Achieving SDG2: Political Aspects of Pastoral Vulnerability Among the Afar in Ethiopia


Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 relates to ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture. The SDGs mention only a few political indicators and SDG2 in particular is largely devoid of political considerations to end hunger and achieve food security. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen famously observed the absence of famine in democracies, suggesting that a democratic system provides checks and balances that prevent famine. His observation has elicited further debate and triggered empirical studies in recent years. Going beyond Sen’s hypothesis, this essay examines other political factors that would explain vulnerability to famine and that need to be addressed more explicitly in SDG 2 and similar initiatives. By taking the case of pastoralists in the Afar region of Ethiopia, this research explores selected political determinants of vulnerability to famine. The Eritrea-Ethiopia war and the ensuing border closure have had a detrimental effect on the livelihood of pastoralists in Afar – many pastoralists were deprived of a market and a reliable source of income. In addition, Afar pastoralists were sidelined from the informal salt sector on which they used to rely. The state facilitated this expropriation, leaving pastoralists even more vulnerable to famine. I argue that political considerations are crucial in successfully ending hunger and achieving food security. The essay uses a qualitative case study design and is based on a PhD dissertation.

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  1. 1.

    His editorial introduction in 1989 was republished in the same IDS Bulletin 17 years later.

  2. 2.

    Livestock reared by pastoralists in Ethiopia generally consist of camels, cattle, goats, and/or sheep.

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    As a result of the “scramble for Africa,” Somali pastoralists found themselves divided between British Somaliland, Italian Somalia, French Djibouti, British Kenya, and Ethiopia. The Afar people were also divided between French Djibouti, Italian Eritrea, and Ethiopia.

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    The post-2007 “land grabs” in Ethiopia can be considered as one natural resource trap. Ethiopia has also engaged in major conflicts, including two wars since 1974; to name a few, the 17-year conflict between the Derg and the EPLF/TPLF (1974–91), Ethio-Somali war (1977–78), Ethio-Eritrea war (1998–2000), military intervention in Somalia (2006–9), and the military operations against the Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (1993–2018).

  5. 5.

    The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index is a measurement of poverty used in the United Nations’ Human Development Report since the year 2010. First developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), the index attempts to capture the incidence and intensity of deprivations. The MPI has three dimensions and ten indicators: health (nutrition, child mortality), education (years of schooling, children enrolled), and living standards (cooking fuel, toilet, water, electricity, floor, assets) (Alkire and Santos 2010).

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    According to government documents (FDRE 2008, 2010, 2013) and joint Government-Donor Humanitarian Requirement Documents from 1997 to 2014, the PSNP supported about 472,000 people per year in Afar while humanitarian emergency aid supported on average another 115,000 Afar people per year.

  7. 7.

    The data is from the Humanitarian Requirement Documents from 1997 to 2014.

  8. 8.

    Deprivation in Afar may be rivalled only by Somali region, which is also inhabited by pastoralists and agro-pastoralists.

  9. 9.

    The Somali region in Ethiopia is also inhabited by pastoralists who live in very difficult conditions. Because of the armed clash between government and liberation forces between 2007 and 2018, and hence for reasons of personal safety, I did not select the Somali region as a case study site.

  10. 10.

    Semera is the regional capital of Afar.

  11. 11.

    Ethiopia stopped using the port of Assab when the war with Eritrea broke in 1998. Ironically, the same road has been diverted mid-way in Elidar and leads to the port in Djibouti which Ethiopia started using as a main outlet starting the same year.

  12. 12.

    Of all the districts in the country, Elidar was the only one with incomplete data in the national census; that is, the figure for Elidar represents an estimate of 8 kebeles while the remaining 11 or so kebeles were actually counted.

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    In fact, as I was about to leave Elidar after my interviews, a landmine had exploded in the outskirts of Elidar town and a child was seriously injured. I have no information whether the child survived as investigations were still underway.

  14. 14.

    After the war, a temporary security zone was carved out by the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) to keep both armies separated until the map was demarcated. The demarcation never materialized. The mandate of UNMEE was finally terminated by the UN Security Council in August 2008. Ever since, both countries found themselves in a situation of no war no peace; armies on both sides of the border have remained on high alert. A peace agreement was signed only in 2018, following the leadership change in Ethiopia.

  15. 15.

    Respondents mentioned that the main road to Djibouti did not provide them with comparable levels of benefits that they used to enjoy when the border with Eritrea was open. The road to Djibouti did not pass through the main towns and settlements in Elidar, unlike the old road to Eritrea. Moreover, Djibouti’s population is approximately 1/8th the population size of Eritrea, so the market is smaller. Most importantly, trade with Djibouti is regulated by the federal government, while trade with Eritrea was largely unregulated.

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    Birr or ETB is the local currency in Ethiopia. At the time of the fieldwork, USD1 was equivalent to ETB9.4.

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  24. 24.

    Kebeles are the lowest unit of government. The equivalent of kebeles in other countries would be wards or neighborhood associations.

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  26. 26.

    Motorized public transportation in Afar can include any of the following: buses, mini-buses, trucks or any pickup vehicle passing along.

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    Although the war ended in the year 2000, there is still a military presence in the area.

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    Around the same time, the border with Somalia was also patrolled by helicopter and militia to halt contraband trade, as a result of which Somali pastoralists were heavily affected.

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    A sack is estimated to hold between 10 and 15 kg of salt.

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    It includes Harsale Leado, Cantoniera, Haker, Furana Regid settlements and Elidar town.

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    This is in 2008 prices.

  38. 38.

    Afdera has a much larger potential than just meeting 95% of national salt requirements (Dereje 2011, 8–9).

  39. 39.

    APDA (Afar Pastoral Development Association) was the only local NGO working in Afar. It is praised by many for its achievements. Valerie Browning, an Australian nurse who came to Ethiopia to help during the 1973 famine, is the co-founder of APDA. She lives among the Afar and is better known as Maalika, which means “queen” or “angel” in Afar.

  40. 40.

    This killing led to retribution from the state security forces.

  41. 41.


  42. 42.

    According to A-Shami and A-Shami (2007, 439–40), historically sultans had the duty of ensuring that Islamic and traditional laws were respected, that the weak and the strong could coexist based on equality, and that those who did not conform would be punished. In Afar, sultanates also provided political leadership and served as repositories of Afar culture and customary law (Yasin 2008, 45; UNDP-EUE 1996). Chedeville (1966, 182–83) maintains that sultans were responsible for protecting water points, trade routes, and the sultanate. The sultans also were responsible for decisions regarding war and peace, effectively making the sultanates military units, and they were organized accordingly. Successive regimes in Ethiopia have increasingly undermined the authority of sultans.

  43. 43.

    According to media reports, the Ministry of Trade decreased iodine provision from 160,000 quintals per month to 55,000 in 2014. On 10 June 2014, guidelines issued by the Ministry put production caps of 255,000 quintals per month on Afdera (from the previous 300,000 quintals) and 55,000 quintals on Dobi (from the previous 65,000 quintals). The Ministry also put a price cap of 150 birr per quintal on producers, while no caps exist on wholesale distributors. The salt market is distorted as salt was sold at about 650 birr per quintal in Addis during the same period (Yohannes 2014).

  44. 44.

    The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) – recently renamed the Oromo Democratic Party – has now gained dominance within the ruling EPRDF coalition government.


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Vadala, A. Achieving SDG2: Political Aspects of Pastoral Vulnerability Among the Afar in Ethiopia. Food ethics 4, 139–157 (2019).

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  • Famine
  • Famine vulnerability
  • Food insecurity
  • Entitlement
  • SDG2
  • Pastoralist
  • Pastoral
  • Ethiopia
  • Eritrea
  • Djibouti
  • Afar
  • Political vulnerability
  • Border
  • War
  • Conflict
  • Salt trade