Small-scale Projects and Sahel Nomads


In the aftermath of the 1968-1973 drought in the Sahel many development agencies were anxious to respond to the pressing needs of pastoralists. Herders in the northern Sahel had lost a large proportion of their animals and hence their means or livelihood. Four small scale projects, undertaken by private voluntary agencies (PVOs) are described in Section I: Tin Aicha village and the Kidal wells project in Mali, and the Habbanae and Kawrital projects in Niger. Section II analyzes some of the implications of these projects, in the hope that they may provide useful guidelines for planning future projects among pastoralists.


The Tin Aicha Project

The Tin Aicha project in northern Mali began as a rehabilitation scheme for 200 nomad families. They were among several thousand drought victims who had congregated at the government refugee camp and food distribution center in Goundam. When rains returned to normal in 1974, farmers and pastoralists who had the means to resume their former way of life left the camps. Only the most destitute herders remained and the administrative authorities believed that they would be willing to try farming in order to regain their economic independence. A stretch of arable land was made available to volunteers who would attempt to cultivate it, and the administration provided them with transport, seed and some remaining relief supplies. The volunteers were from different parts of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds. They camped near the land they had been granted, on the shore of one of the most northerly lakes in the Sahel, and dug a shallow well for drinking water.

This experiment, which had been conceived by local people, attracted the interest and support of an American PVO. The project was seen as a possible way of integrating farming and livestock raising, and it included the provision of basic health care and education for a nomadic population that had previously had minimal access to these services. The project was staffed by a team of Malians - teachers, a nurse, an agricultural technician and a social worker - plus one expatriate coordinator. Funds were provided for five years and initially administered by an interministerial committee. They were used to support a variety of activities undertaken by the community.

The main agricultural crops are sorghum and rice, grown by flood retreat along the lake in narrow strips, which vary in width according to family size. Some corn, sweet potatoes and vegetables are cultivated. Seeds were distributed free the first year and then provided as a loan that was repaid in kind. Every family was expected to work its own land, but very few of the settlers had any previous farming experience. Gradually people began to take pride in their crops, but the land (726 hectares altogether) is insufficient to produce more than a six-month supply of grain even in a good year. Animals purchased by the project were distributed in early 1976 according to family size. They were owned individually, but grazed communally. The terms of repayment caused considerable disagreement, but the families eventually decided to repay in cash, which was used to buy a communal herd. The most successful herders have been those who are able to send their animals away for part of the year in search of pasture, but this requires a large family with some members who look after the livestock while others remain to tend the fields.

The Tin Aicha school is run by Tamashek teachers and is highly valued by the community. Many nomads fear that school will alienate their children, but this is one of the few schools in Mali where nomads are in the majority. It began in wooden frame classrooms covered with straw mats and moved into permanent buildings in 1979. There are now seven grades and approximately 250 students, one third of them girls. There is a weekly market as well as a small cooperative store that sells basic consumer items. The cooperative also keeps a small stock of medicines, and manages the communal herd, a communal field, and seed loans. With the construction of a number of brick buildings during the latter part of the project, the village acquired a more permanent look. By 1981 it had a population of over 1,000 and was given official government recognition as a political and administrative entity.

The Habbanae Project

This cattle loan project originated in 1974, in one of the refugee camps for drought victims outside Niamey, Niger; among groups of Wodaabe Fulani who had lost most of their livestock. The project was devised and carried out by an Italian who had lived among the Wodaabe for many years. When normal rainfall returned in 1974 he devised a scheme to reconstitute the herds of a group of Wodaabe, allowing them to return to their former nomadic way of life.

The scheme was based on one of the Wodaabe's many traditions: the habbanae custom of loaning a young female animal to a friend who may be in need. When the habbanae animal has borne three calves it is returned to the herd of the original lender, but the offspring remain with the borrower. This custom is often reciprocal and it serves to strengthen bonds of kinship among the Wodaabe people. It is extensively practiced and is a sign of wealth and prestige as well as friendship, so that even someone with a large herd is considered poor unless he has loaned and received many habbanae animals. The habbanae tradition is one of several customs which allows animals to circulate among the Wodaabe and serves an important economic as well as social function in that it helps to redistribute livestock over wide areas of pasture.

Funds for the scheme were provided by a nongovernmental agency and used to purchase over 900 head of livestock on the local market. Many animals were bought from a nearby ranch, but some were bought from and paid for by the project in millet and other food items. The animals were immediately loaned to the herders and, according to the habbanae tradition, were kept until they had produced three offspring and then given back to the project. Altogether 350 Wodaabe families (about 2,500 people) borrowed animals from the initial stock. The group gradually resumed their seasonal grazing patterns and began once again to practice the tradition of habbanae among themselves. When the loaned animals were returned they were eventually sold and the funds were used to support other projects in the Sahel region.

The Kawrital ProjectM

The Kawrital project was a direct outgrowth of the habbanae experience. It started in 1979 as an experimental grouping of 15 Wodaabe families (of the same lineage group) into a nomadic herders' association, a loosely structured pre-cooperative designed to promote a sense of collective responsibility and solidarity. By developing a system of collective decision-taking in new areas of economic activity, the association allows herders to gain greater control over economic aspects of their lives.

At the outset, four main activities of the association were defined by the members. An associate herd was created through the purchase of young bulls and rams, which are raised and then sold when they reach maturity; profits from the sales are shared among the members. The second activity involves buying calves from members who need money who would otherwise be forced to sell when market prices were unfavorable. The animals remain with the herd of the former owner until they attain maximum weight; they are then sold and the proceeds divided among association members. The third activity is the purchase of a stock of millet, bought just after the harvest, stored by the association, and sold to members during the period of scarcity when market prices are much higher. A few other basic necessities (salt, sugar and tea) are bought in bulk by the association for resale to its members. The fourth activity is a small credit scheme which provides short-term, interest-free loans to members to cover emergency cash needs.

A modest grant was made to the project for start-up costs for these four activities. In addition, all families that join contribute a ram to the association's herd. Since each activity works on the principle of a revolving fund, the project quickly became self-financing. The association has a president, a section head for each of the four activities, and three assistant section heads. These eight people are elected by the full membership, which meets formally at least twice a year. (They met more frequently at the beginning of the project.) At first the expatriate technical advisor played an important role, but gradually the herders began to run the association themselves, and eventually the advisor provided only general support during occasional visits. Fears that the herders' nomadic existence would make any kind of cooperative unworkable have proved unfounded. At certain times of the year members disperse over a wide area in search of pasture, but they always come together again periodically, especially during the rainy season when milk is plentiful and festivities are held.

The association has encountered some difficulties with one activity, the purchase of cereals. Since it has never been able to buy any of the limited supply sold at the official controlled price, it has been forced to buy on the open market at higher prices. Last year there was an unexpected drop in market prices due to an influx of grain from Nigeria during the dry season when prices usually rise. The association lost money and decided to discontinue its trade in cereals, at least for the time being, and concentrate on the other activities which have proved far more successful. Profits from the sale of the association's livestock are distributed regularly and the group has also engaged in some new activities, such as production of straw mats. This is done by women during the dry season and enables them to earn money in their nomadic camps rather than seek temporary work in the towns. After an initial two-year pilot phase the Kawrital project was granted official recognition by the Niger government. Moreover it has since been adopted by the state as the most appropriate strategy for extending the national cooperative system to the nomadic population throughout the country. With some slight modifications, this model is being used for a series of herders' associations created within the framework of a large livestock project financed by USAID. At the instigation of the Ministry of Rural Development, it has also been adopted in livestock projects funded by the French government and by the World Bank.

The Kidal Wells Project

The Kidal wells project is in the extreme northeast of Mali, where the Adrar massif is dissected by wadis that provide excellent seasonal pastures for the herds of the Kel Adrar Tamashek. The wells project began in 1982 as a four-year program aiming to repair and redig a series of 40 traditional pastoral wells which have fallen into disuse. Many of the damaged wells, originally 20 to 35 meters deep, are now too shallow to reach permanent water; they need to be deepened, lined and provided with a wide curbstone adapted for animal use. The sides of others have collapsed, and, in cases where the old wooden supports are too dangerous to repair, new wells will have to be dug nearby.

Well-digging equipment, a technical advisor with previous experience on a wells program in the Sahel, and financial support are provided through a consortium of non-government agencies. The consortium has been engaged in planning a comprehensive development strategy for the whole of northern Mali since the drought, with the relaunching of the cooperative movement as its major focus. All the local government services are involved (livestock, water and forestry, functional literacy, and health), with the cooperatives service playing a key coordinating role in planning and implementation. As part of this wider program, the wells project in the district of Kidal falls milder the supervision of the regional office of the cooperatives service. It has a decentralized structure that permits the local agents of the cooperatives service to work closely with the pastoral population and their elected representatives (as well as with agricultural and fishing communities in other parts of the northern region).

The Kidal wells project was originally proposed by the pastoral population when plans for rehabilitation and development of the north were first discussed in the immediate aftermath of the drought. The five herders' cooperatives of the Kidal district were asked to select the wells that most needed repair, bearing in mind the crucial relationship of watering points and grazing areas. Since they estimate that herds cover an area of pasture of approximately 20 km radius from a watering point, the wells must be at least 40 km apart to avoid overgrazing. Each cooperative has chosen a member with some prior well-digging experience to join the team that is carrying out the repair work. Digging takes place during the long dry season. During the four-year program all the team members will receive on-the-job training in construction and maintenance techniques. On completion of the program each of the herders' cooperatives will be provided with a set of basic equipment for future repair work, and will have the additional responsibility of ensuring proper management of the improved watering points.


Implications for Development Planners

Many large-scale development schemes undertaken in pastoral zones of Africa have had very limited success. In fact, some development projects have undermined the ability of pastoralists to cope with periodic drought. Examples of the harmful effects of development abound - the drilling of deep boreholes that lead to overgrazing, and range management schemes that drastically limit the movement of herds. Since drought once again threatens many parts of Africa, it is useful to examine some of the more innovative small-scale projects such as those outlined above to see if they provide lessons for future pastoral programs.

1. Traditional responses to drought and famine should be taken into account.

The way of life of nomadic pastoralists is well adapted to a semi-arid environment. Herders have a variety of adaptive strategies and traditional coping mechanisms to deal with harsh climatic conditions and periodic drought. These include movement over wide areas, diversification of herds, circulation of animals, exchange with sedentary farmers, and various fallback activities. Development programs should take into account these traditional strategies. Projects that are based on the pastoralists' own coping mechanisms, such as the Habbanae project described above, strengthen indigenous culture and values.

The Habbanae scheme was accepted by groups of destitute Wodaabe and proved successful because it was modelled on their custom of loaning animals. It responded to their immediate material needs for grain and milk and in time allowed many families to reconstitute their herds, but in a manner that reinforced the traditions of the Wodaabe Fulani. It should be noted too that different animals were purchased and loaned to the herders - mostly cows, some bulls, sheep and goats, camels, and a few donkeys - in a way that reflected the composition of an average Wodaabe herd. This was a small project, but it demonstrates clearly that development can not only reinforce traditional survival mechanisms of herders, but also that it can enhance the recovery of pastoral nomadism as a viable economic use of the Sahel.

2. A high degree of participation by the local population is vital.

Local involvement in project design helps to ensure that projects respond to the needs of the population. During subsequent phases of project execution a high level of participation in decision-taking is often crucial to the success of the project. When the knowledge and experience of pastoralists is not utilized the results may be disappointing. At Tin Aicha, where the livestock component of the project caused the most problems, the nomads had no say in the choice of livestock for reconstituting their herds, even though they knew far more about selecting animals than the project advisors. The advisors were anxious to prevent the acquisition of goats, which were seen as destructive animals. Consequently there was a high mortality rate among the sheep that were chosen instead, because they were unable to survive the harsh desert climate of northern Mali. Many of the cattle were also poorly selected in terms of rapid reproduction of the herd. This was undoubtedly the least satisfactory aspect of the project, resulting in considerable resentment at Tin Aicha over the lack of participation. The question of reimbursement of livestock loans was only resolved when the participants were allowed to devise their own repayment scheme.

The Kidal wells project, by contrast, demonstrates that nomadic pastoralists have an intimate knowledge of their environment and a thorough understanding of its fragile nature. The program evolved from the herders' own expressed needs, and from the planning stage onward there has been full consultation - from choosing the sites of wells that require repair to determining priorities for carrying out the work. Each of the herders' cooperatives in the district has designated a member to join the well-digging team, which should help to ensure that all the watering points will be properly used and maintained in the future.

3. Mobilization of local resources can strengthen local capacity to organize for economic change.

When planning development projects, it is important to ensure that local resources complement external funds. In the aftermath of a severe drought many people may be destitute, making this impossible at the outset, but it can be incorporated at a later phase and can help to prevent a continued state of dependency. The Kawrital project illustrates how this can happen. The experimental herders' association was introduced once the Wodaabe had been able to partially reconstitute their herds through the Habbanae cattle loan scheme. Each association member contributed a ram and these animals formed the nucleus of the group's communal herd. When the various association activities were well established several years later, members were considering the possibility of renewing this contribution periodically, for instance every two years. They saw this partly as a way of increasing the size of the revolving fund. Also, it was felt that this would reinforce the members' sense of belonging to the association, from which everyone derives benefit when profits from the various activities are shared. If participants in a development scheme contribute resources of their own it can encourage them to take charge of the project themselves and to believe that it really belongs to them rather than to outsiders.

4. Small pilot projects may have potential for replication.

One of the limitations of projects funded by PVOs is that they are often very modest in scale and have an impact on relatively small numbers of people. Many of them are initially conceived as experimental pilot schemes, but if they prove successful there may be potential for duplicating them elsewhere or for incorporating some elements into projects with other groups.

The Kawrital nomadic herders' association described in Section I is an example of a project that began in a modest way with only 15 families. It worked so well that after the initial two-year experimental phase it attracted considerable interest, both at the national level and among major international aid donors. It has in fact been adopted as the model for a number of similar herders' associations that are being set up by large livestock projects in Niger. Some modifications have been introduced, including a slight increase in size to approximately 20 families in each association, and a larger fund for livestock purchase for groups that have not had an opportunity to reconstitute their herds. The small Kawrital project, which began with a grant of $7,000, has thus had significant multiplier effects that were unforeseen at the outset.

5. Provision of services to a nomadic population is not impossible.

The view that nomadic pastoralists should be settled is widely held, with proponents arguing that it facilitates the delivery of services such as health care, education and veterinary facilities. Most governments of Sahel countries represent the interests of numerically dominant sedentary groups, and are reluctant to provide services to nomadic groups that periodically move across national frontiers with their herds. While it is undeniably more difficult to devise mechanisms for reaching pastoralists, some progress has been made and it may be useful to examine these experiences.

As the Tin Aicha project evolved, a school was built, agriculture and veterinary extension services were provided, and a health-clinic was organized. In order to take full advantage of some of these aspects of the project the nomads have had to adapt their traditional way of life considerably. For instance, children are only able to attend school regularly if some members of the family remain in residence at Tin Aicha while others depart with their animals to distant pastures. It is important to note here that although the Malian government favors the settlement of nomads, the villagers themselves have never seen this as a sedentarization project. For them Tin Aicha has provided an opportunity to reconstitute their herds and at the same time to experiment with a new means of livelihood; the cultivation of crops has come to complement herding.

The provision of services to pastoralists requires flexibility on the part of administrative authorities too. For example, there have been a number of attempts to introduce primary health care programs among herders and the most successful have adapted their approach to meet the needs of nomadic groups. In parts of Niger rural health clinics and pharmacies are held once a week on market day, when large numbers of people gather together from a wide surrounding area.

6. Integration of a project into local administrative structures is important.

Cooperation with local authorities is often vital during the early stages of a project. At Tin Aicha, for example, the district commandant played a key role in launching the project. Without the impetus that he provided, the herders would have remained at the refugee camps in a destitute condition. In contrast to this, the Kawrital project faced considerable difficulty during the early stages. Leading members of the herders' association were refused supplies of cereals at the official subsidized price. Subsequently, relations with the local administrative authorities improved, especially once an official agreement had been signed by the Ministry of Rural Development.

In many instances projects that are largely financed from outside sources nevertheless come under the supervision of a local government service. Despite the additional layer of bureaucracy that this may entail there are usually clear advantages to the arrangement. In the case of the Kidal wells project, for example, the regional cooperative service has an important supervisory role. It helps to involve the herders' cooperatives in the wells program, it coordinates the project with the work of other local government services and occasionally with national government, and it will ensure that program activities continue after the project officially comes to an end. One has to remember that in the Sahel countries, unlike other parts of the world, there are very few indigenous non-governmental organizations to play a coordinating role.

Local integration of projects is often facilitated if they engage local personnel. This was clearly an advantage at Tin Aicha, especially at the school which is staffed by Tamashek teachers. After some debate about alternatives, the school decided to follow the national education program so that pupils would leave with diplomas that are accepted throughout the country. After six years as a "project," Tin Aicha was finally recognized as a separate political and administrative entity by the Malian government, allowing full integration into all the local structures.

Despite the difficulties of providing development assistance to pastoral nomads and the many examples of failure, there are some small-scale projects that have had promising results. Four examples of pastoral projects in the Sahel supported by a variety of non-governmental agencies have been considered here to indicate some useful lessons for future development efforts. The way of life of nomadic pastoralists has undergone many profound transformations this century. Nomads are very adaptable people and in times of hardship even the most destitute retain remarkable flexibility, strength and ingenuity. Whenever possible, development schemes should be devised by pastoralists themselves.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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