Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals

Written by Emery Roe

Long ago, when working in Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe, I remember being sceptical when livestock holders said the ‘lack of rainfall’ and not ‘stocking numbers’ caused the sparse grassland. Blaming bad conditions on outside factors you can’t control, rather than on your own self-interested behaviour, is a well-known human trait. Self-serving rationalisation, I thought.

But I only later realised that it wasn’t about choosing the better explanation—“lack of rainfall” or “too many livestock.” It was about understanding how their systems of practices and skills were making use of variability to reliably generate livelihoods.

Start with mobile herds and herders being better positioned to take advantage of variable moisture and range conditions, even during (especially during) unpredictable times. They do so by accessing the spatial and temporal distribution of water and nutrients at their peak concentrations and over a period of time longer than the window of opportunity in any single location.

However, this repeated finding – among many others from a long tradition of study of pastoralism – has not displaced many misleading notions about herding systems and pastoralists. In the dominant development narrative, the future of pastoralism continues to be bleak indeed. Without counter-narratives, it’s not surprising policy types continue to default to misplaced misconceptions.

The stakes are high in all this. Today’s development agenda is often about “pastoralists leaving pastoralism.” Herding households are frequently (habitually?) described as having members who abandon pastoralism for occupations and economic activities elsewhere. This continues to be presented as a process of exiting pastoralism; in the words of Saverio Krätli, ‘development out of pastoralism’.

But aren’t such “off-site, out-of-pastoralism” activities better understood as part-and-parcel of pastoralism as practised for a long time across many areas of the world? For people who take advantage of environmental variability through mobility, wouldn’t we expect them to take advantage of a spatially and temporally distributed variability in opportunities, especially when their environmental uncertainty increases?


“Yes, indeed,” as others have been saying all along.

My own take on “Yes” is set out in the new PASTRES paper, A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure. The paper proposes that pastoralist systems are more effectively treated as a global critical infrastructure.

A framework is developed identifying conditions under which pastoralists can be considered real-time reliability professionals in systems with mandates to prevent or otherwise avoid major system failures from happening. Much more is going on here than just “resilient herders.” More, very different policy and management implications follow for pastoralist development.

The proposed counter-narrative has six interrelated lines of argument:

  • In contemporary societies, large-scale water and energy infrastructures, among others, seek to provide the safe and continuous supply of their vital services to participants, even during (especially during) turbulent times. This is called their high reliability mandate. Pastoralist systems seek to reliably provide outputs and services vital to their respective participants as well.
  • Pastoralist systems share specific features that characterise large-scale sociotechnical systems called critical infrastructures that provide energy or water, for example. The features are fleshed out by the framework’s typologies. The key one is the role, practices and processes of real-time operators in managing for system-wide reliability. Such reliability professionals are to be found— centrally so, the counter-narrative argues—in pastoralist systems, today and in the past. As pastoralist systems are found across the world, pastoralism can therefore be viewed as a global infrastructure with its own reliability professionals.
  • Further, pastoralism-as-infrastructure-with-reliability-professionals provides a worldwide critical service. As with other globalised or globalising infrastructures, pastoralist systems seek to increase process variance—real-time management strategies and options—in the face of high, but unpredictable or uncontrollable, input variance, so as to achieve low and stable output variance – and so to sustain livelihoods based on a reliable flow of outputs and services.
  • This means that to provide stable supplies of services vital to society, critical infrastructures have had to enlarge their portfolio of management strategies and options to respond effectively to increasing and changing variability in their inputs brought about by, among other factors, globalisation, increased competition and expansion of markets and commodification. These are the very same pressures documented at work in and on pastoralist systems.
  • It is this logic of high input variance matched by high process variance to ensure low and stable output variance that characterises what reliability professionals do. One may ask: “What is ‘pastoralist’ when a herding family must rely on the support of urban or out-of-country members?” In answer, what has not changed is the logic of the reliability management in terms of input, process and output variance. High reliability pastoralism thus persists in new forms.
  • The counter-narrative also argues that this core capability of pastoralism (and other high reliability systems)—boosting and amplifying process variance with real-time management strategies and options—is foundational for world economic development in times of high uncertainty. It becomes core when infrastructures exhibiting this capability, and in the face of their persisting reliability mandates, are better able to withstand the downsides of that uncertainty, as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time.

As many do, it’s fairly easy to assemble a negative narrative about this pastoralism. Just assert the following: herders as reliability professionals are disappearing all over the place; more pastoralists than ever before are left with no option but to cope reactively; and more and more of these coping situations are altogether unfamiliar or unknown to herders left behind.

Yes of course, changes are happening in pastoralist systems, just as in the critical infrastructures that I study. But presenting a decline-and-fall narrative is very misleading. It ignores that pastoralists are—by force of circumstance under wider processes of commodification, globalisation, climate change and the rest—being pushed and pulled to actively manage input variabilities and do so to sustain their livelihoods in new ways. Further, a good number of these responses build on special skills and practices, along with unique track-records, of earlier pastoralists in matching high process variability to always-high input variability.

This counter-narrative focuses on management where control is not possible; this is coping-ahead when coping reactively is not the option. And this is what modern societies, rooted in illusions of command-and-control, can and must learn to do better.

Emery Roe, a policy analyst and researcher, has authored books and articles on large-system policy, management, reliability, risk, environment, complexity and development. Thanks go to Saverio Krätli and Ian Scoones for comments. His blog can be found here: When Complex is as Simple as it Gets

Photo Credit: Matteo Caravani

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