Delivering the agenda: Addressing chronic under-development in Kenya's arid lands


Due to economic and political marginalisation, the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) are today the most under-developed areas of Kenya. The pastoral inhabitants of these lands have both the right and the ability to maintain a decent livelihood but have been denied an appropriate and effective development policy for decades. The current drought-related crisis has put their plight into the international spotlight, and now is the time for the Kenyan government to deliver on its long-promised development agenda.


Three and a half million people are currently suffering one of the worst drought-related crises in Kenya's history. The trigger for this was low rainfall but the underlying cause is a history of under-investment and neglect by central government. Without government action to drive its plan for the sustainable development of the arid lands through the political system, more lives will be lost to worsening, recurrent drought and chronic under-development.

The arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) of Kenya make up more than 80 per cent of the country's land mass, and are home to more than 30 per cent of the population and nearly half its livestock. Nomadic pastoralism, the predominant livelihood in the ASALs, is the only form of productive land use through periods of poor and erratic rains; indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a livelihood more suited to this environment.

The livestock sector in the ASALs accounts for 90 per cent of employment and 95 per cent of household income, and contributes roughly five per cent of GDP. Pastoralists are also the custodians of the dryland environments inhabited by Kenya's world-famous wildlife, which contribute to a tourist trade worth more than 50 billion Kenyan shillings ($700m) each year. If supported by the effective implementation of the right policy framework, pastoralists could make a substantially larger contribution to the national economy.

Years of economic and political marginalisation, coupled with inappropriate development policies, have resulted in the ASALs being the most underdeveloped areas of Kenya. Sixty-four per cent of people in the arid northeastern province live below the poverty line, compared with a national average of 53 per cent. Basic services are not adequately provided nor adapted to the population's needs, which means that the inhabitants have poorer health and lower levels of education than people in the rest of the country. There has been a severe lack of public and private investment in infrastructure and economic development, combined with poor access to markets. The net effect is increasing insecurity, in which the more vulnerable in society -- pastoralist women in particular -- are the greatest losers.

Added to this chronic under-development is another problem characteristic of the ASALs -- cyclical drought. As women traditionally bear the responsibility to feed their family and to collect and manage water, the impact of the current crisis has hit women the hardest. The acute conditions of the current drought-related crisis have caused massive livestock losses for pastoralists, with cattle losses as high as 95 per cent anticipated in the worst-affected areas before the April/May rains arrive. The forecast for total livestock losses in the ASALs stands at 70 per cent. The immediate losses have provoked a collapse of local markets, with as many as three-quarters of local outlets already closed. The gravity of the current situation stems from the erosion of the traditional coping mechanisms by which people sustain themselves, which is a product of shorter recovery periods between droughts and years of neglect by central government. If an appropriate ASAL development policy framework and the subsequent investment that it would bring were in place, the current -- and previous -- drought-related crises would not have been so disastrous for pastoralist communities.

If one merely adds the projected livestock losses of $546m and the $258m cost of responding to the humanitarian emergency, the immediate and direct economic cost of the current crisis is at least $800m. Indirect economic costs will push the figure far higher. In comparison, the government estimates that a figure of $3bn is required for the development of the ASALs over a period of 15 years. It is clear that investing in long-term development is much more cost-effective than providing funding for recurrent large-scale humanitarian emergencies.

The government's current National Policy for the Sustainable Development of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands of Kenya was produced following extensive consultation and is widely accepted as an effective policy for the development of the ASALs. The involvement of local communities in their own development is at the heart of the policy. The government proposes that pastoralism and agro-pastoralism will be supported through improvements in water provision, grazing, rangeland management, animal health, and marketing, but diversification of livelihoods for men and women is also a vital component of the plan. The policy recommends essential support for the tenure systems of land use and ownership, including well-defined conditions relating to the quality of use and the provision of a legal framework through which land- and resource-use disputes can be resolved. The ASAL areas will receive improved provision of basic services such as education, health, and water. Mobile schools and outreach clinics will be used where appropriate. Interdependence with non-ASAL areas and, therefore, improved communication networks and infrastructure will also be key, as will the provision of appropriate financial services, particularly for pastoralists. Reducing people's vulnerability to natural hazards and food insecurity is a central part of the plan, and the ASAL development policy will be clearly linked with the national disaster management framework.

The policies in the ASAL plan will not eradicate poverty completely and certainly not immediately. However, they will significantly reduce the incidence of poverty, eliminating the disparity with other parts of the country, and, equally importantly, they will increase the resilience of people to drought-related crises.

After a lengthy period of consultation, the ASAL policy was produced and sessional papers were ready in April/May 2005 for submission to the Cabinet and then for parliamentary consideration. However, almost one year later, it still has not reached the Cabinet's agenda. There are a number of reasons behind the current stagnation in the political process, including a generally sluggish legislative process and an absence of consensus within government regarding the policy. It is imperative that the government wins the arguments for the need for ASAL development amongst key ministries, and that it holds the ministries accountable to this decision. Furthermore, if implementation of the policy is to be a success, the government has to be able to rely on long-term assistance from donors, in addition to its own funds. In providing long-term funding, donors will also be playing a critical role in keeping the issue of ASAL development on the political agenda beyond the current period when the crisis is acute and getting international attention.

The people of the ASALs have been denied an appropriate and effective development policy for decades. It is time for such a policy to be delivered. After more than 20 years of analysis of the problems of the ASALs, the delay in policy-making cannot be due to a lack of understanding, but rather to a lack of political engagement and prioritisation.

Oxfam is calling for:

  • The Kenyan Parliament to pass legislation to endorse the current National Policy for the Sustainable Development of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands of Kenya by the end of 2006;

  • Rapid implementation of the National Policy to begin before the end of 2006.

In the short term this will require:
  • Renewed effort from the Kenyan government to push the current policy through the political system during the current national emergency;

  • Immediate action within the Kenyan government to ensure that key implementing ministries accept the current policy and are able to demonstrate a united front in tackling ASAL development;

  • Immediate budget prioritisation for arid lands development within the Kenyan government, and ministries to be held accountable to this decision; and

  • Active support from the international donor community for the funding and implementation of the National Policy for the Sustainable Development of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands of Kenya.

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