Researchers in Ethiopia and the United States worked with pastoralists — mostly middle-aged, married women — in the Borana region in southern Ethiopia between 2000 and 2004 to determine whether livelihoods could be diversified sustainably to improve food security.
"Pastoralists today are often poverty stricken and beset by hunger. Efforts to 'develop' pastoralism have had little success," the authors say in their study, published last week (8 December).
"Technical options to increase food production or lessen pressure on natural resources remain elusive, largely because of environmental and social constraints. Alternatively, non-technical options focused on human capacity building could have positive effects through livelihood diversification that improves risk management … This could help communities become more resilient when coping with drought."
The researchers carried out a series of capacity-building interventions, including introducing pastoralists to problem-solving methods and linking them up with 'successful peers' in northern Kenya, setting up 'collective-action groups', improving literacy and numeracy, encouraging communities to manage their resources through microfinance, and providing micro-enterprise training.
By the end of their work, 59 collective-action groups had been established with more than 2,000 members — 76 per cent of whom were women. These groups supplied thousands of animals to export markets, and 11 of the most successful groups were each given a grant of US$3,270 to help capitalise on their livestock trade. These groups sold more animals than those that did not receive grants.
Then from 2005 to 2008, the region suffered a major drought, giving the researchers the chance to see whether their interventions had been successful. They surveyed pastoralists on 18 personal, household, community and agricultural indicators and recorded changes in wealth status, incidence of hunger, use of income and future livelihood strategies.
They found that pastoralists in areas that had participated in the capacity-building interventions "perceived positive shifts in trends for all 18 attributes", and were more resilient and capable of managing risks.
Solomon Desta, a researcher at Managing Risks for Improved Livelihoods in Addis Ababa, and one of the study authors, told SciDev.Net that it is evident that the group that received capacity building were more resilient during the drought and were better at wealth creation and disaster management.
Additionally, women who were previously burdened by domestic chores became leaders and rapidly changed their communities.
"We believe capacity building is essential for technological interventions to succeed and there must be a shift in the thinking of development practitioners," he said.
Korbinian Freier, from the Sustainability and Global Change research unit at the University of Hamburg, Germany, said: "I think that it is a good study that shows the importance of capacity building in pastoralist development — but technology can also play a tremendous role … development depends on an interaction between the two."
Freier said though that technologies change how pastoralists interact with each other and their environment, which can lead to new problems and conflicts.
"Capacity building and developing social agreements are vital first stages in successful pastoralism in areas of degradation, where coordination of land use is needed to maintain the environment. All technological elements to improve pastoralists' lifestyles have a precondition of social intervention," he concluded.
Science doi:10.1126/science.1211232 (2011)