Pastoralisms as a global infrastructure

If you think stabilization and expansion of herder outputs and outcomes, in particular household livelihoods, are key to pastoralism, then there are varieties of pastoralism. This is because efforts to achieve stable and expanding livelihoods vary with the critical infrastructures upon which they depend for their livestock.

Some pastoralisms depend on roads for herd transport. Others rely on helicopters from time to time. Veterinary health infrastructures have also been variably important and today many pastoralisms depend upon and configure around diverse market infrastructures. Migration infrastructure for those leaving their herder households and remittance infrastructures for those migrants to send income back to those households are also patently evident.

I could go on itemizing the organizing infrastructures, e.g., type and distribution of water points, but the gist remains: If you start with the proposition that there is more than one type of really-existing pastoralism, the critical infrastructures do not just empirically affect these pastoralisms, they are fundamentally defined through their different reliances on them.

–Fair enough and important enough. I’ve tried, however, to make the case the variety of pastoralisms themselves should be seen a global infrastructure:

pastoralist systems are, in respects that matter, infrastructural; and since pastoralists and their systems are found worldwide, so too is pastoralism a global infrastructure, and importantly so. . .Pastoralist systems tender the world a key critical service (and have been doing so for a very long time): they, like other globalised/globalising infrastructures, seek to increase process variance in the face of high input variance to achieve low and stable output variance. More, they do so by managing non-measurable uncertainties well beyond the capabilities of formal risk methodologies and in the face of increasing and diversified input variabilities while still facing demands for sustained livelihoods. In this counternarrative, that key service is best understood as foundational to the world economy in times of great uncertainty and complexity.

I need to unpack that paragraph before drawing out what I take to be a new implication for pastoralisms-as-infrastructure.

Start with a common definition of critical infrastructures: Large sociotechnical systems deemed essential for the provision of vital societal services, which conventionally include, but are not limited to, large-scale systems for water, electricity, and transportation.

Pastoralist systems also share, I argue in my paper, a number of specific features that characterize large-scale critical infrastructures–not least of which is the role, practices and processes of real-time operators in managing for system-wide reliability and safety. Reliability professionals are also to be found—centrally so, I argue—in pastoralist systems. As pastoralist systems are found across the world, it is appropriate to view pastoralisms in aggregate as a global infrastructure with its own reliability professionals.

To put the point formally: As with other major globalized or globalizing infrastructures, pastoralist systems seek to increase process variance—think, real-time management strategies and options—in the face of high but unpredictable or uncontrollable input variance so as to achieve low and stable output variance. Task demands are to be matched, at least in real time, by resource capabilities, which if the match occurs is called requisite variety.

–What follows now is a new twist and implication of that argument.

I’ve been reluctant to lay out the following point, because it can be misinterpreted as agreeing with those who see pastoralism writ large as in CRISIS–under attack and disappearing. Of course, such must be happening in some places, if only by the law of large numbers (there being so many pastoralists globally and in so many different places). But I do not see how any declension (fall-and-stall) narrative seizes center-place, as the starting point, in a varieties of pastoralism perspective.

–To see why, think of an infrastructure’s operations across an entire cycle: normal operations (fluctuations within formal or informal bandwidths), disrupted operations (during temporary loss of system services), failed operations (during indefinite loss of service along with destruction of assets), and recovery operations to a new normal. Just as disrupted operations entail timely but not always successful restoration efforts back to normal operations, failed operations entail immediate emergency responses directed to longer-term system recovery (no guarantees here as well).

It’s that “immediate emergency response” that follow from and emerge under conditions of systemwide failure that I want to focus on. I do so because the pastoralist literature with which I am familiar describes systems that have failed or are failing. As far as I am able to tell, herder responses described in this literature might as well not take place given the catastrophic forces of globalization, marketization and worse driving said failures.

The literature on emergency response in other critical infrastructures would in no way stop with that conclusion. The hitherto unimagined disaster is always followed by notable sets of disaster responses, whatever their subsequent efficacy for longer-term system recovery. This observation has to matter to the extent pastoralisms are to be considered an infrastructure in its own right.

–Let’s say then the drylands, steppes or mountain sides undergo a catastrophe, sudden or slowly. Whatever, the area might as well now be all hardscrabble on top and nothing left but hard pan below. Remittances and aid are fast disappearing. There’s no chance of going back to the way it was before.

My point is that to stop an infrastructure’s cycle of operations at system failure is to stop too early and end in exaggeration. When it comes to a large-scale infrastructure, you have to go from failure onto to describe follow-on emergency response, which by the way often include first steps for recovery (e.g., damage assessments and solicitation of longer-term aid). Emergency response is a really-existing phase of operations that requires analysis precisely because the infrastructure has not stopped in its tracks.

(In case it needs saying, there are many fine-grained analyses of pastoralist systems under stress and duress, but rarely–I stand to be corrected–within the frame of an infrastructure’s cycle of operations.)

To return to formal terms, large-scale disasters pose dynamic task demands that are responded to by resource capabilities and the interconnections between these demands and these capabilities are directed to producing the same kind of requisite variety (process variance) sutured together by the reliability professionals during normal and disrupted operations. In this way, an infrastructure emergency is defined as one where the nature and mix of its process variance is the end to be achieve as output stabilization in normal and disrupted operations is no longer viable, now or in the next steps ahead.

–Again: No guarantees of requisite variety, let alone reliable livelihoods in any of this! But here’s why a granular analysis of emergency response matters from within the perspective of the entire cycle of infrastructure operations.

Return to the literatures on infrastructures key to organizing the varieties of pastoralism: the migration infrastructure, the veterinary health infrastructure, the road transport infrastructure, the water points infrastructure, the livestock market and communications infrastructures, the urban arrival (employment) infrastructures for migrants (e.g., the gig economy), and–well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?

But from the perspective of pastoralisms-as-infrastructure, the preceding are part and parcel of the process variance (the requisite variety) of those varieties of pastoralism. Segments of these specific infrastructures are activated or relied upon at different points in the whole cycle of pastoralist operations. Among other things, this means that the primary focus in some infrastructure studies on the distributional impact of sociotechnical infrastructures in need of “constant maintenance and repair” may be missing a very important point.

The important fact is not that these constituent infrastructures are a priori failing or threatening to fail. Rather, the important fact is the real-time but variable role of infrastructure elements in the process variance that drives not only normal and disrupted operations in pastoralisms, but also their failure-induced emergency responses (note the plural).

Examples? While no expert, I have in mind the study by Konaka (2021) of what followed armed inter-ethnic conflict among the Samburu and Pokot: namely, establishment of a mobile phone network to help reduce follow-on skirmishes. I also have in mind post-conflict responses in Krätli and Toulmin’s study of farmer-herder conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa (2020, Box 7, p. 78). Not least, I have in mind the literature review and research interviews of D’Angelo (2021; see also Schapendock 2021) on the fraught journeys of migrants to and across the Mediterranean:

An analysis of the experiences of migrants and asylum seekers through each stage of their journeys, including the weeks and months following their arrival in Europe, is however much less developed and tends to focus either on the macro-level (global trends and regional trajectories) or on the very micro-level of highly personal descriptive accounts. Specifically, the current mainstream narrative is one that looks at these people as passive components of large-scale flows, driven by conflicts, migration policies and human smuggling. Even when the personal dimension is brought to the fore, it tends to be in order to depict migrants as victims at the receiving end of external forces. Whilst there is no denying that most of those crossing the Mediterranean experience violence, exploitation and are often deprived of their freedom for considerable periods of time. . . it is also important to recognize and analyse their agency as individuals, as well as the complex sets of local and transnational networks that they own, develop and use before, during and after travelling to Europe.

Yes, to be sure critical infrastructures that define the varieties of pastoralisms are under threat and in some cases the physical systems are fragile or already gone. But pastoralisms-as-infrastructure don’t wither away unless their process variance withers.

Migration from already diverse herder environments (dryland, montane, . . .) occurs in various ways; water is provided by different means; cattle are transported along different routes; markets open and close for different types of livestock, not only here but there and then elsewhere; and so on. This is not meant to be optimism or the permanent promise of adaptive equifinality. It is meant, however, to be realistic and help us better understand why pastoralisms-as-infrastructure may be no more withering away than the oh-so-foreseen withering of the state.

Principal sources

Collins, F.L. (2021). “Geographies of migration I: Platform migration.” Progress in Human Geography 45(4): 866–877.

D’Angelo, A. (2021). “The networked refugee: The role of transnational networks in the journeys across the Mediterranean.” Global Networks 1–13.

Doorn, van N. and D. Vijay (2021). “Gig work as migrant work: The platformization of migration infrastructure.” EPA: Economy and Space: 1-21.

Konaka, S. (2021). “Reconsidering the Resilience of Pastoralism from the Perspective of Reliability: The Case of Conflicts between the Samburu and the Pokot of Kenya, 2004-2009.” Nomadic Peoples, 25(2): 253-277.

Krätli, S. and C. Toulmin (2020). Farmer-Herder Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa? IIED, London.

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

Schapendonk, J. (2021). “Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe.” International Migration: 1 – 14  DOI:10.1111/imig.12923

Xiang, B. and J. Lindquist (2014). “Migration infrastructure.” International Migration Review 48(1): S122–S148.

See also the earlier blog, “An ecosystem at the intersection of two schools of infrastructure studies.”

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