When the unit and level of policy analysis are the interconnections: the example of pastoralist systems and the infrastructures they depend upon

We already know that, when it comes to livestock grazing (and browsing), many herders (and shepherds) depend heavily on water supplies, road transportation, market facilities and telecommunications. Think of the latter as part of their backbone or lifeline infrastructures.

What added purchase for pastoralist development is to be had when focusing analysis from the very start on the interconnections between herders (broadly writ) and these infrastructures?

The quick answer: When we shift to focusing on the interconnections between their system and the infrastructures pastoralists relied upon, policy and management implications differ considerably compared to the current focus that begins with the pastoralist system instead.

Framework summary

The three principal elements of the framework are summarized here and based in previous research on large interconnected infrastructures. Each element will be treated separately in the sections that follow.

The first element has two parts. Different types of base-level interconnectivity exist between the infrastructures and the pastoralist system. Think of the base as “normal operations.” Then there are the points at or phases during which the types and configurations of interconnectivity shift. Think of the abrupt event or incident that disrupts normal operations.

The second element is the criticality of real-time operational behavior involving system control variables, which are shared or overlapping at times between different infrastructures.

Think of a system control variable as actionable features of an infrastructure or system—e.g. pumping rates and flows of water, frequency bands for cellphone signals and reception, real-time adjustments in grazing/browsing intensities (including off-take). Such control variables are used to adjust the condition or state of the infrastructure/system as operational requirements of the task environment change. Obvious example: Land fallowed now for uses later. Sometimes, however, the control variables of different systems intersect, with important consequences.

Third and last, all of this is managed to systemwide performance standards that can and do shift as changes in interconnectivity configurations and control variables occur. Before, the borehole owner couldn’t preclude grazing by herders nearby or from afar; now the owner can by means of a fenced ranch.

In focusing on shifts in interconnectivities and performance standards, the framework highlights the strategically important role of inter-system improvisations with respect to changes in shared or overlapping system variables. Think of those bush markets emerging ad hoc to connect the livestock of the herders and outside buyers or consumers of that livestock during Covid lockdowns. Now turn to each element in more detail.

Base-level interconnections

What are the baseline interconnectivities against which to gauge subsequent shifts in the links between the pastoralist system and the relied-upon infrastructures?

With pastoralism systems being as diverse as they are, there can be and is no one baseline worldwide.

Not only are base-level interconnectivities context-specific, the notion of a stable baseline is called into question when the operative context is and has been dynamic. This isn’t just because of the disequilibrium ecology of drylands. Fifty years of inter-group conflict, worsening recurrent droughts and their changing path dependencies mean it’s ludicrous for a socio-technical ideal to serve as any kind of baseline to compare against. Added to which are the induced changes from intervening forces like those of markets, crop agriculture and state interventions over the last half century.

Ironically, this means the really-existing baseline for such systems is the shifts in interconnectivity, in our case with respect to water, routes and communications. The framework focus on shifts is even more salient for these cases,

That said, given the numbers of different pastoralist systems across the globe, there must be some whose “normal operations” includes predictable herder mobility, herd movements and grazing itineraries, more or less familiar as before. Even these baseline operations or distinct temporal/spatial patterns are interrupted from time to time by sudden events (indeed that is part of normal herder operations). To the extent that shifts in interconnectivity happen in these cases as well, the framework is also relevant.

Types, configurations, and shifts of inter-infrastructural connections

Just what are the different types and configurations of interconnectivity that shift?

By way of an example, the supply of camel milk for marketing may look like a serial sequence from camel to end-consumer, but a closer look reveals mediated, pooled and reciprocal interconnectivities as well.

There may be a focal cooperative that mediates collection and other activities in between. Reciprocities (bi-directional interconnectivity) are evident among cooperative members or women sellers along the road when they mutually assist each other. Their milk is pooled at the plant in order to be processed and then marketed. A sense of this mix of sequential, mediated, reciprocal and pooled is capture in Michele Nori’s description of camel milk marketing (CCM) in Isiolo (2023),

Milk produced under these [pastoralist] systems reaches Isiolo through sophisticated supply networks supported by rural collectors and motor-bike transporters (boda boda). These community networks exist and operate in a variety of forms and patterns, and they reconfigure as conditions vary. At the heart of the networks, there are few companies based in Isiolo town, managed by women and characterised by different ethnic configurations, market management and institutional arrangements. A significant number of the women members of the CMM companies are members of camel keeping families. . .We describe now the Isiolo model through the lens of the largest CMM operating company, Anolei. It is quite popular amongst research and development agencies, and we will assess then the other existing networks based on their differences with respect to it. The Anolei cooperative started its activities in the late 1990s (few hundred litres a day) as a self- help women group of (mostly) Garre and Somali women who had recently come to reside in Isiolo (Adjuran and Degodya clans). It was formalised as a cooperative in 2010, also to facilitate access to international support and financing; counts in 2021 found about 90 members, although the figure of active operators changes from one season to another.


What’s so important, you ask, about the shifting mix of different types of interconnectivities–note also the importance of roads and vehicles–and their configurations?

The point is less one of identifying specific or “characteristic” configurations than focusing on the variably and visible shifts as an indicator of significant operational changes, inter-infrastructurally. The shifts may be occurring at the same time, not just over time, in the pastoralist systems. One thinks of the prolonged drought instigating multiple coterminous shifts. But it is important to recognize that technology and regulation also are major inducers (e.g., pasteurization requirements for wide-scale milk marketing).

Shared or overlapping control variables of different systems

For our purposes, two or more system control variables can at times overlap or be shared.

Consider first non-pastoralist examples. Because they share the same waterway, clearing a river passage for onward navigation and re-opening the adjacent port for onward shipments offloaded there are important to both. Overlap of system variables can also be problematic. Firefighters setting their firebreaks under more accessible rights-of-way, which are the same rights-of-way created for electricity transmission lines, can create conflict between backfires needed by the firefighters and the voltage and flow paths along the transmission lines.

You see exactly the same tension in pastoralist examples. Transhumant herds and herders moving across the borders of adjacent countries has been depicted as real-time herd requirements overlapping with real-time national security concerns. Real-time grazing or browsing of agricultural stubble along with the dung of livestock can be depicted as sharing the same control variables for herders and farmers.

The problem is that the former is sometimes portrayed as net-negative (at least from a longstanding nation state perspective), while the latter is sometimes thought to be net-positive (yes there are invasions from both sides, but on whole some farmers and some herders concerned are said in the literature to mutually benefit).

But the framework suggests that there may be a great deal of improvisational behavior–on-site bargaining or context-specific arrangements–going on at the borders of the farm and/or of the country. More this negotiation goes largely unrecorded. This can include even formal activities like periodically renting out different pastures as a kind of shifting boundary work.

This is important because a major function of these ad hoc, time- and site-specific arrangements is to make the duality of stationary borders and mobile herders unavoidable in pastoralist policy and management. Unrecorded they may be, but unavoidable they are. Rather than pastoralism offering up the prospect of a borderless world, the policy and management relevance of that duality can only increase.

Why? Because the two-sided tension is also found in many other cases of overlapping or shared system control variables. These cases go well beyond sedentarization examples of conflicting land uses. Other examples range from more benign livestock scarification and dispersal of tree seeds (but whose trees to manage?), through herders’ riverine crop production (but whose water to be managed?) and young herders in school while not herding (but what does the child more harm?) to outright land enclosures that entail “incursions” by the dispossessed.

It then should be no surprise that terms like “resource scarcity,” “elite capture” and “green grabs,” let alone other terms like “conflicts,” fall short in depicting the conditions under which systemwide control variables of two or more systems are made to overlap, rendered shared, or are to be improvised around by one or more of the parties involved. Indeed, the latter concepts enable you to reframe some “conflicts” differently, even more positively, e.g., an ongoing spatial confrontation of herders and farmers can serve as a useful buffer zone against (further) peri-urbanization or worse in some cases.

Shifts in system performance standards

If research on large-scale socio-technical systems is our guide, there is no one performance standard for large-scale critical infrastructures. The precluded event standard for livestock ranching regimes–the ability exclude others from grazing–is not the same as the avoided events standard–herders seek to avoid but can’t preclude shortages or closure in infrastructures they depend upon, e.g., water supplies.

There is, however, another relevant and very major systemwide performance standard identified from more recent infrastructure research: the provision and utilization of requisite variety, particularly but not exclusively during disaster and response.

The demand for requisite variety is familiar to experienced infrastructure professionals, including pastoralists: the need to increase real-time options, strategies and resources so as to better match the requirements of unpredictable or uncontrollable conditions.

Requisite variety is the principle that it takes some complexity to manage complexity. If a problem has many variables and can assume a diversity of different conditions or states, it takes a variety of management options to address this complexity. Uncontrollable/unpredicted changes in system inputs have to be transform into a smaller range of managed states.

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 with a variety of capabilities. This is especially important when the improvisations center around overlapping or shared system control variables. Think rural people coming together to manage the vehicle transportation of water deliveries because of a sudden worsening in the drought (e.g., a major rangeland fire occurs nearby). The importance of improvisations is again highlighted when it comes to interconnected system-infrastructure operations.

But what does this tell us about interconnected pastoral systems and their relied-upon infrastructures?

For one thing, we shouldn’t be surprised by the huge diversity in organizational and network formats for addressing real-time matches between contingent task demands and contingent capabilities: associations, dedicated government agencies, designated government officers, social movements, catchment areas and planning regions, group ranches and cooperatives, conservancies, coordinators and liaisons, consortia, councils, cross-border committees, NGOs, INGOs, and more. Such diversity is what is to be expected and must be looked for, given the focus on multiple and shifting configurations of interconnectivity.

Nor is it unexpected that a premium is placed on having personal and professional contacts and relationships, since formal and ad hoc structures for organizational and network diversity can only go so far, and not far enough, when it comes to contingent requisite variety. This applies not just to the pastoralists but also to anyone in their networks. A government field officer or headquarters official can also be a mediating, focal player during the disaster and in immediate response thereafter. It is grotesquely misleading to chalk up the latter as “ethnic politics” rather than the search for requisite variety that is actually going on.

So what?

The key policy and management implications are many and deserve a separate venue. Here instead let me focus on two upshots for pastoralist development that may already be familiar to a reader but which reinforce their importance via this framework triangulation: .

(1) In framework terms, what has been called “longer-term recovery” differs in terms of its mix of shifts, configurations, control variables and performance standards, with “recovery” exhibiting:

  • a lack of the logic and urgency evident in decisionmaking immediately after the system failure;
  • new and emerging latent and manifest interconnections not witnessed pre-disaster or immediately after system failure (largely but not exclusively because of the introduction of new stakeholders in longer-term recovery); and
  • systemwide performance standards that differ in kind or degree from those pre-disaster base-level interconnectivities. New systemwide performance standards may even be part of a “new normal” that embraces the new standards as a social benchmark.

In other words, it is easy to see why so many people say about post-disaster recovery, “All of this takes time.” From our framework perspective, it is better to say that shifting or emerging interconnectivities extend time and duration as they include new latent-to-manifest interconnections and tensions that lead invariably to “it took much more time and money than anyone thought.”

(2) In framework terms, vertical and horizontal communication between and among pastoralist systems and their relied upon infrastructures are characterized by shifts, e.g.,

  • from predominantly one-directional instructions and commands in sequential dependencies in vertical communications (think governments pushing policies down the throats of pastoralists)
  • to ongoing cross-talk and negotiated agreement in mediated, pooled and reciprocal communication patterns (think horizontal micro-coordination in some pastoralist movements and associations over restoration collaborations involve multiple sectors, ministries and infrastructures).

In other words, it is essential to understand when and how communication patterns follow from, rather than determine, the interconnectivity configurations. This means any temptation to impose vertical-dominant communications is to be resisted when shifting interconnectivities demand horizontally-rich communication.

Other sources

Herbert, S. and I. Birch (2022). Cross-border pastoral mobility and cross-border conflict in Africa –
patterns and policy responses
. XCEPT Evidence Synthesis. Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of

Krätli, S, et al (2022). Pastoralism and resilience of food Production in the face of climate change. Background Technical Paper. Bonn: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)

Schürmann, A., J. Kleemann, M. Teucher, C. Fürst, and C. Conrad (2022). Migration in West Africa: a visual analysis of motivation, causes, and routes. Ecology and Society 27(3):16

Unks, R., M. Goldman, F. Mialhe, Y. Gunnell, and C. Hemingway (2023). Diffuse land control, shifting pastoralist institutions, and processes of accumulation in southern Kenya, The Journal of Peasant Studies

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