A new narrative for development policy in pastoral areas

by Ian Scoones, PASTRES principal investigator

The failures of development policies in pastoral areas are well known. But what are the alternatives? How can we shift the narrative – of both the diagnosis of the problems and the definition of the solutions?

This was the focus of a three-day workshop that PASTRES convened together with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) between 6 and 9 March.

Flanked by display screens, a speaker gives a presentation in front of a room of people who are from different countries and have diverse styles of dress.
Giulia Simula presents on pastoralism and markets

Participants from a dozen countries, including government officials, NGO workers, donor agency personnel and researchers, gathered on the ILRI campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to reflect on the work emerging from the PASTRES programme, as well as drawing on their own experience.

It was an intense, stimulating and inspiring few days. The 60-odd participants in Addis were joined on two occasions by a large international online audience for two broadcast webinars (the video recordings are available below).

Defining a new narrative for pastoral development policy

The first part of the workshop focused on the contours of the new narrative and how it should be defined.

Rejecting the simplistic framing of debates about pastoralism, instead a more positive vision was elaborated. Instead of seeing pastoralists as backward in need of ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’, the evidence from PASTRES work showed how pastoralism is a highly effective system for making use of highly variable and uncertain environments through skilled herding practices.

As we all acknowledged, of course this is not all ‘new’. Over 40 years or more, many people have been contributing to a recasting of debates around pastoral policy. Not least among them is Stephen Sandford, who sadly passed away recently. As a long-time resident of Ethiopia and a staff member both at ILCA (now ILRI) and Farm Africa (both represented at the workshop), he was recognised at the workshop as a major influence in defining the new narrative starting many years ago, notably through his landmark book, Management of Pastoral Development in the Third World, published in 1983.

Successful pastoral livelihoods require adaptability, flexibility, opportunism and innovation, always keeping up with rapid changes. Today, perhaps to a greater extent than 40 years ago, pastoral areas are subject to growing constraints that limit pastoralists’ room for manoeuvre. Pastoralism is undermined by the effects of climate change, land/green grabs, the expansion of conservation areas, the growth of infrastructure and the attempts by the state or development projects to settle people or create ‘alternative livelihoods’ outside pastoralism.

Yet the opportunities still persist for pursuing a pastoral livelihood in harsh conditions where other options are not available. Despite the challenges, the focus of pastoral development must be to build on the substantial capacities and experiences amongst pastoral communities; and to recognise the value of pastoralists to national and local economies, their provision of high-quality animal-sourced foods, their role in enhancing environmental services, and much, much more.

However, drawing on many cases – from China to India to Sardinia to Tunisia and East Africa – presenters at the workshop recognised the limits of pastoral agency and adaptability. Vulnerabilities to droughts, markets shocks, political intervention and land grabbing, for example, have been accentuated over time, and pastoralists may not always be able to respond successfully to the challenges thrown at them.

In particular, the current devastating drought across the Horn of Africa was a subject of much discussion during the workshop. Many livestock have died and human lives are threatened as the drought strikes hard across pastoral communities who have suffered a sequence of five failed rainy seasons. Are the limits to resilience being felt? Can we expect pastoralism to persist? What alternative forms of support are needed?

During the opening webinar, following an overview of seven key themes that make up the ‘new narrative’, presenters from the PASTRES team delved into four themes in depth. This included the importance of mobility, the challenges of land and environment, the potentials of markets, and the challenges of responding to disaster through forms of social protection, including livestock insurance.

Commentators from different positions – a senior government official from India, a research/development funder from Australia, and a research programme lead from Kenya offered reflections on how the ‘new narrative’ resonates with their own experiences.

Diverse contexts, converging challenges

Getting a sense of the commonalities and difference between pastoral settings was the focus of the session that followed. Each of the countries where PASTRES has been working over the past years was represented at a table during a ‘World Café’.

At each table, information from participants was shared, along with artefacts and food from pastoral areas, highlighting rich material and food cultures from diverse pastoral areas, ranging from the mountains of Amdo Tibet in China, to the hills and plains of Sardinia in Italy, to drylands of southern Ethiopia, Kenya and western India and the desert edge of southern Tunisia.

Fascinating discussions ensued, which carried on during the opening of the Seeing Pastoralism photo exhibition, where photographs were shared – many taken by pastoralists themselves during photovoice explorations of the PASTRES core theme of ‘uncertainty’.

The exhibition was opened by Ahmed Shide, Ethiopia’s Finance Minister and alumnus of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex, where PASTRES is co-hosted (together with the European University Institute in Florence). In his speech, he noted: “The photographs offer unique insights into pastoral life. Many of the images are taken by pastoralists and so it’s all about seeing through the eyes of a pastoralist.”

Translating the ‘new narrative’ into policy and practice: four themes

Having gained a sense of the diversity of settings, but also the common challenges, participants returned for a day of parallel group discussions on the four themes already introduced.

The aim was to explore how the ‘new narrative’ for pastoralism could reframe policy and practice for development, moving from a critique of existing approaches to a visioning of alternatives. Each group had representatives from different countries, with a range of experience. It was a fascinating discussion, with lots of ideas emerging.

1. Mobility and migration

With mobility as the cornerstone of pastoral policy, participants exchanged experiences – positive and negative – of policies that both facilitated and constrained mobility and migration in pastoral settings.

Pastoral mobility needs to be understood both regionally and locally, and systematic mapping exercises could reveal how to support pastoralists. The importance of linking mobility to the provision of services – including health, education, veterinary services and so on – was highlighted by many, with important examples being shared from Jammu and Kashmir in India.

2. Land and environment

Recognising that flexible, adaptable, hybrid forms of tenure were essential for assuring pastoral land use, the land and environment group highlighted how what are often seen as conflicts over land use – say between conservation and pastoral production – can be resolved by joint, collaborative use. Defining fixed boundaries, including through community registration approaches – can have downsides, as conflicts may emerge, particularly at times of resource scarcity.

Recognising that pastoralists make use of wide areas, with flexible use over time – both between seasons and across years – was important in defining land use arrangements that do not remove ‘key resources’ (such as drought refuge grazing), while also maintaining the ability to make use of extensive rangelands. As Minister Shide commented in his remarks opening the exhibition, “mobility for pastoralists is a human right”.

3. Markets and livelihoods

The theme of markets and livelihoods provoked much discussion, especially given the focus on ‘commercialisation’, ‘value chain development’ and ‘market improvement’ in many current development efforts in pastoral areas. Indeed, many participants were involved in such programmes, but also observed that they frequently failed if they are not properly thought through.

As experience from Sardinia to Kenya and Ethiopia showed, pastoral markets are often informal, they are networked and can be adapted to changing circumstances. The fixed investments and standard packages for ‘improvement’ don’t work, and may undermine existing market arrangements, shifting benefits from women to men. Working with what exists, rather than attempting to replace it with visions of ‘modernisation’, was seen to be the way forward.

4. Social protection and insurance

The same applied to discussions around social protection and insurance, focusing on disaster responses, humanitarian assistance and the role of the state in supporting pastoralists in times of need.

This group discussed the litany of failures that characterise the standard approach. They concluded that ‘social protection’ measures (including insurance) need to be redesigned for pastoral areas to encompass the principles of flexibility, adaptability and collectivity, with the capacity to respond to uncertainties and generate reliability embedded in local systems.

Local systems of ‘high reliability management’ are valuable: they are rooted in social relations, grounded networks and moral economies, and not simply imposed from outside. In contrast to current approaches, the group favoured using a framework that took pastoralists’ own capacities to respond to disasters seriously, and adapted external interventions in terms of (for example) cash transfers or livestock insurance, to fit these capacities.

A small group discussion around one of the table in a conference room. Five people are in the frame. A man is speaking to the group and the others are listening. There are laptops, papers and microphones on the table.
Group discussion

On the final day, after a discussion about how the four themes intersected – which they all do – the second webinar focused on feedback from each group.

Whilst lack of time prevented the groups offering fully fledged policy and practice recommendations, the outlines of and key principles for new ways forward for pastoral development were presented.

The new narrative suggests a very different way of doing things across domains, requiring a reimagining of how states, development agencies, and field projects function. This in turn has implications for interventions are designed and how external funding is delivered, through what mechanisms and to whom.

Transforming policy processes: new alliances

A final panel of commentators – from India, Kenya, China and Italy – wrapped up the webinar presentations before a wider discussion. Along with contributors in the plenary discussion, all commentators highlighted the challenges of shifting policy processes, which are currently so locked into the mainstream, standard narrative.

As all agreed, it is not easy, but getting ideas from research into action must be central to the way forward. This requires new allies and platforms, new collaborations between countries, the sharing of experiences and innovations and the collective challenging of the status quo, including through mobilising a more informed debate about pastoralism in both local and international media. The United Nations’ International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists in 2026 was identified as an opportunity around which efforts can coalesce, ensuring the new narrative for pastoral development finds a wider audience, with concrete actions emerging.

Although it only took place over three days, our workshop provided an important moment for seeing how PASTRES research findings can be translated into new approaches to both policy and practice, with a renewed commitment to realising progressive change around a new narrative in pastoral areas across the world.

2 thoughts

  1. Areas critical to ensuring the existence of pastoralism with minimum negative ‘external’ perturbations are appropriately addressed within such short period of workshop time. Indeed, commitment is needed to make them actionable outputs. In particular, grassroots organizations need to take, more than any time, proactive measures in support of the ‘new’ narratives. Governmental and nongovernmental orgs need to play facilitating roles while trying to give meaning to these narratives.

    Finally, very sorry to hear the accidental passing of the great advocate of pastoralism- Stephen Sanford. I had the opportunity to interact with him when he was leading the then Farm Africa’s project in Axum, Tigray. May the Almighty rest his soul in peace and give his family strength.


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