Moral Economy and Responses to Uncertainty in Isiolo, Kenya

In the second in this series of blog posts, we will introduce PASTRES PhD student Tahira Shariff Mohamed. Here, Tahira provides a summary of her research alongside a video where she explains her work.

The role of the moral economy in response to uncertainty among pastoralists in Northern Kenya: How has this changed since 1975? 

Pastoral production systems, defined as livelihoods centred on rearing of livestock for subsistence and marketing, are highly variable over space and time. This is because of the drylands setting, with variable rainfall, market instability, frequent conflict, raiding and livestock diseases. This results in conditions of uncertainty, where people don’t know the likelihood of future outcomes. Uncertainties may manifest in the form of ‘shocks’ – a situation of sudden unforeseen events – or as ‘stresses’ – a long-term variation in conditions, which creates states of vulnerability.    

Various responses have emerged in pastoral systems to live with (coping) and from (productive use of variability) uncertainty. The response includes pastoralists’ own adjustments, such as adaptive mobility, breeding management, economic diversification and culturally-accepted forms of distribution in the form of ‘moral economy’ practices.  In addition, externally-driven assistance, including settlement, provision of relief food, cash transfers and livestock insurance, are other forms of intervention responding to shocks and stress in pastoral systems. 

These responses are conditioned by structural changes, including changing terms of trade, in-migration, land fragmentation/grabbing, and availability of weapons for herders and cattle rustlers.   Such structural changes condition how variability (shocks/stresses) is experienced by different people (young/old, men/women, rich/poor), and therefore different pattern of response. Over time, some people use variability as an opportunity, while others continue to become more vulnerable.  

External interventions, such as cash transfers, interact with culturally-defined moral economy practices, but ‘vernacular’ understandings of vulnerability and response – including the gender differences between them – are often missing in such externally-defined aid/safety net programmes in pastoral areas. In mediating both local and external responses, I therefore argue that ‘moral economy’ practices will be significant. Yet patterns of response across social groups will change over time, as pastoral moral economies reconfigure. This study will therefore explore how a changing moral economy influences different pastoralists’ responses to uncertainty, asking:  

What is the role of the moral economy in responses to uncertainty by pastoralists in Isiolo, northern Kenya, and how has this changed over the past 45 years? 

Taking the mid-1970s and the fieldwork of Gudrun Dahl,  documented in her book, ‘Suffering Grass’, as a baseline, I will explore the role of moral economies in responses to uncertainty among pastoralists in the Waso Borana area of Isiolo, northern Kenya, and assess how this has changed over the past 45 years. I will work in two sites, also studied by Dahl. These are: Kinna (connected to infrastructure, investment and networks) and the more remote area of Merti.  

Using historical recall, biographies, archival information and secondary data, the research will develop a longitudinal approach to exploring changes in uncertainty, moral economy and diverse response strategies, exploring how these are differentiated across wealth, gender and age. This will inform our understanding of managing the dynamics of uncertainty and contribute to policies relating to managing vulnerability in the pastoral drylands of Africa. Looking at these questions from a longitudinal perspective, will help our understanding of current conditions.

For more on the background of our PASTRES students, see the profiles on our website.

Main image credit: Tahira Shariff Mohamed

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