Vulnerability assessment in Kenya: Reflection on 20 years of assessment

I recently came across a pioneering study of vulnerability in Kenya. Below are the extracts from the summary, with brief reflections based on more recent work (notably our review of the economics of climate change adaptation and low carbon growth). The earlier study integrated methods common in climate impact assessment (as the field was known in the 1980s) with concepts and techniques related to food entitlement, human ecology and household economics. The vulnerability assessment related specifically to climatic variability and household food security in six districts of Central and Eastern Kenya.

Research question 1. How does climatic variability affect household food security based on on-farm agricultural production?

During severe drought, there is little households are able to do to meet their food requirements from on-farm production. However, in moderate drought, average, and good years there is remarkable potential for agricultural improvements, sufficient to meet most household food requirements. This potential is constrained by availability of labor and capital.

Reflection: Still holds. Yet, there is often the naïve assumption in climate change vulnerability assessments that on-farm food security is the driving issue, as seen in some studies (the crop-climate model based studies by IFPRI and ILRI stand out, particularly when compared with the more complete work on sustainable livelihoods by the FAO, and many others). Vulnerability was well-established in the Kenya study as being located in socio-economic factors (see below) rather than the direct causal impacts of adverse climate events, yields and household production. The study adopted the sense of risk (perhaps anticipating Beck) and anticipation of a sequence of seasons.

Research question 2. How does participation in the monetary economy affect household food security?

Household participation in the monetary economy has reduced vulnerability to drought, at least in the short term. Access to off-farm income is the most effective coping strategy. The corollary of the apparent lessening of vulnerability to drought is a shift of primary responsibility for coping with drought from the individual household toward the national government and international food markets. The government now plays a major role in determining the impact of drought in rural areas, first in controlling the marketing of maize and beans, and second, in the provision of famine relief.

Reflection: The multi-scale nature of vulnerability was established—rather than mapping indicators at a fixed scale (e.g., a household or a pixel). Mapping of social networks has emerged as a vital tool in vulnerability assessment—hinted at in this study (see the NetMap toolbox). The role of ICT in household management of risks makes this even more obvious, for example the M-Pesa network in Kenya linked to remittances from the United Kingdom or the iCow app that enables cross-scale risk management.

Research question 3. What are the characteristics of household vulnerability to hunger and how does climatic variability affect the distribution of households with inadequate food security?

Vulnerability to hunger among smallholder agriculturalists in Central and Eastern Kenya is characterized by four dimensions: temporal persistence (climatic variability), resource endowment (agroecological potential and land use), resource entitlement (through agricultural production and off-farm employment), and special nutritional needs (children under 5, pregnant and lactating women). The groups most vulnerable to hunger during severe drought are over 40 percent of the population, three times larger than those vulnerable to chronic hunger.

Reflection: The temporal and contingent quality of vulnerability is brought out here—it is an ever changing characteristic made up of multiple attributes. While the language of the four domains has changed (few people talk of entitlements these days, climate change and disaster risk reduction have replaced the earlier focus on climate variability and risk), the substantive conclusions are much the same.

Research question 4. How have household responses to climatic variability changed and what are the current range, effectiveness, and constraints to adoption of available coping strategies?

Since the 1970s, the range of practicable drought coping strategies appears to have narrowed, and shifted from agricultural strategies to increased involvement in the monetary economy.

Reflection: The structure of vulnerability in social and economic networks was well established in the 1980s, and repeatedly demonstrated, recently in the Arab Spring. Yet, causal chains of vulnerability to climate change rarely make this connection, a major disconnect with reality (compare the ci:grasp climate-hazard chains with the earlier notion in PIK of syndromes that embedded dynamic decision making). The integration of vulnerability as the dynamic property of a system with coping strategies (before the term adaptation was widely used) shows the close links in theory and analytical constructs (and Bohle's subsequent notion of vulnerability and coping as two sides of the same syndrome).

In conclusion, the logic of household production and reproduction in the rural areas has changed significantly with increasing participation in the market economy. Households can no longer be considered peasant risk minimizers. Neither are they climatic opportunists, i.e., attempting to make the best possible use of the good years. A pattern emerges climatic satisficing, accepting agricultural production without additional investment in either poor or good years, and risk spreading through the diversification of sources of income, most notably in off-farm employment.

Reflection: This study of vulnerability in Kenya documented the substantial shifts in the structure of vulnerability from the 1970s to the 1980s. A safe prediction is that the structure of vulnerability has already changed (from the 1980s) and will change substantially for most parts of Kenya (and elsewhere) in the next 10-20 years. A reinvigorated rural economy might emerge through REDD+, biofuels and carbon markets. Or, discovery of commercial deposits of natural gas in the Kenyan offshore economic zone is a black swan that could change many aspects of the economy, and poverty. The challenge ahead is surely to be agents of change (positive transformations) supported by methods that capture this dynamic nature of vulnerability and adaptation.

New year prize for those who can supply all the citations!

And finally, it is exciting to anticipate 2012 and especially registration of our offices in Nairobi and developing key partnerships with like-minded groups. Get in touch with Mica to follow up our vision and plans...

Tom Downing


From the north of England.

Controlling climate change