Role of pastoralist social networks in coping with crises: Lessons from food aid interventions in Ethiopia


by Fiona Flintan | January 23, 2020

For many humanitarian and development actors, a household (HH) is presumed to represent the most appropriate social unit for aid delivery. However, pastoralist family groupings are far more complex and dynamic than traditional households. They are especially important during the times of crises, such as drought, particularly in the way they facilitate sharing of resources including food aid. This raises important questions about aid delivery and targeting and challenges perceptions about types and degrees of power in pastoral communities, particularly during times of drought.

In the context of a severe drought and significant humanitarian aid response in 2016–17, a recent CGIAR study led by researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) sought to explore these issues and provide guidance to humanitarian and development aid actors.

This study had three major questions: i) How was the humanitarian aid delivered in 2016–17 and to whom was it targeted? ii) What is a pastoralist household today? and iii) What is the appropriate social/family unit for aid delivery in pastoral societies?

We find that strong pastoral social networks exist in pastoral areas that facilitate the sharing of food aid and other assistance during drought. This challenges ideas about targeting of food aid: though the majority of food aid reached targeted beneficiaries, part of it did not stay with those beneficiaries and rather, was shared. Though it could be said that the aid distribution failed to fully meet its targets, it did inadvertently contribute to the strengthening of social networks that were and remain so important to get communities through crises such as drought. Indeed, some community members said that the drought and working together through the drought made the community stronger.

The role that food aid, and more specifically the ‘sharing of food aid’ plays in contributing to strong social networks, is not something that is acknowledged in aid delivery design or implementation. Rather, many of the actions taken by humanitarian and development actors can serve to challenge or weaken the social networks by focusing on individuals rather than communities, and the privatization or individualization of land, water and other resources rather than supporting collective or communal management and ownership. In many ways, pastoralists themselves contributed to the success of the aid delivery in 2016–17 by overcoming many of the hurdles facing them including the limitations of the aid distribution process.

Based on these findings, we have the following recommendations:

  1. Humanitarian aid and development agencies should have a clearer and agreed upon definition of what they mean by a household (HH), recognizing that their definition may not necessarily reflect how local community social groupings or families are structured socially and physically. Stronger guidance should be given to communities as to who to include when asked ‘who are the members of your household?’ This would also be the case for those conducting HH surveys. This would provide a more robust basis for data collection and comparing across HHs and/or for extrapolating results.
  1. Humanitarian actors need to better recognize and accommodate the complexities of pastoralist societies and social/family units, including that the sharing of food aid is an important aspect of building social capital and resilience, within the planning and implementation of humanitarian aid distribution.
  2. More support needs to be given to pastoralist communities to build the social networks and social capital that exist as a means of strengthening the collective and communal society. Interventions that encourage individualization are likely to have long-term negative impacts on the society as a whole and should be avoided.
  3. The particular role of women and the importance of social networks for women and their empowerment should be recognized and built upon.
  4. Movement or mobility of people and livestock should not be framed as a problem and restricted, but rather the movement, particularly during drought, should be facilitated and supported.
  5. Additional research is required on the impacts of socioeconomic changes taking place in pastoralist communities in order to better design interventions to positively support the impacts of these, as well as the gender aspects. How these relate to both short- and long-term resilience of individuals, HHs or families, and communities is an important feature of this.
  6. The social network analysis (SNA) tool proved highly useful in mapping out the social network that exists for transacting food aid and other assistance and could be an effective way of defining an appropriate target unit for aid delivery and/or longer- term development in the future.

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Flintan, F., Ebro, A., Balehegn, M., Aden, H., Disasa, H., Negasa, B., Assefa, A., Eba, B., Getahun, Y. and Mohammed, M. 2019. Household dynamics in pastoral communities and implications for humanitarian aid interventions. ILRI Discussion Paper 37. Nairobi, Kenya: ILRI.

This study was supported by the European Union through the "Strengthening Institutionalized Subnational Coordination Structures and Harmonization Mechanisms"  project of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets, and the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock. 

Photo credit: ILRI/Fiona Flintan