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The impact of in-kind food assistance on pastoralist livelihoods in humanitarian crises

Summary of research1

Location: Global

What we know: External threats to food security of pastoralist populations in recent years have increased the need for humanitarian assistance, including food assistance.

What this article adds: A recent literature review (24 published papers, 1983-2015) considered impacts of in-kind food assistance on pastoralist populations. Evidence suggests that food assistance to pastoralist populations can reduce food insecurity. However, there are also examples of negative impacts, including erosion of pastoralist livelihoods and increased sedentarisation. The lack of high-strength evidence and poor quality of publications available to the review means assessment of the impact is inconclusive. High quality, multidisciplinary research to make valid inferences about the causal relationships between food assistance and various aspects of pastoralist livelihoods is required.

Pastoralists rely on coping and adaptation strategies that have historically allowed them to achieve high levels of productivity, cope with hazards and moderate the impact of shocks (Butt et al, 2009; Hesse and Pattison, 2013; Morton, 2006). However, increased pressure from climate change, political marginalisation, loss of grazing land and restrictions on mobility has threatened the food security of many pastoralist populations and outside humanitarian assistance has been required (Markakis, 2004). Nutrition and food security have been the priorities of most humanitarian interventions, which have usually involved direct provision of food in kind. The purpose of this review was to identify, synthesise, evaluate and estimate both the short and long-term effects that the provision of food assistance has had on pastoralists and their livelihoods. The review considered all potential impacts of in-kind food assistance on all pastoralist populations that have been affected by humanitarian emergencies in the period since 1967 (when the Food Aid Convention was negotiated). The review aimed to verify the quality of existing evidence, help researchers identify the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence, and thereby identify potential improvements and opportunities in future research.                                                                          

Twelve key questions were investigated that mapped onto six thematic outcome areas (see Table 1). A total of 23,424 publications were identified in an initial search of academic databases and an additional 1,442 from grey literature sources. Following screening and quality appraisal, 24 of these were deemed suitable for synthesis. These publications were published between 1983 and 2015 (with the majority since 2000); are mainly primary studies; and use a mix of qualitative methods (n=13), quantitative methods (n=6) and mixed methods (n=5). Collectively, the selected papers report food assistance interventions during or after humanitarian crises that had the following characteristics:

 Findings against thematic outcomes are summarised in Table 1.  

Evidence from these studies shows that food assistance can in some cases achieve its primary goal of addressing food insecurity. Evidence from Kenya and Somalia indicates that some food assistance interventions have led to a decrease in prevalence of malnutrition. On the other hand, provision of food assistance in Ethiopia and Sudan is claimed to have had negative impacts on health outcomes. The strength of evidence relating to this theme is limited. Provision of food assistance can contribute – and, as evidence from Kenya and Sudan indicates, has contributed – to the erosion of pastoralist livelihoods. For example, McCabe (1990) describes a causal chain whereby the provision of free food in Kenya led pastoralists to settle near relief distribution centres, contributing to the degradation of surrounding land and forcing livestock to forage on less nutritious plants. This led to starvation and disease among livestock, ultimately undermining pastoralist livelihoods. In other examples however, interventions have enabled some pastoralists to hold on to their assets, including livestock, and have supported their incomes. The strength of evidence relating to this theme is medium.

There is fairly uniform but not necessarily reliable evidence (due to its limited strength) from Kenya and Sudan that the provision of food assistance leads to changes in pastoralists’ mobility patterns, especially sedentarisation. Claims that food assistance can lead to dependency are relatively widespread but there is no identified empirical evidence of a causal relationship.

In some reported cases in Kenya, Mongolia and Sudan, the modes of targeting food assistance have led to controversy within pastoralist communities related to unequal distribution, perceived unfairness and elite capture. Elsewhere, they have effectively encouraged the emergence of new political leaders who have sought to channel assistance to their clients and, by extension, have restricted some intended beneficiaries’ access to food. Conversely, one publication reports that an intervention in Kenya encouraged sharing of food and thereby strengthened existing social networks. The strength of evidence relating to these themes is limited.

This review uses guidelines developed by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) (DFID, 2014) to evaluate the strength of evidence reported in the included publications. Based on these criteria, the authors do not consider the strength of evidence reported in any of the publications to be high. The strength of evidence in 13 publications is classified as moderate, while the remaining 11 publications report evidence of low strength. Causal inferences made in publications are especially problematic. In most publications, the method of analysis is not reported; causal claims are not supported by evidence and are reported as the authors’ impressions of observed events or outcomes.

The lack of high-strength evidence means the assessment of the impacts of food assistance on pastoralists contained in this review is inconclusive. While conducting research in the context of humanitarian crises is difficult, the inadequate quality of the publications makes it impossible to reliably evaluate the impacts of common types of humanitarian intervention targeting some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

The findings of this review highlight the necessity of future multidisciplinary research and evaluation that can make valid inferences about the causal relationships between food assistance and various aspects of pastoralist livelihoods. Such high-quality research could be both qualitative and quantitative, but should include experimental and prospective cohort studies, as well as retrospective cohort designs which rely on validated methods, with disaggregated outcomes by age, gender and mobility patterns.


1Czuba K, O’Neill TJ and Ayala AP (2017). The impact of food assistance on pastoralist livelihoods in humanitarian crises: An evidence synthesis. Humanitarian Evidence Programme. Oxford: Oxfam GB.


Butt B, Shortridge A and WinklerPrins AMGA. (2009). Pastoral Herd Management, Drought Coping Strategies, and Cattle Mobility in Southern Kenya. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 99(2):309–34.

Department for International Development (DFID). (2014). Assessing the Strength of Evidence. London: DFID. Retrieved 13 July 2016

Hesse C and Pattison J (2013). Ensuring Devolution Supports Adaptation and Climate Resilient Growth in Kenya. London: IIED. Retrieved 28 April 2016, from

Markakis J (2004). Pastoralism on the Margin. London: Minority Rights Group International.

McCabe T (1990). Success and Failure: The Breakdown of Traditional Drought Coping Institutions Among the Pastoral Turkana of Kenya. Journal of Asian and African Studies XXV (3-4): 146–60.

Morton J (2006). Pastoralist Coping Strategies and Emergency Livestock Market Intervention. In McPeak JG and Little PD (eds), Pastoral Livestock Marketing in Eastern Africa: Research and Policy Challenges. ITDG Publishing, Warwickshire, pp. 227–46.

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The impact of in-kind food assistance on pastoralist livelihoods in humanitarian crises. Field Exchange 55, July 2017. p28.



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