Purpose – Within the theoretical context of human security, this United Nations (UN) three-year research project examines the causes and effects of conflicts in the arid and semi-arid lands of Northern Kenya. The purpose of this paper is to address the human security concerns arising out of conflict, displacement, migration and poverty. The people who live in the area are mainly nomadic pastoralists. Design/methodology/approach – A review of previous empirical research and ongoing field studies are used to examine four problem areas: cattle rustling, proliferation of small arms, competition over scarce resources and conflict between refugees and local communities. Findings – Seeking access to water and green pastures, the nomads generally follow their cattle across the region, and their movement is not confined to Kenya alone. They cross and re-cross international boundaries to and from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Uganda resulting in conflicts over water and pasture. Resource competition in a fragile economy has had grave consequences for the economic security of families and internally displaced people. Originality/value – The North Rift and North Eastern regions of Kenya are the most underdeveloped area of the country and suffer from a high level of human insecurity, with more than three-quarters of the population living below the poverty line. This UN project seeks an empirical understanding of the causes of conflict and ways to build the capacity of a vulnerable population to gain both freedom from fear and freedom from want.