Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development

Comes a time they have decided who you are. 
But you have not decided who you are. 
                  Jane Hirshfield ("They have decided")

I dislike being herded into certainty.
                  Louise Glück, Nobel poet

My argument is that if crises averted by pastoralists (and farmers, for that matter) were identified and more differentiated, we’d better understand how short of a fuller picture is equating their real time to the chronic crises of inequality, market failure, precarity and such.

To ignore disasters-averted has an analogy with other reliability professionals. It is to act as if the lives, assets and millions in wealth saved each day doesn’t matter when real-time control room operators of critical infrastructures prevent disasters from happening that would have happened otherwise. Why? Because we are told that ultimately what matters far more are the disasters of modernization, late capitalism, and environmental collapse destructive of everything in their path.

Even where the latter is true, that truth must be pushed further to incorporate the importance of disasters-averted-now. Disaster averted matters to herders precisely because herders actively dread specific disasters, whatever the root causes.

The implications for pastoralist development end up being major—not least when it comes to “pastoralist elites”—but let’s start closer to the beginning.


–A young researcher had just written up a case study of traditional irrigation in one of the districts that fell under the Government of Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) Programme. (We’re in the early 1980s.) I remember reading the report and getting excited. Here was detailed information about really-existing irrigation practices and constraints sufficient to pinpoint opportunities for improvement. That was, until I turned the page to the conclusions: What was really needed was a country-wide land reform.

Huh? Where did that come from? Not from the details and findings in the report!

This was my introduction to solutions in search of “problems” they would “solve.” Only later did I appreciate the default strategy for those who ridicule any such solutionism: Appeals to wider sociopolitical phenomena and structural processes have also been in search of fresh field examples to recast as broad problems unamenable to “solution.”

–Reference to the pernicious, when not totalizing effects of marketization, privatization, commodification, financialization, globalization, and like (e.g., monetization, mechanization, marginalization. . .) appear from beginning to end in development publications, and never more so—it seems to me—than in paragraphs that detail case-specific complexities one would have thought worked against generalizing processes across cases.

Of course, inequality, marketization, commodification, precarity and other inter-related processes matter. The same for modernization, late capitalism and global environmental destruction. BUT they matter when detailed and differentiated in terms of “with respect to.”

Just what is marketization with respect to in your case at hand? Smallstock? Mechanized deliveries? Alpine grazing? Is it in terms of migrant herders here rather than there, or with respect to other types of livestock or environmental conditions? For that matter, how do the broader processes summarized as “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

“What kind of land reform for whom and under what conditions at your research site?,” I should have asked.

–If I remember correctly, the research also claimed that that traditional irrigators were risk averse, thus requiring a land reform that would change their having to be so. I’d like to believe it’s more common now to accept that many complaints about the risk averse herder (or farmer) are underspecified narratives.

Yes, that specific farmer at this specific site could be risk averse under these conditions rather than those. (Details, please!) Without specifics in their with-respect-to scenarios, the underspecification reduces to thinking more in stereotypes. I view appeals to the aforementioned socio-structural phenomena and processes as reduced-form narratives in the same underspecified way, i.e., as explanations, they don’t go far enough when absent differentiated with-respect-to scenarios.

–This leads to the primary point: Claiming over-arching explanations are in fact empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the case-specific diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management.

Appeals to processes or state conditions generalized as “marketization,” “commodification,” “precarity” and the like run the risk of diminishing the centrality of disasters averted through diverse actions of diverse herders. This diminishment leaves us assuming that marketization, commodification, precarity. . .are the chronic crises of real time for herder or farmer. They, we are to assume, take up most of the time that really matters to pastoralists.

But the latter is the case only if the with-respect-to scenarios show how these broad processes are chronic and how they preoccupy real time because herders have failed to avert dreaded events altogether.

–Let me give an example. Andrew Barry, British sociologist, reports in his article, “What is an environmental problem?,” a research finding from his work in Georgia:

A community liaison officer, working for an oil company, introduced me to a villager who had managed to stop the movement of pipeline construction vehicles near her mountain village in the lesser Caucasus. The construction of the pipeline, she told us in conversation, would prevent her moving livestock between two areas of pastureland. Her protest, which was the first she had ever been involved in, was not recorded in any official or public documents.

Barry found this to be a surprising research event (his terms) and went on to explain at length (internal citations deleted) that

my conversation with the villager pointed to the importance of a localized problem, the impact of the pipeline on her livelihood and that of other villagers, and her consequent direct action, none of which is recorded or made public. This was one of many small, fragmentary indicators that alerted me to the prevalence and significance of direct action by villagers across Georgia in the period of pipeline construction, actions that were generally not accorded significance in published documents, and that were certainly not traceable on the internet. . .At the same time, the mediation of the Georgian company liaison officer who introduced me to the villager was one indicator of the complexity of the relations between the local population, the oil company, and the company’s subcontractors. . .

I believe the phrases, “managed to stop,” “would prevent her moving livestock,” “a localized problem,” “consequent direct action,” “generally not accorded significance,” and “the complexity of the relations” are the core of my argument here.

Should it need saying, some scenarios do specify how such phrases result from an ongoing interaction and dialectic between the wider processes and local particularities. But, again, I’d hope you’d want to see details behind any such assertion.


–So what?

How does the argued importance of disasters-averted compel rethinking pastoralist development? I have space for one major implication: a priority to recast “the growth of pastoralist elites.”

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya, which, I confess, made me smile. When I was there in the early 1980s, they were neither elderly nor elites all. I’m also pretty sure had I interviewed some of them at that time I’d have considered them “poor pastoralists.”

So my question: What happens when some of the poor pastoralists of then are better off now? Is there a point at which better-off pastoralists are no longer poor enough for the researcher’s concern?

To rephrase more formally: “Under what conditions do pastoralists, initially poor but today better off, become elites in the negative sense familiar to criticism of elites?” This is important because an over-arching development aim of the first-generation ASAL programs was to assist then-poor pastoralists to become better-off.

My answer now to the preceding questions would focus on the disasters averted over time by the now-elites compared to those who remained poor throughout the same period. It seems to me essential to establish if equally (resource-) poor pastoralists nonetheless differentiated themselves over time in terms of how they averted disasters that would have befell them had they not managed or coped the ways they did. Practices underlying their intentions, choices and actions are what interest me.

Now, of course, some of the poor pastoralists I met in the early 1980s may have been more advantaged than I realized. Of course, I could have been incorrect in identifying them as “poor pastoralists.” Even so, my focus on disasters-averted holds for those who were not advantaged then but are so now.

–Which leads me full circle back to that research report: Since when are researchers to decide that time stops sufficiently in a study period to certify who among herders (or farmers) are advantaged going forward, let alone what are the metrics for determining such? When did the development narrative become “poor herders and farmers must advance at the same rate or even faster than advantaged ones?”


Postscript. I may have left the impression of singling out those who revert to wider forces as the key explanatory variables. A different entry would focus on other underspecified narratives. There are those, by way of example, who continue to assert that pastoralists by and large have special knowledge and skills in sustainable management of the arid and semi-arid lands. While certainly true in some cases, pastoralist households are too differentiated—fortunately!—to be the dryland’s elite overseer, full stop.

Principal sources

Barry, A. (2020). What is an environmental problem? In the special issue, “Problematizing the Problematic,” Theory, Culture & Society: 1 – 25.

Roe, E. (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure. STEPS Working Paper 113, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Related Blog Entries: “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” and “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications.”

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