Building resilience from below: the vital role of ‘reliability professionals’ and their networks

by Tahira Mohamed and Ian Scoones

The numerous external interventions focused on resilience are often disconnected from local realities, as we discussed in the first blog in this series. Certain standard formulations of problem and solution are offered, informed frequently by a negative narrative about pastoralism and the need for its transformation. The result is a predictable set of standardised ‘resilience’ projects. Ranging from the mundane to the fantastical, they all too often fail or, worse, create forms of dependency on external aid in the face of recurrent crisis.

So, what is the alternative? Can resilience be built from below drawing on local practices and networks? Even if alleviated by some rainfall in March and April, the on-going drought is of course, not the first time people that have faced a severe drought-induced crisis. People point in particular to 1982-84 or 1991-92 and elders list numerous droughts going back a century. Drought is part of normal life in a highly variable environment. However, climate change is making matters worse, as droughts are more prolonged and the pattern of rainfall changes, and vulnerabilities are changing as land access is squeezed and alternative options for movement become constrained by conflict and other factors.

People have a long-established repertoire of ways of responding. This is not just a pattern of passive ‘coping’ as sometimes described, but an active process of deliberate, well-planned response that combines livestock movement, sharing and distribution of animals through loans, splitting herds and flocks, supplementary feeding and watering, careful herding, negotiating access to farmland or protected areas, shifting species compositions, selective marketing of animals and diversification to other income sources to support the herd or flock. All part of ‘living with uncertainty’ and well documented in the literature.

Pastoral livestock, Kinna, Isiolo

Pastoralism as critical infrastructure

Of course, such a varied repertoire of responses do not always work. In the case of the current drought that has struck northern Kenya and the rest of the region over several years, many millions of animals have died and today humans are threatened too. Pastoralists have moved from what Emery Roe calls ‘precursor resilience’, where reliability professionals adjust to regular patterns of variability to emergency response resilience. As the drought strikes harder forms of restoration resilience, where disrupted operations are restored, have failed.

When the rains finally come, then hopefully a pattern of ‘recovery resilience’ will emerge whereby the infrastructure transforms into a new pattern of regular adjustment to patterns of variability as operations resume and a new, but always temporary, ‘normal’ resumes. Each of these phases requires different styles of operation – both routine and regular and non-routine and unusual – in order to keep animals alive and sustain at least some goods and services from the herds and flocks.

In this sense, pastoralism – again following Emery Roe – can be seen as a ‘critical infrastructure’. Crucial in generating ‘reliability’ – and so the relatively stable flow of resources and the avoidance of complete collapse of the system – are what he and others call ‘high reliability professionals’. Such professionals are central to pastoral systems, connecting through social networks to a range of people who allow for the type of responses to drought listed above.

As part of a scoping study for a proposed CRDD (Centre for Research and Development in Drylands) project in Marsabit and Isiolo counties (and the borderlands of southern Ethiopia), we have been exploring who these reliability professionals are and what they do in order to transform ‘high variance’ conditions (very uncertain rainfall) to a more stable, reliable supply of goods and services and so sustainable livelihoods in the face of drought. We were asking, are these people and their networks the key to generating resilience from below and an alternative entry point to the standard, top-down resilience projects that have so often failed?

Charcoal selling by road

High reliability professionals and networks in pastoral areas

In workshops across the area, we have gathered a range of people from different communities to debate this. Asking who it is you turn to at times of drought and who is able to make a difference, participants listed out the names and ranked them in order of importance.

At the centre of any response is the herder, but he or she is not alone, they must work with others. Others listed as part of these reliability networks that can generate resilience are motorcycle drivers (the boda-boda boys) who are able to scout for grazing, transport fodder and link people in remote places, sometimes operating as local defence teams. There are the agrovet dealers who supply drugs and medicines, but also advice and area also small amounts of credit to facilitate responses. There are the M-Pesa (mobile money agents) who are able to advance funds, facilitating rapid response. And there are the traditional, local experts who provide advice when challenges arise: the local veterinary practitioners (the Chilres), predictors of hazards through reading intestines (the Uchu) and the astronomers who predict from looking at the stars (see the previous blog).

We did a ranking in all sites, with different groups – men, women, youth and others – and there was a remarkably similar result: at the bottom of all ranks came the government and the NGOs. Discussions about the rankings were animated, but everyone agreed on the bottom ranks: “These people don’t come, they said. Why are we even giving them one point. Can we not give negative scores?”

Those identified as important are connected, working with each other sometimes within a local community, at other times linked through phones. WhatsApp and MPesa as routes to reliability management is essential. As earlier research discovered in North Horr, it is often the brokers who link different networks – local, NGO/project-based and government/political – that are important in sustaining these reliability networks; they help share predictions and advise on responses, as well as mobilising resources, including cash and labour to allow people continuously to avert disasters.

Although the endpoint of a crisis is the emergency that many are facing now, there have been many, many responses that have preceded this. Disasters are continuously averted, and even now at the height of the drought this continues as people decide what to do in often desperate situations. Without the reliability professionals, things would be much, much worse, and the recovery less likely once the rains finally come.

Group meeting with pastoralists

High reliability practices: reducing variability to generate resilience

What is the essence of high reliability management? As studies of other critical infrastructures (electricity or water supply systems, for example) have shown, such professionals must, at the same time, scan the horizon for emerging threats and respond in real time to challenges on the ground, steering the system away from danger whilst managing uncertainty. It is skilled and usually unrecognised work (especially by outsiders) and is reliant on networks as such individuals connect with others, drawing on different knowledges – including tacit, experiential knowledges – diverse skills and impressive communications capacities (in the case of pastoralists with both humans and animals).

Take just one example (of many interviews that we have undertaken as part of the scoping study). HB is a female herder from Kinna in Isiolo county who manages about a hundred cattle and, when we discussed in mid-February, was planning how to keep them alive. She has assessed the risks and developed scenarios about how to respond. She has listened to those who are predicting drought but is hedging her bets. She has invested in relationships that will allow her animals to survive if things get worse, making deals with farmers in Meru and prospecting near the national park where she has relationships with guard and rangers to access grazing (illegally). She lives in Kinna town but regularly travels to see her animals (at least every two days) to monitor the herding labour. The motorbike drivers who she employs to transport her are also involved in scouting further afield to see if there are better opportunities for water and grazing. She has a reliable M-Pesa dealer in Kinna who can advance her cash if there is an immediate problem (say a fine from the national park, a sudden payment required at a farm, the need for emergency feed), and she has sustained this relationship over years. She knows the agrovet and the Chilres and will consult them if the animals are feeling sick, responding rapidly if there is need. As she explains, “it’s a difficult time now. The herd has been split, between the weaker and stronger animals. Some are grazing about half-way to Meru. We fear the rains will fail, so we have to be ready to move to the farms or the park”.  

Resilience is thus a process, reliant on social relations and diverse forms of knowledge. Reliability is generated through drawing on local knowledges (from diviners and local forecasters, as well as skills in veterinary care, fodder management and so on), while also mobilising resources (notably short-term cash for response, facilitated by local credit/sharing systems and through rapid transfers via mobile phones). This is supported in turn by a wider ‘moral economy’ of sharing and solidarity so central to pastoral settings, where grazing, labour, livestock and other resources are shared collectively, as part of cultural practices that have long generated resilience in the face of recurrent challenges.

Averting disasters, continuous responses: how to support reliability professionals and networks?

This is not a romantic, ‘traditionalist’ view only relevant to the past, but such moral economies have transformed to keep up with wider social, economic and cultural changes. More embedded in Islamic religious practices today and linked to modern technologies for transport and mobile money exchange, these practices are well attuned to local conditions, and in the judgement of many considerably more effective than the individualised, projectized responses from NGOs and the state.

Informal, and unrecognised and unrewarded, such reliability professionals and their networks continue their work on a daily basis through the emergency and can be central to humanitarian responses. Meanwhile, the standard development projects supposedly ‘building resilience’ continue in a parallel world. At our scoping project workshop in Marsabit we asked how can they be connected, how can local structures – such as the CMDRR (Community Managed Disaster Risk Reduction) committees discussed in the previous blog, or the community facilitators that exist in Isiolo – be linked to existing reliability professionals and networks? How can local capacities be recognised and enhanced?

In the proposed CRDD action-research project, we aim to ask these questions and test out alternatives with local partners working on the ground, learning from real-time experiences. Rather than imposing a narrow approach to resilience with a standard suite of projects, perhaps an alternative approach to resilience building from below can emerge?     

This is the last of a series of three blogs written as part of a scoping study and supported by ACIAR (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research). Elements of this blog first appeared in an article in The Conversation, see here.

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