Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development (updated)

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

My argument is that if disasters averted by pastoralists (and farmers, for that matter) were more identified and differentiated, we’d better understand how 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 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. Instead, we are repeatedly told that what matters 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 practices 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 being excited. Here was detailed information about really-existing irrigation 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!

–Reference to the pernicious, when not totalizing effects of marketization, privatization, commodification, financialization, globalization, and like (e.g., monetization, mechanization, marginalization. . .racism, colonialism, militarism, imperialism. . .) 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 such processes matter. The same for modernization, late capitalism and global environmental destruction.

BUT they matter when detailed and differentiated in terms of their being “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? Where so, the under-acknowledged methodological issue moves center-stage: How do the broader processes summarized as “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

Or back to where I was that day: “What kind of land reform for whom and under what conditions at your research site?,” I should have asked.

***

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

Why? Because 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.

–Here’s an example of what I am trying to get at. 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.

***

–But, so what?

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya. I confess, this 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?

More formally as above: “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 would focus on the disasters averted over time by the now-elites compared to those who remained poor in 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 (and others with them) 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.

Principal source

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

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