themselves, they say that drought is not new. What’s new, they say, is the shortening time between droughts that provides little time for recovery and regeneration. This makes coping very difficult.

For the last drought, he said that actors had quite good early warning, but this did not really translate into early response, by government, development agencies, and also, maybe the communities themselves. Recognizing that droughts are not really new, he suggested that their changing frequency and variability requires that the ways we respond to them need to be renewed – both in terms of policy, and also in terms of interventions on the ground.

Points arising

We need to understand pastoralism as a system that functions to minimize risk and maximize opportunity in the complex drylands ecosystems.  Better knowledge by stakeholders of dynamic pastoral systems is critical to help dispel some of the myths about pastoralism.

Who frames droughts and other shocks is important.  External actors perceive them differently to pastoralists. Evidence suggests congruence among these groups rarely exists, yet it is critical to designing and implementing effective policies and responses. One area of disconnect is that external stakeholders often view crises in pastoral settings as single shocks instead of compounding and combining shocks. This isolated view means that both the predictive early warning infrastructure and the response interventions are often misguided and/or ineffective.

The tried and tested response systems and approaches of pastoralist communities are being stretched by the increasing frequency and compound nature of different shocks. This calls for greater attention to anticipatory information, and resilience-building efforts looking to the future.

How interventions in pastoral settings are implemented shapes their potential to contribute to – or undermine – community resilience. Local networks play important roles stemming from the recognition that pastoralist communities and their knowledge are critical assets that should be included into early action-early warning approaches and practices. For ‘resilience from below’, we must work with and through local reliability networks that best serve the needs of local communities.

After presentations of three projects by Hussein Wario, Guyo Roba and Elizabeth Stites, participants worked in groups to identify critical disconnects, unpacking the changes they want to see and how the wider community could address them.

Unpacking disconnects

An initial exercise identified twenty or so ‘disconnects’ or gaps in the current policy space around pastoralism and drylands in the Horn of Africa. Examples highlighted included: 

  • Incomplete ‘circuit’ between early warning, actions, interventions and communities
  • Untargeted, unused and mistrusted early warning information
  • Delivery of early warning systems disconnected from local realities
  • Disconnect between early warning information and timely/effective responses
  • Response and targeting often not informed by data
  • Weak culture of information sharing and trust
  • Inaccessible information
  • Gaps between traditional and scientific knowledge systems
  • Discounted agency and capacities of local people
  • Disrupted knowledge and values of communities
  • Reliance on external metrics instead of local/community/relational approach
  • Little learning from experience
  • Inappropriate policies and interventions not suited to pastoralists
  • Short versus long term approaches/interventions
  • Inadequate financing and finance schemes
  • Dominance of pastoralism as a crisis narrative rather than a resilience/positive sector

Together, these lead to diverse undesirable effects: Undermined resilience and livelihoods, wasted resources, ineffective action, undermined people’s agency, standardized external responses, centralized coarse-resolution general early warning systems, delayed responses, loss of livelihoods and human lives, conflict, inadequate financing, compromised humanitarian standards, inequality in access to finance, vulnerable people not reached, mistrust, harm to local livelihoods, incoherent actions, systemic maladaptation and maldevelopment, mistrust of early warning systems, inadequate, late, ineffective and inappropriate responses, failure, short-termism, untapped potential, disjointed, late and insufficient actions.

Agenda for change

These disconnects were clustered in six themes, framed as questions, that form a general ‘joint agenda’ where participants further identified critical issues/constraints to overcome, priority outcomes to achieve, and alternative policy approaches and pathways to deliver these. 

  • Beyond policy formulation: How do we move to the effective implementation of policies?
  • Institutions: How do we promote co-development and implementation where planning, financing, design and learning leave their silo’s and take full account of local knowledge and practices, address power imbalances, and manage (mal)incentives around certain financial models?
  • Early warning, information and response: How do we broaden data and interventions in pastoral areas beyond technological innovations to include context-relevant indigenous knowledge and practices?
  • Financing for early actions: How do we make funding, and enough of it, available early enough, and accessible where and when its most needed, and guided by on the ground needs and time frames?
  • Narratives: How do we counter the connection frequently made between the vulnerability of pastoral systems and the need for actions to promote completely different livelihood models, that sedentary farming approaches are better suited to pastoral areas, for example?
  • Learning and knowledge: How do we shift long-held and often incomplete or incorrect understanding of drylands ecosystems and pastoralism by practitioners, policy makers and technocrats, overcoming negative perceptions, unlearning myths and assumptions, and drawing in more relevant evidence and data to offer more robust, relevant and impactful options and investments to that reinforce and positively transform, from below, the resilience inherent in pastoral systems?

Collaborative actions

Finally, participants worked together on a set of actions derived from the wider agenda where collaboration could be energized to enhance policy linkages and build resilience from below:

  1. Build and disseminate an accessible evidence base to appropriate actors.
  2. Engage in authentic co-creating partnerships [as the norm].
  3. Enhance and develop capacities for different groups.
  4. Develop a powerful and accurate [counter] narrative on drylands and pastoralism.
  5. Advocate for attention and investment for drylands.
  6. Co-learn and implement what works. 
  7. Strengthen a community of practice to connect us all.

For each, the groups sketched out goals for the action, priority results and outcomes we want, specific activities to be done, who to involve, and possible synergies to capitalize on.  The group notes are being turned into short texts that can be taken forward by different partners.

Reflections and next steps

Closing the session, Hussein Wario, Guyo Roba and Rahma Hassan highlighted some key points emerging from the day: 

  • Early warning systems, anticipatory actions and emergency responses continue to be largely top-down and often they do not reach or are not appropriate for local levels. At the same time, information and knowledge from local levels do not effectively reach the top, meaning the disconnects, lack of trust, and questions of reliability go in both directions.
  • Bridging these gaps requires actions from both the top and the bottom. Convening and continuing these dialogues across different channels and fora is important to continue.
  • The discussions show that we largely know what needs to be done and who by. However, it is still a challenge to uncover why the needed changes are not actually happening – Is it political awareness and will? Is it about missing financial incentives? Is it just human behavior? Is the crisis narrative undermining us all?
  • Our institutions still mostly work in silo’s, with responses and interventions often shaped by financial incentives instead of the needs of all the stakeholders. Getting power relations right is challenging as inclusion and empowerment may require us to change the ways we do our business and, especially, properly account for local expertise and knowledge.
  • We observe significant capacity and resource gaps at different levels, among all stakeholders, necessitating especially that we need to unlearn and reflect, challenge assumptions and create better understanding of all these issues.
  • Looking at the recent droughts, we should take stock of what worked and what did not. Perhaps a ‘drylands assembly’ could be a forum to bring together different experiences and insights in a more consistent manner.
  • Important in this stocktaking is to make sure we tap into and hear authentic local voices and lessons.
  • Advocacy and working together on alternative narratives is critical as the wider framing of discourse shapes perceptions and actions at all levels. Our previous Involvement in discussions around pastoralism and drylands over many years shows that while the focus changes and evolves, we are not engaging in this conversation in very consistent ways. We need to join forces, perhaps building wider alliances around the different topics and ensuring that we have both evidence as well as policy reach.
  • Let’s use upcoming events and other platforms to continue and enrich these interactions.

About the co-convenors

The Centre for Research and Development in the Drylands with support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is implementing a project titled ‘Resilience from below: Exploring local constructs of ‘resilience’ in the face of chronic uncertainty in the Drylands’, which aims to identify emerging alternative narratives towards resilience and climate adaptation in drought-affected rangelands and pastoralist areas, testing out approaches to building resilience ‘from below’ in pastoral areas.  The project will document local pastoralist practices along with local assessments of their efficacy and reliability, aiming to achieve a deeper understanding of ‘high-reliability’ management processes in pastoral settings, establish a ‘community of resilience practice’ within and between the study areas, foster experience-sharing among ‘high-reliability’ professionals within and across project sites, engage government, NGO and donor stakeholders involved in ‘resilience’ programming, and help build the capacities of next-generation researchers.

The Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action, an international partnership led by the University of Edinburgh collaborating with the International Livestock Research Institute, Save the Children UK, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab and Community Jameel, with a hub at ILRI in Kenya, combines the local knowledge and concerns of communities facing on-the-ground threats of hunger with innovations in data science and humanitarian action; teaming up to devise solutions that can predict, prepare for, and overcome climate-related food security and malnutrition challenges in dryland areas. The Observatory convenes dialogue, generates evidence, catalyses collaboration, develops capacities and communicates for change to improve the lives and livelihoods of pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in East Africa.

The Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University, with support from the USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Action, implements a project ‘Re-examining Early Warning Systems and Humanitarian Responses in Pastoral Areas’ which aims to identify concrete recommendations for the humanitarian community to ensure that early warning systems and humanitarian actions are better attuned and more responsive to pastoral realities. The project starting point is that early warning systems and responses do not adequately incorporate an understanding of pastoralism and drylands into their approaches. It will bring together the perspectives of communities, institutions and researchers investigating early warning systems in pastoral areas and their understandings of pastoralism and drylands, emerging issues, in particular the seasonality of malnutrition, the evolution of crisis dynamics, and the potential for localization, and ways forward to improve early warning and humanitarian responses to complex crises in pastoral areas.


This post was prepared by Rahma Hassan (Tufts), Jackson Wachira (CRDD) and Peter Ballantyne (Jameel Observatory). Many thanks to Elizabeth Stites (Feinstein International Centre, Tufts University) and Hussein Tadicha Wario (CRDD) for their inputs. Rebecca Ash (PhD student at the University of Tasmania, Australia) and Sake Duba (Masters Student at Debrecen University) who compiled all the notes. We also thank Ian Scoones (IDS, University of Sussex) and Guyo Malicha Roba (Jameel Observatory and ILRI) for their insights, and all the participants.