Ensuring Equitable Access to Quality Education for Nomadic Populations

Special Focus : Innovating for Equity in Education
Higher Education February 15, 2017

The proliferation of low-cost motorised transport, and the revolution in information and communication technology are rapidly making the remoteness of pastoralist and nomadic populations a thing of the past. Today, pastoralist associations call meetings over the phone. Herders charge their mobile devices directly in the bush from USB-equipped motorbikes. Market prices of livestock are monitored from the camp and sales are cashless with mobile banking. Network access is now one of the factors herders consider when deciding the itinerary of migrations. In 2013, the authorities and civil society organisations signing the N’Djaména Declaration on economic development and security in the Sahel-Sahara region, recommended the systematic extension of network coverage to the entirety of their territories. 

Pastoral systems have long suffered from a bad press, but their understanding in specialist circles has undergone a U-turn compared to the 1970s, or even the 1980s. Hard-to-impress players like the World Bank, and conservation strongholds like IUCN, now refer to pastoralism as both economically valuable and ecological sustainable. In a world where environmental variability is becoming a fact of life at an unprecedented scale, a growing number of analysts see in pastoral systems a valuable insight on producing with variability rather than against it. 

The delivery of formal education, on the other hand, remains at war with variability, so far showing little capacity to reach children in pastoralist systems. With few exceptions (notably Iran and Mongolia), formal education has been offered to pastoralist children as a way out of pastoralism. Delivery of education through schooling has been used as an instrument to support policies of sedentarisation, forcing pastoralist households to split or settle in order to access the service. Where a range of options has been introduced, these remain locked onto the school model.

In principle, mobile schools and alternative basic education are options that stretch the school model to accommodate some of the conditions of the pastoral context; but filling the positions in mobile schools, or stopping alternative basic education schemes from drifting into under-resourced versions of schooling remains a serious challenge. Overall, ‘nomadic education’ programmes concentrate on the less mobile end of the spectrum, the children in semi-permanent camps and in livestock-poor households. Even the most bespoken programmes are offered only for the first years of primary education, as a way of channeling children into the standard schooling system.

As with most agricultural systems worldwide, a proportion of youth in pastoralist households cannot find rewarding employment. Providing them with good-quality education is necessary, but does not reach those who stay in the pastoral systems, therefore cannot result in achieving the Sustainable Development Goal for education, and produce a new generation of educated pastoralists. Waiting for all pastoralists to loose their livestock and settle, as I once heard from a headmaster, won’t do either. Young producers in the pastoral systems around the world are millions, and the collapse of these systems would come at great cost for national economies and political stability. 

Demand for high-quality education is now strong in herding households. Those who retain a livelihood in the pastoral systems seek education for their children and for themselves as a means to secure their position in the future, negotiate their rights in their countries and abroad, and be more informed as they engage with the global economy. However, they face a hard choice having to either reduce mobility (and productivity) or split the family to accommodate the constraints imposed by standard schooling. Complications are, as usual, even more penalizing for girls.

Formal education by working with variability

Approaches to formal education alternative to the school model do exist, and in some cases have a wide diffusion (‘home learning’ as a legal way to fulfill compulsory education in the US and most of Europe) and a long history (a century of primary and secondary distance education in Australia, radio-based at first and now using the internet).

In 2009-2010, a collaboration between the Kenyan Ministry of Education and the short-lived Ministry for the Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands explored a combination of distanced and family-based learning as a way of delivering a full course of primary education, equal to schooling in quality and status, to the ‘hardest to reach’ children in pastoral systems and their families. The resulting strategy, not yet piloted, relies on a network of visiting tutors and radio broadcasting. With sufficient coverage, the radio can be replaced by mobile-phone or internet-based platforms. 

A UK-based company is developing a low-cost custom-content platform that can work on the old G2 phones even without literacy. A network of Open Source software developers originated in India is working on a plug-in to interface any page on the web with crowd-sourced ‘re-narrations’ of its content in any language, using any combination of text, audio and video. It is not the technology that matters but the way to use it. The objective of the strategy developed in Kenya has been to re-design formal education delivery in ways that avoid the barriers children in pastoral systems face with standard schooling, making the process adaptable to the stage and pace of the individual child, and of immediate interest to the entire family. 

In 1886, Anne Sullivan, a young visually-impaired primary school teacher started to work with a 6 year old girl whom an illness had made deaf and blind before she could talk, Helen Keller. As Anne was day after day spelling into Helen’s hand the names of familiar objects, it took the child more than a month just to figure out what was going on, then there was no stopping her. Helen became the first deaf and blind person on record to earn a university degree. She lived a long and rewarding life as an author, a political activist and a lecturer. 

I like to think that Anne’s success with Helen (or Helen’s success with Anne) boils down to the humble determination to recognise the operational context and make good use of it, a principle that would seem to be the real ‘technology’ at work in the Kenyan strategy, and is likely to be familiar to the pastoralists themselves, who for centuries have managed to produce substantial value from lands that the world considers ‘unproductive’.


  • Declaration de N’Djaména 2013. Elevage Pastoral: une contribution durable au développement et à la Sécurité des espaces Saharo-Sahéliens. N’Djaména 29 mai 2013, Colloque Régional et Conférence Ministérielle, 27-29 mai 2013.
  • UNESCO 2010. EFA Global Monitoring Report 2010. Reaching the Marginalized. Paris: UNESCO and Oxford University Press.
  • Krätli S. 2001. Education Provision to Nomadic Pastoralists, IDS Working Paper 126, Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies; Dyer, C. 2014. Livelihoods and Learning. Education For All and the marginalisation of mobile pastoralists. London: Routledge.
  • Krätli, S. and Dyer, C. 2009. Mobile Pastoralists and Education: Strategic Options. Education for Nomads Working Paper 1. London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

  • MDNKOAL 2010. Getting to the Hardest to Reach: A Strategy to Provide Education to Nomadic Communities in Kenya Through Distance Learning. Minister of State for Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands (Office of the Prime Minister) and Education for Nomads programme, Nairobi