Curating publics rather than facilitating development is a better answer to “So what?”


–You’ve done all these studies and research on herders. You’ve got all this information to better inform government policy and management. But no one is listening. No one who needs to act on the findings is doing so. Government is still operating under the wrong assumptions.

So what do you do now, regardless of who is or is not listening?

–Here’s one answer for right now: Find ways to recast current policy and management problems so that both pastoralists and government see them differently–and more usefully at least for when they take decisions now.

How long these new formulations, if any, stick can’t be guaranteed. But the “So what?” question is all about what sticks better that current development narratives and counternarratives that don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

–To do so, I’m propose expanding a key concept in development practice.

Currently, we talk about the need to facilitate group discussions for better identifying ways ahead. Here I want to suggest something more is also needed.

We should think of curating development issues so as to create new publics for them. If you will, we want works collected in ways that stick in our minds and those of wider publics as well.

–What makes modern curatorial practice such a useful analogy is that even the most radical exhibitions with the progressive politics have to finds ways to productively work within the conventional “white cube” constraints of rooms, floors and walls upon which to hang rectangles or display against.

By extension, the most radical development recastings have to be in productive tension with current ways of seeing things, if only as a prior step to transformative change subsequently. We curate in order to demonstrate that “development work” needn’t be just the plain stuff of convention.

What follow are six (6) examples of rethinking current pastoralist development in terms of the curating analogy. They are meant to be illustrative of what is possible and suggestive of directions you might want to pursue, whatever side of pastoralist development you find yourselves on. I sum up in a Conclusion at the end.

  1. The core refocus: frustration

How is it that we outsiders—researchers, NGOs, government officials—can be certain about pastoralist aspirations and needs? One answer is that pastoralists tell us what’s what.

Another answer is when pastoralists do no such thing. Even if they say, “This is what we want and need,” there are important occasions where they are no are more omniscient about their needs and wants than are the researchers, NGO personnel and government officials, or for that matter the rest of us.

The problem is that needs and wants fit too easily in walled-in spaces of deprivation and gratification. In this viewing, pastoralist needs and wants are deprivations that continue and only change when gratified. Each term implies a future, and both terms imply something can be predicted. Policy types and NGOs, I think, are more apt than not to treat needs and wants as a species of prediction, which better planning suitably conveys.

But what’s hanging in view doesn’t stay hanging. The reality of contingency is that the future, let alone the present, is not predictable. (Think here: the challenges of predicting everyday uncertainty even within familiar confines.) In this reality, peoples’ needs are more an experiment than something to be met, fulfilled, or gratified.

That in turn means interactions among policymakers, NGO and researchers with pastoralists are themselves to be recast as experimental, and in turn often frustrating. Projects and programs are about how the parties concerned weather the interactions.

So what?

I’m arguing that these frustrations are better appreciated when recast as the core driver of relationships between and among pastoralists, researchers, NGOs and government staff. Bluntly stated, this is how the principal sides know they are in a relationship: They pose problems for the other and when those problems are frustrating, the salience of the relationship(s) increases for more parties.

This is why we have to make such a big deal about who pastoralists are actually talking to. Who is the really-existing government official or actually-existing NGO staff person frustrating them? Who in government, if anybody, are pastoralist kith and kin talking to or want to talk to? Are they in a relationship, however, asymmetrical, or is it that these others are just a nuisance, if that? Is the researcher actually frustrated with the pastoralists s/he is studying and, if so, in what ways is that frustration keeping their relationship going?

  1. So what happens next?

How has it come to pass that pastoralist behavior, as highly diverse as it is, is thought to be best represented as dead-end coping by victims, that differentiated pastoralist landscapes are best represented as depastoralized, that differentiated livelihoods are best represented as pauperized, and that differentiated herders are best represented as unequal?

We circle around this gallery only noticing that, well, this one is for the 20th century. Here globalization, marketization and commodification have indeed set into play path dependencies for pastoralist development. We see family resemblances from work to work as we move along. In fact, the writing is all on the wall for everyone to see. But do family resemblances answer the crucial real-time question of concern to you, let alone pastoralists: What happens next?

What happens next when I take a more granular look at what is in front of me? The answers are far more open-ended and specific. Gallery after gallery of globalization, marketization, commodification and the like end up degranularizing what, for policy and management purposes, is highly detailed. Family resemblances take out the specifics that come with seeing further. In effect, the only answer to What-Happens-Next in path dependencies is: well, more path dependence.

  1. Not radical enough.

Any number of radical proposals have been made for addressing problems of the globe’s rangelands, including: the end of capitalism and extractivism, redistribution of wealth, and reparations.

In an important sense, these are not be radical enough. I have in mind the “twelve rules for radicals” of the late organizer, Saul Alinsky, two in particular being:

RULE 3: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety, and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)

RULE 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

By extension, use the rooms, walls and logic of capitalism, extractivism and financial accumulation to benefit rangelands and pastoralists, e.g.:

  1. Start with the EU’s Emission Trading System for CO2 emission credits. Imagine member/non-member states and companies are now able to enter the ETS to buy credits directed to offsetting GHG emissions in dryland localities committed to transitioning to environmentally friendly production systems and livelihoods based in or around livestock.
  2. Start with the European COVID-19 initiative, NextGenerationEU (issuance of joint debt by EU member states to fund pandemic recovery). Imagine employee support schemes under this or some such initiative, with one aim being to augment remittances of resident migrants back to dryland household members and communities.
  3. Stay with those resident migrants sending back remittances. Imagine other EU-financed schemes to improve the greening of EU localities heavily resident with migrants (e.g. subsidies to EU residents for more sustainable lives in the EU). Think of this as a form of “reversed green extractivism,” in this case on behalf of dryland households by EU member states for EU-migrant communities.

Now extend this kind of thinking to the likes of the G7 and many OECD countries. The aim, again, is to find opportunities to exploit all twelve of Alinsky’s rules for radicals. It’s what the white cube conventions of exhibition affords you.

  1. No development narrative can tell us what pastoralists do in the steps ahead. Why? Because the narrative’s failure scenarios are often not detailed enough.

–Ask yourself what it means when it’s easier to identify a dominant development narrative about pastoralism—all you have to do is read the critical literature—than it is to formulate plausible failure scenarios for a proposed pastoralist intervention?

The issue isn’t just “the devil is in the details.” It’s also about identifying and describing the interconnections between and among the details of a failure scenario in ways not possible with the less granular representations of earlier pastoralist development narratives, such as the Tragedy of the Commons, or the more recent counternarrative of Common Property Resource Management.

–To illustrate, take an obvious example: We know that the project/program cycle is typically exhibited in the form of stages from formulation through design onto approval into implementation and later evaluation/redesign (if any). We also know that a closer look is always merited at the details of each stage before moving onto the next.

Equally evident, I argue, is that once interconnections between the details across the different stages are brought to the fore, you’ve established a very effective critique of anything like a “normal project or program cycle.” There is no one way to exhibit project performance. The stages hang together differently for viewers who see different details and have different criteria for whether what works or not, what fails or not.

This is because identifying and representing latent and manifest interconnections is methodologically the best way to highlight the role of contingencies—chance, happenstance, the unexpected or the hitherto unimagined—in unmaking even the best-intended project or program from design through to redesign.

–So what?

There are any number of emergency playbooks, disaster protocols and failure response handbooks whose step-by-steps exist on the surface documeent only. But here too what’s missing in the documentation are the contingent interconnectivities represented as latent, or emerging, or having become manifest, as details and events are said to unfold in this place and duration. That said, the level of granularity found in failure scenarios is, in my experience, often not found at the level of abstraction in development narratives.

  1. Curating what’s missing: herders’ improvisation

–Go into any room in this exhibition, “Rethinking Pastoralism Today,” and you have your own curatorial function: Identifying what’s missing here. What’s in front of me, either on the wall or by way of its absence, that I’m not seeing and importantly so?

You need an optic with which to refocus the pastoralisms right in front of you. In this room, you need to see in several dimensions.

Return to an old resource management typology. Its two dimensions are: (1) fixed resources/mobile resources and (2) fixed management/mobile management. The repeated example of the mobile resources/mobile management cell has been pastoralist (nomadic/transhumant) herders. Fortunately, the truth of the matter has always been more usefully complicated.

From the standpoint of sustaining biodiversity across wide rangelands, some pastoralist systems are examples of mobile management (e.g., of grazers or browsers) with respect to fixed resources (different patches at different points and times along routes or itineraries). Indeed, this may be occurring because fixed on-site biodiversity management is too costly to undertake, if not altogether unimaginable otherwise.

–Now ratchet up the complexity by focusing in onto the details. What had been mobile management is on closer viewing now fixed, at least in this work; and what had been a fixed resource or asset is now mobile, at least in this work.

Example: During the COVID lockdown, some pastoralists created informal bush markets at or near their kraals as alternatives to the now-restricted formal marketplaces. So too do formalized associations of pastoralists participating in distant conference negotiations or near-by problem-solving meetings exemplify a now differently fixed resource exercising now differently-mobile management.

–So what?

Terms, like “adaptable” and “flexible,” are not nuanced enough to catch the case-specific improvisational property of that adaptability and flexibility in undertaking shifts from fixed to mobile or mobile to fixed. To sum up by calling the works “creative” is to miss the fact that what you are seeing is “riding complexity” by having been improvised largely out of your sight.

  1. Rehanging the walls of national policies for pastoralist development

I propose to categorize policies according to their intended goal into a three-fold typology: (i) compensation policies aim to buffer the negative effects of technological change ex-post to cope with the danger of frictional unemployment, (ii) investment policies aim to prepare and upskill workers ex-ante to cope with structural changes at the workplace and to match the skill and task demands of new technologies, and steering policies treat technological change not simply as an exogenous market force and aim to actively steer the pace and direction of technological change by shaping employment, investment, and innovation decisions of firms.

R. Bürgisser (2023), Policy Responses to Technological Change in the Workplace, European
Commission, Seville, JRC130830 (accessed online at

This epigraph focuses on the how to think about policies that better respond to effects of automation on displacing workers.

Please re-read the epigraph and then undertake the following thought experiment. You are entering the next-to-the-last room of the exhibition, and this is what has been curated for you—

–Imagine it is pastoralists who are being displaced from their usual herding workplaces, in this case by land encroachment, sedentarization, climate change, mining, or other exogenous factors.

The question becomes what are the compensation, investment and steering policies of government, among others, to address this displacement. That is, where are the policies to: (1) compensate herders for loss of productive livelihoods, (2) upskill herders in the face of eventually losing their current employment, and (3) efforts to steer the herding economies and markets in ways that do not lose out if and where new displacement occurs?

You look around the room, and what do you see? By and large, nothing is what you see. With the odd exception that proves the rule, no such national policies are hanging anywhere or standing in place.

–True, many pro-pastoralist interventions could be squeezed into rectangles with labels like “steering policies”. Better veterinary measures, paravets and mobile teachers that travel with the herding households, real-time marketing support, mobile health clinics, restocking programs as and when needed, better water point management and participation, are offered up as ways to improve herding livelihoods in the arid and semi-arid lands.

Fair enough, but clearly not far enough.

Where, in particular, are the policy interventions for improving and capitalizing on re-entry of remittance-sending members back into pastoralism once they return home? Where are the national policies to compensate farmers for not encroaching further on pastoralist lands, e.g., by increasing investments on the agricultural land they already have? Where are the national (and international) policies that recognize keeping the ecological footprint of pastoralist systems is far less expensive than that of urban and peri-urban infrastructures?

–But, so what? So what if there is no there there directly from government?

If sustainable growth is defined as increasing human opportunities to dynamic variability, then of course “private-sector” (read: hybridized) markets have a role in pastoralist development. Having more income or assets is one very important way really-existing humans know to increase opportunities in the face of uncontrollable or unpredictable change.


But what comes after the critical analysis of culture? What goes beyond the endless cataloguing of the hidden structures, the invisible powers and the numerous offences we have been preoccupied with for so long? Beyond the processes of marking and making visible those who have been included and those who have been excluded? Beyond being able to point our finger at the master narratives and at the dominant cartographies of the inherited cultural order? Beyond the celebration of emergent minority group identities, or the emphatic acknowledgement of someone else’s suffering, as an achievement in and of itself?

Irit Rogoff quoted in Claire Louise Staunton (2022). The Post-Political Curator: Critical Curatorial Practice in De-Politicised Enclosures. PhD Dissertation. Royal College of Art, London (accessed on line at

In answer, what comes after are efforts to create publics for what we are recasting by way of “development.”

Sometimes, if publics are created, they need to be protected from wider publics, a very important proviso that Claire Staunton elaborates at length. This means new or recast scenarios for pastoralist development can and should serve many purposes, even if that much-sought-after-but-elusive decisionmaker might take some purposes the wrong way.

For me, development narratives and counternarratives are major when they are treated as scenarios and because scenarios can serve indeed have these many purposes. (Yes, not all narratives are scenarios; yes, not all scenarios are useful.)

One very well known function of scenarios is in futures planning. Much less well-known–less well-curated–are when development scenarios are used for table-top exercises in disaster preparedness or stress-testing of critical infrastructures under increasing and turbulence. Creating wider publics for the latter is, I think, very much a development priority.

Other sources: When it comes to the importance of frustration in human relationships, the starting point is cribbing the work of Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and essayist.

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