Sustainable development is hard to achieve, especially if the target is food security in drought-prone, economically and ecologically marginal pastoral areas such as the Turkana District in Kenya. A brief historical account is given of the famine relief and development efforts in the area and their impact is analysed from a local point of view. The main conclusion is that previous activities have largely ignored the existing social basis for development and thus they have failed to create a sustainable institutional framework. Although there are presently some encouraging signs that new, locally based efforts are taking root, their success will depend on the creation of an enabling socio-political environment by the national authorities and international aid organizations. This paper is based on field data collected in Turkana in 1987, supplemented by research reports and other project-based secondary data.