Education can break the Horn of Africa's climate-conflict cycle

by Jean-François Maystadt and Derek Headey | International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Tuesday, 13 May 2014 13:15 GMT

Students attend a lesson at a public school in Gudele, on the outskirts of South Sudan's capital Juba, April 8, 2013. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

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Education, alongside better infrastructure, can attract people into non-pastoralist livelihoods, reducing their exposure to drought

The recent history of the Horn of Africa region is one marked by conflict. Several factors have contributed to this state of affairs, not least of which are climatic shocks.

New research from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) highlights this close relationship between global warming and conflict in East Africa. It finds that higher temperatures greatly affect the risk of conflict, due to livestock price shocks and the stress on water and feed sources.

In fact, this research has shown that, without intervention, the risk of conflict could increase by up to 30 percent in Sudan and South Sudan, and up to 50 percent in Somalia as temperatures continue to rise by 2030.

In general, areas with more pastoralists (livestock keepers), less irrigation and longer distances to local markets are particularly vulnerable. Overall, conflicts tend to exacerbate existing vulnerability, with climate change and continued population growth producing more frequent catastrophic events.

What can be done to end this vicious cycle?

There are a number of reforms that can mitigate the risks of conflict and violence, even in the event of climatic shocks. One example is strengthening communities’ abilities to resolve disputes at an informal, local level, especially in countries with a weak rule of law. Studies indicate that educating communities in informal negotiation and mediation skills helps them reach agreements much faster than if attempted through the court system.

Scarcity of natural resources such as water and fodder inevitably increases conflict. Therefore, robust natural resource management can stop disputes from even starting.

A study of pastoralists in southern Namibia indicated that communities in resource-scarce areas are willing to cooperate in shared management of water and forage resources if their own needs are met. This suggests that the creation of local committees to manage natural resources can help avert conflict.

More effective early warning systems offer additional benefits. For example, with sufficient warning, herders can revise their expectations for the season and can avoid destroying their herd by migrating to a different area. Early warning systems that bring information to herders help them avoid costly migration mistakes in the dry season.


However, the most effective and far-reaching method to promote sustainable development and hence, help break the conflict-climate cycle may be education. A recent IFPRI case study, “Diversification and Development in Pastoralist Ethiopia,” asserts that education, along with improved infrastructure, can attract people into non-pastoralist livelihoods, thereby reducing their exposure to drought.

According to the authors, improved education in vulnerable communities can result in lower fertility rates, better health and nutrition outcomes, and higher and more robust incomes, among other effects. Because the age structure of pastoralist communities trends toward the young, significant investments in education could produce notable impacts within a generation.

The findings from the case study also show that demand for education has increased in the pastoralist communities studied, while promising experiments have been conducted with boarding schools, mobile schools and distance learning.

Climatic shocks and their impact on conflict in the Horn of Africa are a worrisome trend. However, there are ways to significantly reduce the likelihood of conflict.

Vulnerable communities are in a position to enhance their resilience to climatic shocks through long-term commitments to institutional and education reform that should serve as cornerstones for regional development.

Jean-François Maystadt is a post-doctoral research fellow with the Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Derek Headey is a research fellow in IFPRI’s Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division. 

This research will be presented at a conferece on “Building Resilience for Food and Nutrition Security”, organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Addis Ababa this week (#2020Resilience).

Building resilience means helping people, communities, countries, and global institutions prevent, anticipate, prepare for, cope with, and recover from shocks, not only helping them to “bounce back” but also to become better off. This conference aims to help set priorities for building resilience, to evaluate emerging threats to resilience, and to draw lessons from humanitarian and development responses to previous shocks.