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The southern African food crisis
Lesotho literature review

S. D. Turner

29 April, 2003

Posted with permission of Joanne Abbott, Care, Johannesburg
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A literature review of this kind can never hope to be comprehensive. With the short time available for the present exercise, which had to be undertaken far away from Lesotho, this review can certainly serve only as an introductory survey. A draft of the report was submitted to CARE on 14 March, 2003. This final version takes into account the comments that were received on 14 April.

In my hasty search for relevant documentation I have found a number of papers and reports that are still in draft, and have quoted them nevertheless. I believe that the authors of these various drafts would agree that, if their less-than-final ideas can make a contribution now to a better understanding of livelihoods in Lesotho, that contribution should be made.

I am grateful to many people who have helped with inputs and advice for this review. Special thanks to Jo Abbot, Gillian Forrest, David Hall, Priscilla Magrath, 'Makojang Mahao, Ntsie Tlale and John Wyeth.

Not long before his tragic death this month, our friend and colleague Mohasi Mohasi was still helping to provide material for this review. I dedicate this report to him in memory of our good times and good work together.

Stephen Turner
Amsterdam, 29 April 2003


The Government of Lesotho and CARE are undertaking a Livelihoods Recovery Through Agriculture Programme (LRAP) that aims to help Basotho address vulnerability in their livelihoods. It focuses on the promotion of homestead food production by poor vulnerable households; increasing the capacity of the Ministry of Agriculture to deliver client-led agricultural extension; the development and dissemination of materials on good agricultural practices; and an action-learning framework to help understand household strategies and refine governmental and non-governmental support to them. LRAP has commissioned this literature review to help it understand trends in the security and vulnerability of Basotho livelihoods, in a historical and regional context. The study complements similar work that CARE is undertaking in Malawi and Zambia.

This review tries to set out the evidence for trends in Basotho livelihoods over recent decades, with the emphasis on the last 20 years. It presents its findings according to the four main (sometimes overlapping) elements of the livelihoods framework, beginning in section 2 with livelihood context and moving on to assets and capabilities (section 3), livelihood strategies (section 4) and livelihood outcomes (section 5).

The review reaches the following conclusions about trends in Basotho livelihoods (section 6). Many of them are speculative and are better stated as hypotheses that should be verified through further investigation.

  • With the exception of dwindling rural energy supplies, there have been no significant recent trends in the natural environmental context of Basotho livelihoods.

  • There have been some changes in policy regarding gender, but not enough to make a significant difference to the livelihoods of most women.

  • Declining migrant labour opportunities in South Africa spell the end of the stable model of household livelihood development that prevailed in Lesotho for almost all the 20th century. Migrant labour did little to alleviate poverty through most of that period, but it supported at least some capital accumulation by young households. Now, Basotho must struggle to survive with a broader range of strategies. The impressive, though uneven, growth of the Lesotho manufacturing sector over the last ten years has been a major trend for Basotho livelihoods. However, this trend may not be sustained.

  • The nature of migration in Basotho livelihoods has changed, but not its centrality. Migration to Lesotho towns, and migration within the rural areas, are now key strategies for many households.

  • Over the last ten years, political conditions in the country have started to have a significant influence on many livelihoods. Democracy has been welcomed, but political instability has caused job losses, deterred some investment and led to widespread scepticism among Basotho about the political process. It has been accompanied by a deterioration in local governance that, amongst other things, has made effective natural resource management harder and is associated with a common perception of deteriorating security.

  • The rise of social pathologies such as theft (particularly of livestock), alcoholism and violence against women is having an increasingly negative effect.

  • HIV/AIDS has emerged as the most profound threat to Basotho livelihoods since the founding of the nation.

  • One impact of HIV/AIDS will be the reduced capacity of the social and economic networks that have traditionally helped to sustain Basotho livelihoods. Other factors also seem to be diminishing much of the social capital on which these livelihoods have depended. On the other hand, informal economic groupings are thriving and remain a vital part of many households' strategies.

  • The extent, quality and value of advisory services provided by government to farmers has probably dwindled almost to insignificance.

  • Basotho as a whole are continuing to produce at least as much food as they did over the last few decades. But the proportion of all rural households responsible for this production may be falling.

  • The prevalence of livestock production among Basotho households is declining. Cattle numbers appear to be roughly constant, but small stock numbers are in decline and the contribution of wool and mohair production to mountain livelihoods is dwindling.

  • Small scale, non-agricultural enterprises have retained a significant role in Basotho livelihoods throughout the last 20 years. But, although clearly comparable longitudinal data are lacking, it seems certain that there have been major changes in the character of this sector over the review period. Not much may have changed with regard to off-farm enterprises in rural communities. But a different kind of small enterprise or business is becoming an important livelihood strategy for the growing proportion of Basotho households trying to make a living in towns and peri-urban areas.

  • The number of livelihood strategies to which Basotho households must resort has been increasing. While such diversity may spread risk, it imposes new burdens and exacerbates the perpetual stress of having to keep several strategies going at the same time.

  • There has been good but uneven progress in the key livelihood outcomes of water and sanitation.

  • Outside the ravages of AIDS, it is likely that health conditions were gradually improving among Basotho during the 1980s and 1990s. However, not enough data have been available so far during this review to substantiate this hypothesis.

  • There are more girls than boys in primary school, although the gap is narrowing. The proportion of 13-17 year old boys attending secondary school is lower than the proportion of girls. But the proportion of boys increases over the five years of secondary schooling, and boys generally perform a little better than girls. Levels of education and literacy have increased somewhat in Lesotho over the last two decades, but the improvements in educational performance have been limited at best.

  • The proportion of Basotho households living in poverty increased significantly during the 1990s. Across Lesotho as a whole, income inequality has worsened. The depth and severity of poverty have increased.
In addition to specifying certain gaps that need to be filled through additional work on existing data (section 7.3.6), the review concludes by suggesting a number of lines of investigation that could be followed up during Phase 2 of this study of livelihood trends in Lesotho.

  • This overview could be improved in two ways:
    • by analysing a recent longitudinal study of livelihood conditions among 500 households that were first surveyed in 1993 and were revisited in 2002;
    • by searching the very large data base of other household and livelihood surveys undertaken in Lesotho over recent decades, and at the same time organising, indexing and electronically archiving that data base in such a way that it will be readily available to policy makers and the public in future.

  • A study of internal migration could verify recent and current rates of urbanisation, improve understanding of how and why it is taking place, investigate the livelihoods and gender implications, explore the amount of migration to towns caused by growth in the garment industry, and clarify the extent of, and reasons for, migration within rural areas.

  • Field work could be undertaken to assess the current status and prospects of inter-household support networks and sharing mechanisms, including sharecropping.

  • A study should be done to test the widespread belief that local government has deteriorated to such an extent that it now impedes sustainable livelihoods.

  • Work should be done to establish current trends and prospects in wool and mohair production, leading to an assessment of whether the sector can be reinforced to help it regain its previous contribution to mountain livelihoods.

  • Further detailed fieldwork is needed to assess the impact of HIV/AIDS on crop production and other income generation strategies. This work should generate practical recommendations for immediate adoption by CARE's LRAP programme and other initiatives.

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