Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read)

As others, I’ve more to say about a topic than I put into published articles. The topic here is herders of livestock primarily in the African rangelands. My interest started with dryland projects in Botswana and Kenya during the early 1970s and 1980s. More recently, interchanges with and the work of Ian Scoones, Saverio Krätli and Michele Nori reignited that interest (references at the end).

Below are four sets of different points on herders and their systems of production (some material has been revised from earlier blogs.) It’s an all-sorts and seems exotic at first, but the more you read, the more you’ll see the points are apposite to other, more familiar issues.

1.     Resilience isn’t what you think

The opposite of the coping herder, who can only react to external shocks, is the resilient herder, who bounces back. But is that true? Both occur at the individual level, and the opposite of the individual is the collective (think: “team situational awareness”), not a different individual with different behavior.

We observed reliability professionals in critical infrastructures undertaking four types of resilience at their system level, each varying by stage of system operations:

Table 1. Different Types of System Resilience

  • Reliability professionals adjusting back to within de jure or de facto bandwidths to continue normal operations (precursor resilience);
  • Restoration from disrupted operations (temporary loss of service) back to normal operations by reliability professionals (restoration resilience);
  • Immediate emergency response (its own kind of resilience) after system failure but often involving others different from system’s reliability professionals; and
  • Recovery of the system to a new normal by reliability professionals along with others (recovery resilience)

Resilience this way is a set of options, processes and strategies undertaken by the system’s real-time managers and tied to the state of system operations in which they find themselves. Resilience differs depending on whether the large sociotechnical system is in normal operations versus disrupted operations versus failed operations versus recovered operations. (Think of pastoralist systems here as critical infrastructure.)

Resilience, as such, is not a single property of the system to be turned on or off as and when needed. Nor is it, as a system feature, reducible to anything like individual “resilient” herders, though such herders exist.

Why does this matter? What you take to be the loss of the herd, a failure in pastoralist operations that you say comes inevitably with drought, may actually be perceived and treated by pastoralists themselves as a temporary disruption after which operations are to be restored. While you, the outsider, can say their “temporary” really isn’t temporary these days, it is their definition of “temporary” that matters when it comes to their real-time reliability.

To return to Table 1, herder systems that maintain normal operations are apt to demonstrate what we call precursor resilience. Normal doesn’t mean what happens when there are no shocks to the system. Shocks happen all the time, and normal operations are all about responding to them in such a way as to ensure they don’t lead to temporary system disruption or outright system failure. Formally, the precursors of disruption and failure are managed for, and reliably so. Shifting from one watering point, when an interfering problem arises there, to another just as good or within a range of good-enough is one such strategy. Labelling this, “coping,” seriously misrepresents the active system management going on.

Pastoralist systems can and do experience temporary stoppages in their service provision—raiders seize livestock, remittances don’t arrive, offtake of livestock products is interrupted, lightning triggers a veldt fire—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to alternative feed stocks or sources of livelihood may be required in the absence of grazing and watering fallbacks normally available.

So too resilience as a response to shocks looks very different by way of management strategies when the shocks lead to system failure and recovery from that failure. In these circumstances, an array of outside, inter-organizational resources and personnel—public, private, NGO, humanitarian—are required in addition to the resources of the pastoralist herders. These recovery arrangements and resources are unlike anything marshaled by way of precursor or restoration resiliencies within the herder communities themselves.

There is nothing predetermined in the Table 1 sequence. Nothing says it is inevitable that the failed system recovers to a new normal (indeed the probability of system failure in recovery can be higher than in normal operations). It is crucial, nevertheless, to distinguish recovery from any new normal. To outsiders, it may look like some of today’s pastoralist systems are in unending recovery, constantly trying to catch up with one drought or disaster after another. The reality may be that the system is already at a new normal, operating with a very different combination of options, strategies and resources than before.

If you think of resilience in a pastoralist system as “the system’s capability in the face of its high reliability mandates to withstand the downsides of uncertainty and complexity as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time,” then they are able to do so because of being capable to undertake the different types of resiliencies listed here, contingent on the stage of operations herders as a collectivity find themselves.

Or to put the key point from the other direction, a system demonstrating precursor resilience, restoration resilience, emergency response coordination and recovery resilience is the kind of system better able to withstand the downsides of shocks and uncertainty and exploit their upsides. Here too, nothing predetermines that every pastoralist system will exhibit all four resiliencies, if and when their states of operation change.

To summarize, any notion that resilience is a single property or has a dominant definition or is there/not there or is best exemplified at the individual level is incorrect and misleading when the system is the unit and level of analysis in pastoralism.

2.     Disaster-averted is central to pastoralist development

My argument is that if crises averted by pastoralists were identified and more differentiated, we’d better understand how far short of a full 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 infrastructure 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 infrastructure 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,” as seen in a moment.


Of course, inequality, marketization, commodification, precarity and other related processes matter for pastoralists and others. The same for modernization, late capitalism and global environmental destruction. But they matter when differentiated and better specified in terms of their “with respect to.” As one socialist critic said of a Marxist critic, the latter was “not even specific enough to be wrong”.

Just what is marketization with respect to in your case? Smallstock? Mechanized transportation? Alpine grazing? Is it in terms of migrant herders here rather than there, or with respect to other types of livestock or grazing conditions? How do the broader processes collapsed under “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

Claiming over-arching explanations are in fact empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management that are modified case by case. Most important, appeals to generalized processes or state conditions diminishes 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 demonstrate how these broad processes preoccupy real time because herders have failed to avert dreaded events altogether.


Let me give an example. Andrew Barry, British sociologist, reports a finding in his article, “What is an environmental problem?,” from his research 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 to understanding that disasters-averted remain very real, even if not identified, let alone publicized, by outsiders preoccupied with what hasn’t been averted.

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


So what? How does the argued importance of disasters-averted compel rethinking pastoralist development? One example will have to suffice: the need to recast “pastoralist elites.”

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya. 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.”

My question then: Under what conditions do pastoralists, initially poor but today better off, become elites in the negative sense familiar to the critics of elites? The answer is important because an over-arching development aim of the 1980s arid and semi-arid lands programs in Kenya was to assist then-poor pastoralists to become better-off.

My own answer to the preceding question would now focus on the disasters averted over time by pastoralists, both those who are today’s elites and those who aren’t. 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 the ways they did.

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 to the question which should be obvious to any reader by this point: Since when are researchers to decide that time stops sufficiently in a study period to certify who among herders 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?”

3.     Let’s cull sustainability

You may think I’m singling out for special criticism those who rely on wider forces as the key explanatory variables of case-by-case complexities. To be clear, there are others to criticize. There are, for example, those who continue to assert that pastoralists 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.

I suggest it’s useful to rethink issues of sustainability, when it comes to pastoralists and pastoralism.


Start with the familiar development narrative about sustainability, roughly as follows:

Sustainable land uses—e.g., hunting and gathering or, later, traditional pastoralist systems of mobile (“nomadic”) herders and livestock —have been more beneficial to the environment than are today’s large sociotechnical systems, which have exploited and degraded that environment. Dams and hydropower have caused irreversible damage and have long displaced the earlier, more sustainable uses. Pastoralist herding systems, for their part, continue to be edged out by encroachments that are themselves unsustainable. The effects on and damage to dryland ecology have been acute and pernicious.

What to do? Minimally, we have to institute and abide by sustainability principles, criteria and indicators. We must ensure indicators are in place to tell us how fast we are moving away from or back towards sustainability. . .

How to respond to this narrative, especially for those of us (myself included) who find the argument irons out all the important complexities and arrives at a wrong-headed conclusion? Even were the narrative true as far as it goes, it needs to go much further.

One way of revealing complexities that matter is to parse the argument through those other narratives about “sustainability” that already exist. Let me illustrate one example.


Those who follow the sustainability literature have also come across such statements as:

. . .So, while sustainability has been shown to be a key existential issue of our age, less acknowledged has been the fact that many sustainability indicators currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. . .

Undertake a thought experiment. Stop reading where the ellipses begin. Ask yourself, what is the author likely to say by way of finishing the thought? I suspect a good number of sustainability advocates would conclude that phrase, “currently mis-specify the system to be sustained” with some variant of “. . .which today is global if not planetary.”

I would end the sentence differently. The word, “indicators,” immediate trigger for me the need to specify the “with respect to what” for each indicator. Let me cut to the quick by filling in the last set of ellipses my own way, this time by referencing the earlier narratives on resilience:

. . sustainability indicators currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. This mis-specification occurs along many avenues. Most important, indicators must always have bandwidths when it comes to high reliability performance at the system level.

By bandwidths, the reliability literature means upper and lower ranges of, or limits on, actual group behavior, the breaching of which triggers adjustment responses among the group. In this way, normal operations at the system level are not static but fluctuate within tolerance levels.

Or, if you prefer, resilience without bandwidths isn’t resilience, and that resilience—fluctuations within bandwidths and adjustments back when breaching bandwidths—is the starting point for working out sustainability under mandates of high reliability. Most crucially, “adaptive capacity” or “flexibility,” to the extent they are unbounded or left unconstrained, do not capture this key bandwidth feature of resilience. . .

This isn’t the place to argue the merits of any such alternative reading, The bigger point is we’re relying instead on already-existing sustainability narratives, though more specific than others when it comes to resilience, to hone into what matters by way of complexity—in this case, better thinking through the complexities of group behavior under conditions of high uncertainty across multiple scales.


How do I know I’ve identified the “right” sustainability narrative from the many out there with which to parse the dominant narrative?

But that is the wrong question. There is no right choice; there are only more or less useful ones, and what’s useful depends on your being clearer about “with respect to.” By way of example, it’s more useful for me with respect to my policy and management perspective, if at a practical level, I ask: Just what are the bandwidths associated with, say, place and time in the herding itinerary?

I’m thinking here of the very useful insight of Saverio Krätli that pastoralism is a “livestock- based livelihood/production system specialised in taking advantage of variability and centered on managing grazing itineraries at a variety of scale”. Does that scale, presumably both spatial and temporal, imply bandwidths of a particular kind?

More, if such bandwidths do exist, they are not set by the control-imaginaries of rangeland ecologists, water point engineers or livestock veterinarians, but in practice by those following such itineraries—where “practice” here is more methodologically consonant with, say, pastoralist participatory exercises than with credentialed experts isolating their grid maps and log frames.

4.     Briefer points stick better with some readers

The remittance-sending household member is no more at the geographical periphery of a network whose center is an African rangeland than was Prince von Metternich in the center of Europe, when the Austrian diplomat reportedly said, “Asia begins at the Landstraße” (the district outskirts of Vienna closest to the Balkans).

You can stipulate Asia begins here and Africa ends there, but good luck in making that stick for policies!

(This notion that locational borders change with-respect-to the unit of analysis would be banal, were it not for this: Both household migrants in Europe and household members in African drylands lack occupancy rights to where they live and work. No shared right of place for these people!)


Like the poverty premium, where poor people have to pay more for key services (insurance, credit, energy, shelter), people who try to fully control their uncertain task environments pay a “control premium”: Control strategies cost them more than would be the case were they able to cope ahead or manage the uncertainty better. Single-minded taskmasters are all the poorer for being control freaks (“less insured and creditworthy”).

Their control-seeking is affliction for others. When the control excesses make the lives of others difficult or worse, this doesn’t come in the form of an externality to be corrected by taxing them or having the rest of us bribe them to become better uncertainty managers. Their controlling behavior shifts the costs onto us. They might as well be demanding money with menaces from us. (More about the importance of cost-shifting below).


I want to suggest that applicability of pastoralist strategies/perspectives/approaches to richer-country settings has expanded because the goalposts for poverty—not inequality—have changed and are changing.

Here’s an extended quote from a recent article on North/South inequality by sociologist, Göran Therborn. His argument about the changing levels of poverty in the midst of inequalities is a way we might want to better think about what pastoralisms bring to (other) modern societies:

The problem [the decline of extreme poverty in the South is leading to inequality increases comparable to those of the North] is that poverty, unlike survival, is always relative, and after leaving one level of poverty, you may enter another one. In a world of growing intra-national inequality, this is most likely to happen to a large proportion of the population. The progress of living conditions which has taken place in recent decades is socially very important. However, it does not make up a historical turning-point, like the increase of inequality in the Global North and the decline of international and global household inequality. ‘Poverty’ has not been abolished in the USA or anywhere in Europe, nor is relative poverty being abolished in China. Living conditions in China have improved tremendously in the past decades, but the human goalposts are moving with socio-economic development. . . .

More formally, the relatively-poor in both poorer and in richer nations remain, but they are becoming “closer-alike” in their respective precarities. This is happening—again, it’s a hypothesis—even as inequality within countries (intra-national) persists or is increasing.

I’m suggesting that some—not all or only—pastoralists may be better able than before to have something to say to others—some but not all—who have never been as precarious as now—whatever the absolute differences between the two groups in terms of surviving their respect inequalities.


An article in The Guardian tells us, “The heart of the problem is the need to persuade herders to give up treating land and water as a free resource”. This statement is so flawed it’s not even wrong.

More or less wrong arguments are decidable within contexts of agreed-upon processes of validation and falsification. In contrast, “the heart of the problem is the need to persuade herders to give up treating land and water as a free resource” couldn’t possibly specify—in the granularity required for falsifying or validating—just what “treating as free resources” means, either as a statement or as four words. There is no respect-to-what.


Do you see the disturbing parallel between, on one hand, those who want to save Planet Earth from further harm and pain by means of seductively straightforward “treatments” like getting rid of fossil fuel or methane-producing cattle and, on the other hand, Purdue Pharma’s promotion of OxyContin as treatment for chronic pain that masked the lethal addiction with believing in this kind of “straightforward” medicine?


Think of capitalism as the shifting of costs of production and consumption from those who created the costs to those who didn’t. I’m not saying that cost-shifting can’t be found in other ways of life nor that modern capitalism isn’t other things as well. Cost-shifting, however, is central when I talk about pastoralists.

Start with the cost-shifting we know. Costs are shifted from the public sector to private or individual sources; profits made in high-tax jurisdictions are shifted to lower-tax ones; other taxes are avoided or evaded, thereby shifting government budgets; and “unintended” externalities are treated as correctible (by taxes, regulation, or “risk-shifting”) rather than as the huge costs shifted onto others of entrenched market activities, which are anything but unintended or unexceptional.

Cost-shifting means economic agents gain by imposing losses on others, and they gain more, the more the costs are shifted. “My principles, sir, in these things are to take as much as I can get and to pay no more than I can help…There, sir, is political economy in a nutshell,” says a character in Thomas Love Peacock’s 1831 Crotchet Castle.

The upshot for pastoralists: If you want to say that pastoralists, like most everyone else, are imbricated in cost-shifting capitalism, I agree. What needs to be added, and importantly so, is that pastoralist cost-shifting differs from that of others just described—and the differences matter.

Case-in-point: Much has been made of the declining share of labor relative to capital in the incomes of advanced economies over the last decades. More, wages and productivity have become increasingly decoupled, i.e., a good deal of productivity’s contribution has shifted to capital’s share. These changes are often attributed to labor-substituting (“labor-saving”) technologies via the spread of neoliberal globalization.

Pastoralist systems are of course part of that globalization, but have the technologies been more labor-augmenting (“labor-intensive”), at least in some systems? All the lorries ferrying livestock and supplies, all the cellphones used in real time (not just for price-and-market monitoring but for mediating inter-group conflicts as well)—have they advanced labor’s share relative to capital in pastoralist incomes, broadly writ? Yes, the costs of production are shifting through these innovations, but to the disadvantage of labor?

For me, these and like questions deserve asking when capitalism takes center-stage in discussions of its multiple effects on pastoralist behavior.


Really-existing practices and processes of pastoralist households are known to be empirically more differentiated, so much so that the currently popular common property resource (CPR) management narrative no longer captures (if it ever really did) even the gist of what is going on in pastoralism(s).

What does this mean for the wider diffusion of pastoralist practices further on? Here’s one answer:

  • We might resist the temptation to think a key task ahead is to articulate policy and management narratives reflected in, whether intentionally or not, contemporary pastoralist behaviors, as if that could replace/displace narratives for the tragedy of the commons (ToC) and CPR management for better pastoralist development. What’s actually going on by way of those behaviors and their diffusion is too messy and thus too informative to be synthesized into a reduced form narrative or model.
  • The better task is to identify those handful of mechanisms that enable the diversity of pastoralist narratives on the ground. I suggested one candidate in my STEPS paper (transforming high input variance into low and stable output variance via high process variance); others are to be encouraged, e.g., the five principles/sets of practices in Michele Nori’s work (adaptive herd management, patchworks of territories and livelihoods, moving around, and social networks). The more, the better, frankly.

Why? Because the bolder task ahead, I would like to think, isn’t only to come up with transferable or modifiable practices from pastoralist site A to non-pastoralist site B. It is to identify how mechanisms in common lead to progressive policy and management implications for both A and B.

If so, the question is not, “What replaces current dominant narratives for the purposes of better pastoralist development?,” but: “How do we catch up with and keep abreast of what pastoralists are actually doing? Here I’m underscoring the need for multi-site, comparative research on pastoralist practices, management and behavior.

More, let’s be clear about high stakes in not undertaking such research. We’re then facing the same epistemic opacity criticized today about big-data algorithms and automated decision-making (ADM). Our not-knowing what pastoralists are doing better by way of managing under uncertainty—practices and mechanisms—is the mirror reflection of our trying to manage uncertainty by not-knowing the algorithms and ADM we rely on.


One last point for the time being. In my view, the chief difficulty pastoralist development faces aren’t just current reduced-form development narratives. I have in mind here:

  • standard-issue, larval CPR models as in The Dasgupta Biodiversity Review; and the herder dismissed as primitive accumulator in the just-so stories of bureaucrats and politicians intent on control-freakery; and the compulsively chronocentric chop-logics of techno-optimism in the face of coming anarchies; and
  • those long-trough narratives of depastoralizing, deskilling, disorganizing and dewebbing the pastoralist life-world (leaving behind corpse-pastoralism, mummified by inequality, buried at sea in liquid modernity, dissolved by the quicklime of disaster capitalism and speculative finance, harboring worse to come); and
  • the hangover notion that policy and procedure are at every turn subordinate to state power, that politicians and officials are nothing more than the state’s secretariat to capitalists, that capitalism has entirely colonized every nook and cranny of the life-worlds, and that we must surrender our minds entirely to politics, such as it is.

Nor is the chief problem all those misleading evaluative criteria, such as successful pastoralists are by definition those that resist outside forces of change.[1]

All that would be bad enough, were it not for those cases where the opposite of good is good intentions. I have in mind those who regret the passing of pastoralism as if it were a singular institution with its own telos, agency and life-world. It wasn’t and it isn’t, as pastoralisms are plural.

[1] As with freshwater biologists who consider Lethenteron appendix (the American brook lamprey) and Triops cancriformis (a type of tadpole shrimp) to be evolutionary success stories because the organisms haven’t evolved. They’re living fossils! In such a view, the best pastoralists are like feisty little tardigrades, those near-microscopic (read, marginal) organisms that survive in the most hostile environments on the planet.

Principal sources

–The Göran Therborn quote is at:

–The Guardian quote is at:

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

Krätli, S. (2015) Valuing Variability: New Perspectives on Climate Resilient Drylands Development, London:IIED

—— (2019) Pastoral Development Orientation Framework—Focus on Ethiopia, MISEREOR/IHR Hilfwerk, Aachen: Bischöfliches Hilfswerk MISEREOR e. V.

Nori, M. (2019) Herding Through Uncertainties – Principles and Practices. Exploring the interfaces of pastoralists and uncertainty. Results from a literature review, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2019/69, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

—— (2019) Herding Through Uncertainties – Regional Perspectives. Exploring the interfaces of pastoralists and uncertainty. Results from a literature review, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2019/68, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

—— (2021) The evolving interface between pastoralism and uncertainty: reflecting on cases from three continents, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2021/16, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

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 (available online at

Scoones, I. (2019) What is Uncertainty and Why Does it Matter? STEPS Working Paper 105, Brighton: STEPS Centre.


Related reading: Blog entries for “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform Pastoralism’ (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s