A new PASTRES linked Fellowship: Everyday lives across borderlands in Africa, what are the implications for transnational governance?

Written by Greta Semplici and Michele Nori

Pastoral livelihoods often materialise through crossing borders, as the mobility of livestock, people, commodities, finances and information cannot stop at frontiers. As pastoralists show, crossing borders and frontiers disclose critical opportunities for managing uncertainties and risks. What can we learn from pastoral regions in terms of crossing frontiers, living across borderlands and transnational governance? 

These themes are at the heart of the work of PASTRES partner, the European University Institute (EUI), specifically through its Global Governance Programme and its activities, both in terms of research and cooperation with policy-makers, and also in collaboration with the EUI Platform on Africa, which aims to generate and disseminate knowledge on African topics, which are posing policy questions to the European Union. 

A PASTRES-linked Fellowship at EUI

The EUI Max Weber programme has recently awarded a two-year grant to PASTRES affiliate, Greta Semplici, focusing on pastoralists’ everyday lives across borders. Drawing on her PhD fieldwork conducted in the Turkana region of Kenya, her work will introduce new empirical data and reflection on borders, mobility, resilience and vulnerability. Greta’s experience in northern Kenya, at the critical crossway between key states in the Horn of Africa, will be expanded through desk studies, preliminary field explorations, and confrontation with key stakeholders, to the larger dryland belt, spanning from the Atlantic coast to the Indian Ocean in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The goal of the study is to shed light on the ways in which borders contribute to or restrict the resilience of the many people who cross borders. Inspiring questions are: How do informal movements and cross border activities contribute to livelihoods and local economies? What can we learn from daily practices of border-crossing in terms of border governance? Further reflections will also address the relevance of cross-border economies to national ones, and the ways border governance affects different areas of socio-economic activity, including trade, labour markets, transport, smuggling and trafficking.

The study builds on Greta’s PhD thesis earned from the Oxford Department of International Development (2015-2020). Greta’s thesis is about resilience, drylands, and pastoralism. It aims to enhance the understanding of resilience from the perspective of pastoral communities in drylands and in the context of their everyday lives. It draws on the case of Turkana herders living in Kenyan’s northern drylands, a place of “resilience making” for the international community. Threatened by recurrent droughts, security issues, and precarious living, Turkana County is the perfect laboratory for international organisations interested in “building resilience” to shocks and disasters, and in turn also a compelling case for a thesis which hopes to bring a more grounded, nuanced, and rooted understanding of resilience in drylands. 

Greta’s attention was channelled towards what she defined as a “paradox of representation” as scholars portray pastoralists as one of the most resilient groups while practitioners see them as the most vulnerable. In her thesis, she set out to explain how there could be such divergent viewpoints and to bridge the divide. She suggested that resilience is discussed in the international development regime as a cornerstone of “pastoral development” through three dimensions: landscape, lifescape, and bodyscape. Based on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork, she examined the local meanings of resilience across these dimensions and contrast them with outsiders’ interpretations emerging from policy documents, development interventions and scholarship.

Her empirical analysis revealed the fundamental role of mobility in the lived experiences of Turkana herders. The most significant contribution of her thesis is in fact the emergence of mobility as an integral part of everyday life, providing a new lens for the understanding of resilience which challenges dichotomous, linear, and “bouncing” views of resilience. Instead, she argues that mobility—in its many manifestations, as a quality of space, as something people do, as an aspect of identity—allows for more fluid, dynamic, and kaleidoscopic accounts of peoples’ lives. She thus proposes mobility as the site where resilience takes root and where a richer grasp of resilience, drylands, and pastoralism can be found.  

The importance of mobility clashes with the institutionalisation of borders. One important factor that shapes pastoral mobility is the imposition of borders along migratory corridors and areas of transhumance. Natural frontiers have been transformed into states’ frontiers, and rangelands and other pastoral resources (including water, markets, extended families) have been split by international or domestic boundaries (Nori, Taylor, and Sensi 2008). This has severely impacted not only the livelihoods of millions of pastoralists (in some cases leading to conflicts) but also the protection of biodiversity and sustainability of rangelands and local and national economies.

The embeddedness of borders

Governance is commonly at its weakest at borders (Hammond 2019). Where it is present, in a global setting of increasing concerns about human mobility, it often takes the shape of security and immigration control rather than service provision or protection of rights and economic freedoms. Closure of borders has severe impacts on the livelihoods of the many people who cross borderlands for a variety of reasons and with mixed profiles and demographics, and on the management of resources, as well as on the economic vitality of broad regions. 

Nonetheless, African borders are embedded in networks that extend not merely to capital cities in Africa, but also to Europe, Asia and the Americas. Northern Kenya is located at the critical crossway between key states in the Horn of Africa, and at the heart of the dryland belt spanning from the Atlantic coast to the Indian Ocean in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) — notably located at salient position in the movements towards Europe. Borders are crucial for resilience serving local needs and contingencies, and they enable dealing with uncertainties. One the one hand, border crossing is critical for local livelihoods and for the economic vitality of the region, through various forms of local entrepreneurialism and innovation. On the other hand, there emerges an urge to reach Europe, because of increasing uncertainties and “structural crises” affecting the region. Nonetheless, the extent to which borders can be spaces of opportunity is dependent on the tools of border management adopted, at the nexus of various geopolitical, economic and climatic factors. 

The Max Weber Fellowship research will provide an empirically informed understanding of dynamics in border regions in SSA and of the relations between mobility and border governance. The project will assess what regulatory frameworks are at play, what actors (formal and informal) are crossing and shaping the political economy of borderlands and how border regimes intersect with migrants’ life histories and diverse livelihoods. 

Border governance: can we learn from pastoralists?

A key role in the borderlands is played by mobile pastoralists. They rely on livestock rearing and mobility patterns that respond to variations in resource use, trade links and spread of information about weather, market prices, conflicts and diseases constantly crossing international borders. Through complex forms of mobility, trade and diversification of their economies, pastoral populations can contribute to resilient development.

By examining the implications of border management regimes on everyday practices of mobility across key border areas in the SSA dryland belt, the research will explore whether we can learn from pastoralists’ cultures about border governance—and their ability to negotiate between wider dynamics and micro-contingencies: how do they navigate regulatory frameworks and use borders for productive relationships?

By bringing mobility and migration central features of the socio-economy landscape of border regions more sharply into focus, the study will investigate borderland livelihoods and their connections to wider national, regional and international processes. This is hoped to contribute to a new approach to border governance to be less repressive, less control oriented and favouring the economic vitality of borderlands. Learning from pastoralists means rethinking expertise and including diverse knowledge, developing a radically different approach to governance; one that highlights innovation and entrepreneurialism, not just coping or adaptation, and as cooperation and networking, not just conflict and armed violence across borderlands.

Hosted by PASTRES at EUI, the study will enjoy collaborations with the School of Transnational Governance that deals with the methods, knowledge, skills and practice of governance beyond the State, as well as of the Research Evidence Facility of the EU Trust Fund for Africa, which has been carrying out research on various aspects of the relationship between migration, displacement and development in SSA countries. 

The study therefore has important implications for other global regions, including the EU, in terms of providing an enhanced understanding of governance dynamics in border regions, economic exchanges and migration corridors.

Photo Credit: Photo shot in Turkana County, Kenya by Greta Semplici

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