I believe that livestock production and wealth are very skewed in Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands (and elsewhere for that matter). I also believe that this livestock production can still be as if not m ore productive, while more equally distributed.
The argument for pastoralism-as-infrastructure, however, brings into focus under-acknowledged inequalities just as important. In ways explained below, these arise where infrastructures have long been treated as assets with future streams of benefits.
The following section reprises the pastoralism-as-infrastructure perspective. The section thereafter discusses assetization and specific implications regarding the wider inequalities. I end with answering the So What? question.
Pastoralism as infrastructure and initial implications
While vastly different technologically, the critical infrastructures with which I am familiar–water, energy, telecoms, transportation, hazardous liquids–share the same logic: The system’s real time operators seek to increase process variance (in terms of diverse options, resources, strategies) in the face of high input variance (including variability in factors of production and climate) to achieve low and stable output variance (electricity, water and telecoms provided safely and continuously).
This is the logic of requisite variety. Having a diversity of resource and strategic options, including being able to assemble, improvise or invent them, is a way to match and manage problem complexity so as to achieve by and large stable outputs.
I submit pastoralist systems are, in respect to this logic, infrastructural; and as pastoralists and their systems are found worldwide, so too is pastoralism a global infrastructure. To be sure, not all pastoralist systems share this logic; nor are all pastoralists real-time reliability professionals; nor do all pastoralist systems reduce to this logic, only.
If we focus on the set of pastoralist systems that share the logic, the implications for rethinking pastoralist development are, I believe, major. To pick four of the differences identified in earlier blogs:
1. The infrastructure perspective suggests that instead of talking about environmental risks associated with pastoralism (e.g., the climate risks of land degradation and methane production), we should be comparing the environmental footprints produced by the respective global infrastructures (e.g., roads globally, electricity globally, dams globally. . .).
Because pastoralisms rely on these other infrastructures, the respective footprints overlap. But the physical damage done to the environment by roads, dams, and power plants are well documented and demonstrably extend well far beyond pastoralist usage.
2. No large critical infrastructures can run 24/7/365 at 100% capacity and be reliable, and pastoralist systems are no different. This means comparing pastoralist livestock systems to a benchmark of “optimized” grassland ranching or intensive dairy production is ludicrous if only because the latter are more likely to headed to disaster anyway.
3. Restocking schemes are routinely criticized for returning livestock to low-resource rangelands. Yet the infrastructure for government commodity buffer stocks (e.g., holding grain, wool or oil in order to stabilize the prices of those commodities) are routinely recommended by other experts, decade after decade, be the countries low-resource or not.
4. When was the last time you heard pastoralist livestock exports from the world’s arid and semi-arid regions being praised for this: Reducing the global budget for virtual water trading from what it could have been. And yet, that is exactly what pastoralism as a global infrastructure does.
Implications of assetizing pastoralism as infrastructure
Now let’s shift specifically to assetizing that infrastructure. Think of assets and assetization as follows:
An asset is both a resource and property, in that it generates income streams with its sale price based on the capitalization of those revenues. Although an asset’s income streams can be financially sliced up, aggregated, and speculated upon across highly diverse geographies, there still has to be something underpinning these financial operations. Something has to generate the income that a political economic actor can lay claim to through a property or other right, entailing a process of enclosure, rent extraction, property formation, and capitalization. . . .
Commodities are produced for sale, and as such their value is defined by the labour imbued in them as they are substitutable and subject to laws of competition. In resting on rent and enclosure without a particular orientation towards sale, assetization instead involves “the transformation of things into resources which generate income without a sale”. . . .
The market value of an asset depends on the estimated future rents it will afford, so for there to be a market for rent-bearing property the purchaser must borrow against future rent and capital gains. It is only after this capitalization that there is a viable market for tradable rent-bearing property and, therein, an asset.https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/20438206221130807
As the above quote and its authors underscore, assetization is a more nuanced, meso-or-lower-level concept than are macro notions of commodification or marketization.
The treatment of livestock or water points or fencing or motorbikes or vet stocks or rangeland as assets has been an undeniable feature of pastoralism. We may debate the history of doing so. My view is that the path dependency with respect to assets-thinking originated in the division of labor in earlier pastoralist societies as commercial economies (think: trade routes and the early-on division between herd owners and herd holders). Whatever, the variety of capitalist economies has subsequently ramped up assetization diversity within pastoralist systems.
But the focus here is not on assetization within pastoralist systems. It is rather: Has pastoralism as a global infrastructure been assetized and if so, what are the inequalities this has generated in addition to within-system inequalities over owning or holding within-system assets?
More formally, has the logic of requisite variety with respect to input/process/output variability become a set of assets from which to realize profits and rents?
For example, the treatment of “human capital” all but ends up assetizing a rich process variance in pastoralism as infrastructure. You would have to be sycophants of economics or Bourdieu not to see that reification of real-time management of process variance into “investments” does a great disservice to meso- and micro-level differentiation of practices with respect to options, resources and strategies, especially their real time versions.
More specific examples are readily available. Consider the role of advances in telecommunications for pastoralist livestock systems. It is repeatedly documented that cellphones play an important role in real-time livestock marketing, among other activities. These technologies have integrated owners and herders further into markets. What has been less noted (though I stand to be corrected) is how assetization of those digital platforms for the telecoms affects other elements for achieving the end outcome, stable pastoralist livelihoods.
It’s easy to continue with such examples and questions, e.g., by returning to points #1 – #4 above and seeking to show ways in which assetization in those areas are underway. Notice, though, that the assets change in degree and kind from those assets commonly identified within-systems.
Livestock and water become “ecological footprints,” a very different asset. Grassland systems as assets are not one-to-one comparable to those in ranching schemes or the dairy sector. As for restocking schemes, it requires a different perspective to see them as part and parcel of commodity stock buffers. And yes, virtual water trading is assetized, but here too the assets in question differ considerably from those conventionally talked about in within-system pastoralisms.
I have no doubt that the assetization of pastoralism as infrastructure is full of power and income asymmetries. But how that all works out is, I believe, considerably under-investigated compared to the more documented literature on within-system power and income asymmetries among pastoralists.
It’s an empirical question about how unequal is within-system inequality. Given the millions and millions and millions of pastoralist households not just in Africa but elsewhere, what do more equal, productive household systems have to offer by way of lessons learned to those household systems less equal but just as productive, when nevertheless both sets of systems share similar problems of politics, money and egos?
So too, I believe, it an empirical issue, but a very much different one, when benchmarking the inequalities of assets at the level of pastoralism as its own global infrastructure. The benchmark here are other global or globalizing infrastructures qua infrastructures.
I want to conclude by suggesting that pastoralism as a global infrastructure resists assetization in ways that are, however, sharply criticized in conventional views about within-system pastoralist herds and households.
Start with the fact that the current literature on infrastructure assetization focuses on how schools, health facilities, police and large infrastructure projects are assetized for the purposes of securing specific rents and profits over time. Critics understandably see these developments in negative terms.
If so, why then are persistent failures and difficulties in establishing–read: assetizing–fixed-point pastoralist schools, permanent health facilities, zones free of armed conflict, and viable large livestock development projects treated in overwhelmingly negative terms by like-minded critics?
Or to put the point from another direction: By viewing pastoralism as infrastructure, do we see a longer-term at work than we would be the case, were its assets financialized by sudden changes in exchange rates and interest rates?
Birch, K., and Ward, C. (2022). Assetization and the ‘new asset geographies.’ Dialogues in Human Geography (accessed on line at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/20438206221130807). In addition to the quote, this article provided two examples.
De Conti, B., Bosari, P., and Martínez, M. (2022). “Credit rating agencies as policymakers: the different stances in regard to core and peripheral countries during the pandemic.” Texto para Discussão. ISSN 0103-9466. Unicamp. IE, Campinas, n. 438.
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 (available online at https://steps-centre.org/publication/a-new-policy-narrative-for-pastoralism/). This paper provides many details and examples of input, process and output variance.
Rogers, S. (2023). The emergence of the ‘rentocrat.’ New Political Economy (accessed online at https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2023.2172148.
Sonenscher, M. (2022) Capitalism: The story behind the word. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. This book goes into great detail about the differences between earlier commercial societies and later capitalist economies.