The GERD: Resilient energy camel for pastoralists’ transformation in Ethiopia

 Pastoralism makes a significant contribution to the national economy, employment, agricultural production and concomitantly to ensure food security. The pastoral areas are the major source of supply of livestock for draught power, meat, and breeding animals to people in the highlands. The livestock are important sources of revenue and export earnings to support local livelihoods and the national economy. In spite of the contribution of the sector to Ethiopia’s GDP, the level of attention accorded to it is rather little.

The history of pastoral areas development, thus, started in the mid-1960s. Since then, large rangeland and livestock development projects were established in Afar, Oromia and Somali regions. The Southern Rangelands Development Unit (SORDU) in Borena, the Northeast Rangelands Development Unit (NERDU) in Afar and the Jigjiga Rangeland Development Unit (JIRDU) in Somali regions are the projects collaboratively implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture with support from the USAID. These rangeland development projects tried to restructure the customary livestock production systems through creating export market opportunities while at the same time improving the lives of pastoralists.

The effort to meet the aspired ends, however, was challenged by the usual imported knowledge-based intervention reliance on western ranching approaches. The poor attempts to put the imported knowledge-based interventions directly into local contexts have resulted in failures to factor in the socio-cultural capital, the political ecology of cross border mobility and the relations pastoralists have with diverse number of actors in the region. The mid 1960s pastoral development projects and the interventions that came after, however, had brought some improvement in terms of provision of infrastructures and veterinary services delivery including health services expansion. A good example is capacity building and legalizing community animal health workers (CAHWs) particularly in Somali region.

Pastoralists in Ethiopia have witnessed regime changes that brought them no meaningful development to transform their livelihoods. The time-tested experimentation of pastoralists to adapt to harsh environments has often been labeled as backward and trivial. In the past most attempts to design participatory and local knowledge-informed inclusive and gender sensitive development plans were very minimal and unsuccessful. Apart from romanticizing and sympathizing with pastoralists most projects funded by local and international non-governmental organizations too have done very little to lift them out of the abyss of poverty.

Different national polices failed to comprehensively consider the social-ecological systems in pastoral areas development planning. The programs did little to put forward appropriate and context specific strategies that match economic and social support systems to pastoralists. This hampered opportunities to address globally imposed misinformed development planning effectively. Regional governments in Ethiopia have done little to approach their pastoral communities and institutions as potential contributors in development and stability. In the fight against terrorism, for example, pastoralists were most often categorically referred to as agents of instability and accomplice to insurgent groups.

This labeling of pastoral areas as insecure and fragile, misinformed the international and local development communities to refrain from contributing their share to ease economic burdens of pastoralist. In addition, most activities of development organizations were emergency based humanitarian intervention and opportunities were little to learn about the root causes of the problem and reflect upon it thoroughly to design preemptive measures. Even worse is the fact that institutions of higher education and research did little to support pastoralists through expanding research and extension services. The only exception to this is the recently established Institute of Pastoral and Agro-Pastoral Development Studies at Jigjiga University which is, against all odds, struggling to advance research and teaching to positively impact pastoral transformation. As a young and pioneer institution, it shall receive enough support and attention from the Somali region and the federal government.

For lack of research-based evidence and in the rush to introduce modernization, governments and donors often undermine the development potentials of pastoral areas often limiting their activities to executing humanitarian interventions. We need to rethink our development planning and revisit our strategies to uplift millions out of poverty. We need to tap the development potentials to improve pastoral livelihoods and increase national economic gains. So far, water has long been considered as the entry point to pastoral development through programs that aimed at resettling pastoralist communities along major river basins in the country. I do not see anything wrong with that as far as pastoralists are informed well about the plans and given that any development without water is unthinkable and unsuccessful. But ensuring proactive participation of pastoralists in the process of planning and execution of the projects was challenged adding to the implementation challenges.

The resettlement and villagization program can be presented as an example. Beyond the gap of involving pastoralists in the planning process, the program seriously suffered from the lack of energy to keep households in the villages. The lack of energy directly relates to the lack of electric power supply, access to education and human and animal health services. Moreover, weak communication and coordination between regional and federal implementing agencies affected the timely decentralization of intended services.

In one way or another, poor mobilization strategies and inappropriate design of interventions failed to attract the interest of pastoralists in the program. The failure to ensure the provision of energy to support to run small scale irrigation and other vital services brought only little success. Nationally we continued to unlearn from the lessons of the 1960s when it comes to transforming the lives of millions of pastoralists. We need to work hard to train and bring behavioral changes on our decision makers and development planners both in the regions and at federal levels to help them understand the potentials of the pastoral sector and the power of customary institutions to lead positive change.

Ethiopia would have exploited better the livestock production potentials of its pastoral areas through linking local knowledge systems with scientific research. Such a combination can have high impact on the establishment of pastoral areas, making them hubs for livestock based industrial development to uplift millions of pastoral youth out of poverty.

Any one in darkness cannot have an unbiased world view unless enlightened with education. The process of unlearning the distortions and attaining enlightenment requires energy. In today’s digitally run global economy, it is this energy that drives the power to bring an end to the prevailing pastoralist suffering through the creation of investment opportunities. It is in this context that pastoralist communities in Ethiopia have raised their hopes high and made their contributions in cash and in kind to support the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This clearly states their hope to build a better future from it.

Pastoralists in Ethiopia, unlike the past, are now willing to commercialize livestock. There is high interest and commitment from their side to work with industries that aim at promoting livelihood diversification and economic empowerment. But there are no markets and market infrastructures nearby and no energy supply to encourage the establishment of value added industries. When disease outbreak hits them, for instance, they do not get a veterinary service and enough drug supply to treat their animals as needed. Only few of them have access to cold drug storage facilities making them easily vulnerable to rabies infection and die as a result.

The frequent occurrence of severe droughts is also crippling the ability of the pastoral social support networks to protect many and to respond to the shocks timely. It compromised the customary ways of keeping the social fabric intact. This is resulting in a massive loss of livestock and livelihoods with devastative consequences. The customary social support systems oblige and continue to put pressures on the middle and few better off classes of the community to restock the poor. This is resulting in the decline of the capacity of the better offs to provide social protection to the poor as most drought response interventions target the poorest of the poor leaving the rest unaddressed through restocking programs. This is gradually leading to increased number of support seekers by destroying the informal customer based social protection knowledge and alternatives. It is putting more pressure on the formal safety net system often resulting in delayed responses and dependency on external aids. As the frequency of droughts continue to regularly blight on pastoral livelihoods and their vulnerability increases to climate-induced challenges, pastoralists’ ability to cope with droughts and diseases is getting weaker and weaker.

During one of my visits in Hamer Woreda in South Omo zone, I remember a herdsman killing ticks with his teeth desperately for lack of enough treatment services and livestock drugs. Pastoralists with no animal treatment knowledge in most parts of the country administer injections and drugs contributing to microbial resistance and deterioration of health of animals and quality of produce. Human and animal health challenges from the prevalence of diseases and the resulting herd destocking is affecting people’s ability to provide milk and sustain their livelihoods.

Cases of child stunting, maternal and infant mortality and malnutrition are day to day realities of life of pastoralists. The loss of assets is also affecting the ability of pastoralists to pay for medical expenses and to cover educational costs for children making many to drop out of schools. Such pressures induced mobility to long distances in search for grazing, water and better off-pastoral labor opportunities. The movements are fueling both resource and ethnic based conflicts leading to bouts of instability challenging the gradually but emerging developmental gains in pastoral regions. Poor development and continued challenges from climate change impacts are breaking pastoral alliances, shifting power relations and adversely impacting social support systems among pastoral communities.

I remember a story my Hamer host mother, Bono Balenta shared me some years back. Some day in the morning, her good friend and the then agricultural development agent, Kedrala, whom she supported a lot decided to pay back her favor and came to her village to maintain her leaking old shanty hut. But young men who have observed him and his assistants rushing to complete the maintenance of Bono’s hut came with their whipping wand to stop them. Surprised by the actions of the young men, Kedrala begged to stop whipping and demanded an explanation why maintaining a poor woman’s hut brings punishment in return rather than a praise.

The youth, brought Kedrala to the council of elders in the village who asked if he was the one who have been coordinating government led productive safety net programs to ensure people are fed and supported through food for work and cash for work programs. He replied “yes” as he was the man in charge. The elders explained to him that he should have known the Hamer social safety net culture that ensures poor people in the village get enough food. The household who receives the service feeds the poor for an extended period in return for the services rendered through participation in activities such as maintenance of his huts, kraals, fencing enclosures, cultivating farms and other events.

The elders explained to Kedrala that maintaining a hut may take weeks and that he breached the local norms by attempting to complete the maintenance of the hut within few hours and letting many in the village to stay hungry and idle. Kedrala got the message and accepted his punishment in the form of a goat. The poor then participated in the maintenance and feasted on the goat.

The local, regional and federal government institutions and respective decision makers should be ready to learn from such experiences. They should understand the real development needs of pastoral communities to design a plan that genuinely reflects on the challenges and builds on the available resources and potentials thereof. Imposing development trajectories that are unpalatable and unfit to the pastoral context will simply be a waste of economic resources and rejection by pastoralists shall not be taken as rejecting development and transformation. The lack of and shortage of reliable energy is to blame equally with the little government policy attention to expand health, education, market and road infrastructures that are pro-pastoral and pro-poor.

Ethiopian pastoralist, despite their huge livestock potential, have not been benefiting from the resource well. Surprisingly, as research suggests, Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland governments benefited immensely from the unregulated contraband movement of livestock particularly from the Somali region. The live animals crossing the Ethiopian borders informally brought no economic returns to Ethiopia and to Somali pastoralists. The countries through which the livestock are smuggled, however, benefited from the export while at the receiving end, Egypt, Yemen and the UAE enjoyed the use and export of value added meat as they have the energy and the industrial capacity to run export abattoirs and slaughter houses.

The Ethiopian pastoralists have no proper quarantine and health services, water and grazing points. Importantly legal market outlets to supply livestock and livestock products to internal and external markets are missing. Moreover, government programs have always targeted resettling pastoralists through non-livestock focused interventions that often are countered with resistance except for few positive developments. Imagine if the sugarcane factories that we have in South Omo were investments on large-scale forage development. Imagine that we set up fattening farms, slaughter abattoirs and milk collection and processing units as well as skin and hide processing industries to add value on the meat and maximize our profits from the livestock sector.

These measures go well with the local livelihood context. Hence, processing facilities can be backward linked with the pastoral production systems. The quality of the traditional production base can be enhanced through organizing trainings and establishment of cooperatives to ensure sustained supply of resources. This also aligns with the emphasis put under the third and fourth strategic directions in chapter three of the recently approved Pastoral Development Policy and Strategic Framework by the council of Ministers.

Ethiopia needs an inward- and forward-looking leadership that is open to transforming the livestock sector and increases its economic gains significantly. A positive development from the Ethiopian government in this regard is the approval of the Pastoral Development Policy and Strategic Framework. Approving a policy document, however, can be a first step forward but it alone cannot be an end. Ethiopia needs to restructure its pastoral development planning in a manner that address all development needs of the pastoral regions while at the same time gives directions on how to maximize the economic benefit out of the sector. A possible arrangement can be an establishment of a commission or a ministry of livestock and pastoral development that makes a link with the health, education and trade sectors to mobilize resources timely and appropriately. This will inform better planning in the sector and transform the lives of people sustainably. I remember sending my first message on twitter to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the same. I am hopeful that he got the intent of the message and will respond accordingly.

The recent changes in government seem to bring in pastoral political figures and scholars from the bench seats of the Ethiopian political playgrounds into the ball court. These measures will increase the trust towards regional governments having apastoral majority demography. The challenge now remains how influential pastoral representatives in the decision-making organ of the government will be in terms of pushing an agenda to ensure increased measures that benefit pastoralist and agro-pastoralists to benefit from national development plans.

In addition, the agenda must capitalize on agriculture-pastoralism political economic interfaces and shall leave no livelihoods group un-interconnected through trade, social welfare and security interventions. I understand that there is a long way to expand development infrastructures and balance existing human development gaps in pastoralist areas in Ethiopia. But, striking a balance can no more succeed with unilateral economic measures to compensate for the loss. The measures shall capitalize on interdependent and holistic approaches to mutual growth and prosperity. Our decision makers need to emphasize on often neglected aspects of the pastoral economy to reduce biases towards stimulating production at the expense of the customary socio-cultural systems that have high value addition potentials. The center-periphery political and development planning trends shall be revisited from a perspective that pastoralists have a constitutional right to have access to education, health and economic privileges and an obligation to proactively engage in nation building processes and discharge their duties accordingly.

The existential challenges to pastoral development, therefore, are not only poor organization and governance of the sector; it is also a question of a right to development. The latter requires energy intensive infrastructure expansion and the former needs empowered and insightful strategic leadership possessing the right skills and qualifications from education. To this effect, the energy from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will have a meaningful contribution to transform pastoralism and pastoralists through planning better energy intensive development alternatives. The developments facilitate the creation of a forward-looking leadership that is equipped with the skills and knowledge to guide sustainable development in pastoral areas.

At a time when the political bloc is eyeing for an upcoming election, uncertain and marred by COVID19 and ethnic tensions, how many of our pastoral thinkers and decision makers have crafted pro-pastoral programs remains a question. I think whoever is in charge now and will do so in the future shall consider the energy budget from the national grid to design energy intensive pastoral friendly industries to transform lives. Such a transformation is not a mere transformation of shanty houses and shacks, this transformation shall go beyond a physical manifestation of material commodification but economic transformation that is a grounded in the local knowledge base and livestock potentials.

Since time immemorial, pastoralist have faced anti-nation building forces and guarded our borders from enemies despite misinformed portrayals of them as accomplices to secessionists and extremists. The political space shall make enough rooms to bring them to the middle of the playground as main actors and decision makers and I believe that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be the energy camel to drive pastoralist-inclusive transformation in Ethiopia’s attempt to build a resilient economic development in the Horn of Africa.


Ed.’s note:

Samuel Tefera Alemu (PhD) is an Assistant Professor at the Center for African and Oriental Studies and Associate Dean for Research and Technology Transfer, College of Social Sciences, Addis Ababa University He is reachable at:

The Ethiopian Herald   April 24/2020

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