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Martha Geiger

February 14th, 2020

Donkeys’ economic and social contribution is urgently undervalued in Ethiopia

2 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Martha Geiger

February 14th, 2020

Donkeys’ economic and social contribution is urgently undervalued in Ethiopia

2 comments | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Across Africa, donkeys support livelihoods and generate income for the most marginalised households, but their social and economic contribution is overlooked in development policy. Research in Ethiopia highlights an urgent need to include donkeys in livestock and food security frameworks, particularly as their numbers are increasingly threatened by the global skin trade.

Every animal has a value. Animals are vital to economies as foodstuffs, for leisure, for companionship or draught power. But the high value of donkeys and their versatility is surprising in its contribution to human development. In many regions of Africa, donkeys support growing economic landscapes and are a part of the social and cultural fabric of human society.

Ethiopia has approximately 8.8 million donkeys, the largest population in Africa. In Ethiopia these animals are often visible on road sides pulling carts from rural areas to busy market hubs in town centres or carrying packs of firewood on their backs to homesteads. Less visible is the critical contribution they make to the development and support of people’s livelihoods in rural, peri-urban and urban areas across Ethiopia. Here, donkeys provide transport, food security and income generation to some of the poorest and most marginalised households, yet donkey contributions to human livelihoods remain largely unexplored. Their numbers, combined with their social and economic contribution, create a significant need to account for and represent these animals and their owners within practical development discourse.

Our research across four locations in central Ethiopia investigated the role donkeys play in shaping human livelihoods. These animals are revealed as a critical source of support to Ethiopian households, creating economic security, social status, empowerment to marginalised groups such as women and the very poor, and provide a sense of companionship to their owners. The results revealed seven key themes on why working animals should be included in conversations, planning, and policy making in Ethiopia and across African countries where donkey ownership is prevalent: donkeys as generators of income, the relationship between donkeys and social status, donkeys and affect, empowerment through owning and working with donkeys, the role of donkeys in reducing vulnerability and encouraging resilience, donkey husbandry and gender dynamics and differences between rural and urban settings – all of which give a broader and richer insight into the value of donkeys.

The contribution of donkeys to livelihoods

Working donkeys are not only important economic contributors and assets. Donkeys empower owners through independence, status, employment, health and happiness. One donkey owner, while speaking about the importance of his donkey to his life said:

I speak to my community members about the benefits of having donkeys and I advise people to buy donkeys. People who do not own donkeys are under-privileged, not respected and underestimated; they are living in poor conditions. They are the poorest sector of the community. Those who don’t have donkeys are in definite poverty.’

Donkeys were frequently depicted by respondents as creating a pathway out of extreme poverty and providing owners with enough income generation to support their livelihoods. Another participant explained:

‘I am feeling happy every day when I am getting benefits from my donkey, but my husband died a year ago, so it is only me who is earning an income. I feel happy whenever I pay every week or every two weeks for Iqqub or Iddir {see below} because I realize that if I couldn’t get service from my donkey I can’t pay into either and won’t get help from these organizations.’

Iddir or Iqqub are traditional community-based insurance or credit systems, respectively, where each individual relies on the other members for participation to keep the system functioning, helping community members build assets and insure themselves against unforeseen shocks to their community. Donkeys are an important pillar for these informal systems, because they are the main enabler for the owner to generate sufficient income to participate in the community savings and credit schemes.

A women walks her donkey carrying cans in Ethiopia
A women and her donkey collect water in Ethiopia. Copyright: Martha Geiger.

However, those who have limited available money to purchase a donkey often resort to buying a donkey that has restricting physical issues, behavioural issues or is older in age and may not have the working life expectancy of younger, healthier donkeys. This disparity marginalises those in communities who live in greater poverty relative to other members. Those resorting to working with a donkey that may be in ill health could negatively impact the donkey’s welfare and in return affect their ability to work and help their owners. The welfare of both humans and donkeys could be compromised.

Donkeys provide happiness, comfort and security

70% of donkey owners interviewed expressed feelings of comfort, security and relief at the alleviation of the demand for excessive labour their donkeys’ provided. They appreciated the animals’ assistance with daily tasks and the strength that enables donkeys to work long hours throughout different seasons. Feelings of happiness were also commonly expressed when participants explained the way they value their donkey and how they feel when working with them. Donkeys were described as ‘friends for life’.

Gratitude for the support donkeys provide was also a common sentiment. This indicates the deeper meaningful importance donkeys have for their owners and users beyond their financial or work contributions; these sentiments afford a glimpse into how people conceptualise their relationship with their donkeys. For example, one owner said:

I am always happy doing this business with my donkey. This donkey is the base for helping my family’s life. All my family’s income is from this donkey, so I am always happy using my donkey.’

Owners also described the importance of having donkeys for gaining independence and being able to create opportunities for employment and/or begin their own business for transporting materials to markets or in construction areas.

A lack of data for policymaking

With such versatile and wide ranging contributions, information on how working donkeys offer socio-cultural and socio-economic value is critical for NGOs and policymakers working with both human and animal stakeholders, in order to ensure human and animal well-being are both adequately addressed.

However, information on socioeconomic value is inadequate or unavailable for many populations who employ working donkeys, meaning that decision-making by NGOs and governments often lack a strong evidence base. This is particularly true for donkeys which are commonly perceived by governments and agri-businesses to lack value in comparison to ruminant livestock. Consequently, the economic and societal contributions of donkeys to populations are often overlooked, leading to them being ignored in initiatives developed by government policymakers. While donkeys are claimed to be recognised as important animals to the agricultural sector, their current inclusion in livestock and food security policy frameworks is poor. In fact, donkeys are not included in any livestock development programmes or policies in Ethiopia, with donkeys and their owners left exposed without protection or help.

Consequently, livelihoods are now threatened by the recent rapid emergence of the donkey skin trade, to meet global demand for the raw materials used to make the traditional Chinese medicine ejiao. NGOs across East Africa, where the trade has been most prominent, are reporting thousands of donkeys being slaughtered for their skin and exported to China annually. Reports of donkeys being stolen from owners who rely on them for their livelihoods have increased and the demand has created a surge in their price, making them more expensive for people to purchase. Projections estimate that at the current rate of slaughter the donkey population in Kenya could be decimated by 2023.

If the benefits to people’s livelihoods are not drawn attention to, the number of donkeys available will dwindle. Future studies are needed on the implications of this global trade and its effects on the socioeconomic value of working donkeys in people’s communities.

Photo: Image by D Mz from Pixabay 

About the author

Martha Geiger

Martha Geiger

Martha Geiger is the CPAID and FLCA Centre Manager at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at LSE. Prior to joining LSE, she worked as a senior research associate at the University of Bristol where she led a study in Ethiopia investigating socio-economic factors affecting animal owning communities.

Posted In: Development | Economics | Environment | Society

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