When Kenya set up a ministry dedicated to developing its vast, arid north in 2008, placing a veteran humanitarian at its helm, it appeared to send a message that it was finally serious about reversing decades of marginalization and mitigating the effects of recurrent, inevitable weather shocks.
Within three years, there have been two major droughts, which each time have left more than three million people in Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) in need of emergency aid.
The refrain has been the same: emphasis on the importance of development and pro-pastoralist policies, of disaster-prevention rather than (much more costly) reaction. So why has so little been achieved?
It is a question of perception to an extent - maybe expecting too much, too soon, says former aid worker and renowned livestock expert, Andrew Catley, who initiated efforts to develop the Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS). “You can see the glass as being half-full or empty; no other country in the region has put forward a comparable ministry.
"Kenya has realized the importance of developing arid lands and pastoralism... The ministry is young – it is grappling but it has a good team... and they are trying to lobby support.”
The ministry is headed by Mohamed Elmi, who was born into a pastoralist community and worked with Oxfam in Kenya for a decade. He readily admits there are gaps in government policy, structural problems rooted in entrenched prejudices against and consequent neglect of pastoralist communities, especially when compared with other economic sectors.
“I always point out if the coffee industry did not get the support it did from the government, it would not have survived,” Elmi told IRIN.
While 75 percent of Kenya’s livestock are in ASALs, only 10 percent of livestock officers are based there.
A livestock marketing board is in the works, but Elmi was unsure when it would come into being. Yet even without the similar boards or producer organizations enjoyed by the dairy, tea, coffee and maize industries, pastoralism accounts for at least 12 percent of Kenya’s GDP, according to government data, which some analysts say greatly underestimates the true value of the sector.
“The value chain of pastoralism has not been accepted at the policy level,” noted Michael Tiampati, national coordinator of the Pastoralist Development Network of Kenya. The Ministry of Livestock focuses mainly on dairy, poultry and pig farming.
“It ignores the fact that the nyama choma [roast meat] industry is driven primarily by pastoralist livestock,” he said, adding that hides, skins and other products of pastoralism were often left out of the equation.
A draft policy drawn up in 2004 on the sustainable development of ASALs had yet to be approved, he said.
The policy calls for investment in infrastructure, security, peace building, conflict management, job creation, the management of natural resources and drought, land reforms, adaptation to climate change, science, technology and innovation. It draws linkages between the geographical conditions of the region and livelihoods.
Kenya is a meat-deficit country. According to a study cited by the government’s draft Vision 2030 development strategy for northern Kenya and ASALs, increased production in the North Eastern Province to meet half the deficit could create as many as 400,000 jobs.
Elmi said that while Kenya had a well-developed drought management strategy with a good early warning system, it had not been institutionalized.
“We don’t have a disaster authority like countries in southern Africa – where in case of a natural disaster, you can mobilize funds and coordinate responses almost instantly through the established structures.”
He has proposed a National Drought Management Authority, to focus on short- and long-term interventions and response coordination, and a National Drought Contingency Fund to support it financially.
Elmi said the government hoped to raise money for contingencies through the Adaptation Fund set up under the auspices of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Long-term interventions such as building water dams not only count as disaster risk reduction efforts, but double up as climate change adaptation strategies.
“Besides, the frequency and severity of drought periods is already increasing,” he said. “Northern Kenya recorded 28 major droughts in the last century, four in the past decade.”
Elmi expected the authority to be up and running in a few weeks.
“He [Elmi] has really had to work hard to push the idea of a drought authority through,” commented Tiampati. “The drought authority is a legacy he wants to leave behind.” It has taken him almost four years.
The discrimination against pastoralists to an extent is influenced by northern Kenya’s turbulent past. The North Eastern Province is predominantly Muslim and Somali and its people had sought a merger with Somalia before Kenya’s independence from Britain. Their calls were ignored by the British and later by the Kenyan government, leading to the “Shifta [banditry] war” of 1963-1968.
Diyad Hujale, an official with a Wajir-based NGO, Arid Lands Development Focus, said the scars of the emergency laws imposed on the province remain.
Attempts were made to resettle the pastoralist community. “It is still a question of changing the mind-set of the people and to see Somalis as part of Kenya and bring much-needed investment in.”
A 2007 paper produced for the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization states, “While [economic] liberalization [in Kenya] has brought many changes, democratization has not whisked away the patrimonialism and ethnic favoritism that have so stifled the chances for significant policy changes in the past.”
Elmi added: “The language [to describe pastoralists and pastoralism] can be hurtful,” he said. “It has been difficult. But the situation is improving. We have a new constitution  in place, [which offers opportunities to secure the rights to resources and protect land rights for pastoralists].”
The previous constitution allowed individual investors to ignore the collective rights of pastoralists under customary law to acquire their land. Nearly 15 percent of the land in semi-arid areas has been taken for national parks and reserves.
A change in perception will require a strong advocacy campaign. The government’s draft policy makes a case for convincing the rest of Kenya of the benefits of developing ASALs.
“With countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia as the region’s neighbours, it could become the bridgehead to a regional economy of more than 100 million people,” said Elmi. The government was prioritizing the development of transport corridors linking Kenya to key markets in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia and beyond to the Middle East through the northern ASALs. “In 10, 15 years, northern Kenya will be a different place,” he said.
The government’s draft policy also emphasizes that the million-dollar ecotourism industry, a substantial foreign-exchange earner, is 90 percent based in ASALs.
But in the popular imagination, the draft policy acknowledges, northern Kenya is viewed as unsafe, violent and inaccessible, which has deterred investment.
North Eastern Province has Kenya’s worst human development scores, according to the government. It is the country’s poorest: only about 34 percent of households have access to water, with most depending on unprotected wells and springs. The national average for water access is 57 percent.
Regional disparities in access to essential services are glaring. Neighbouring Central Province has 190 doctors - one doctor for every 21,000 people - while North Eastern has only nine - one doctor for every 121,000 people. For 60 percent of students in northern Kenya there is no school within 6km. Only one district, Isiolo in neighbouring Eastern Province, is connected to the national electricity grid.
Elmi said it was difficult to convince donors, who fund aid agencies, to invest in long-term developmental projects.
Leading pastoral expert Peter Little said one of the problems was that “governments and development agencies often hold similar stereotypes" about ASALs as “food aid” sink holes and humanitarian disaster areas, with the goal being “to replace pastoralism rather than trying to strengthen the livestock sector".
Half the population in two of the three districts in North Eastern Province – Mandera and Wajir – once again need emergency food aid, according to the latest report from the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG), which includes the government, UN agencies and NGOs.
The numbers of hungry in Wajir are as high as they were during the last drought in 2008-2009. Michael Adams, an official with the international NGO, Care, said: “The truth is we are human beings – we cannot watch people dying – so most of the aid and money has been focused on short-term interventions, such as food aid.”
The KFFSG listed most of the funds it needed for food interventions – $205 million out of $370 million. Agriculture and livestock have been allocated a paltry $9.7 million and $11.8 million, respectively.
Adams also cited lack of access and poor infrastructure that prevented NGOs from setting up long-term projects deeper in the province. “It is much easier to monitor projects which are accessible, which is why NGOs tend to concentrate on towns and settlements.”
The tarmac road from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, ends in Garissa district, while dirt tracks serve as the main arteries in the province.
Time seems to have stood still for pastoralists in Mandera. “My father struggled with the droughts, which is why I could not complete my schooling – nothing has changed, I am still here and in the same position as my father, but I don’t want my children to grow up like me,” said Shukri Hussain, a 30-year-old pastoralist in Mandera’s Bolowle village.