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Impact Story

Research on pastoralism highlights new directions for development

Published on 21 June 2021

IDS marked 50 years of research on climate, the environment and pastoralism in 2020, offering a chance to explore how insights from this body of work have challenged conventional thinking about environmental change and led to wide-reaching impacts in practice and policy.

IDS research on pastoralism has involved many major collaborations and ongoing initiatives over the years. These include the PASTRES (pastoralism, uncertainty, resilience) programme, currently working in China, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Italy and Tunisia; the pastoralism theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium in the Greater Horn of Africa and research in Ethiopia, Mali, and Zimbabwe on crop–livestock integration.

Pastoralism provides food and livelihoods for millions of people in more than 100 countries, in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Pastoralists tend livestock (camels, cattle, yaks, sheep, goats and other animals) on rangelands that cover 25 to 40 per cent of the world’s surface.

Long before human-influenced climate change was identified, pastoralists were adapting to climate variability. Drawing from long-term fieldwork across Africa, Asia and Europe, our research has shown that there is much to learn from – not just for those working in development, but also those in health, finance and infrastructure.

Shaping rangeland management in Africa

Cumulatively, our research has helped to reframe thinking about land degradation and desertification, influencing UN agencies and national governments in how rangeland management is approached.

IDS is a close active collaborator with the Food and Agriculture Organization’s knowledge hub on pastoralism, helping to foster debates among multiple actors about pastoralism and drylands.

Our inputs build on years of collaborations on pastoralism – such as that with Mohamed Elmi, who moved from working with Oxfam to become the Minister of State for Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands. His reflective work with Future Agricultures on policy processes around pastoralism showed the importance of sustained research.

IDS has also consulted on field projects – notably on a substantial and influential field programme with Oxfam in dryland pastoral areas of Africa for many years. We have worked in policy reform supported by the UK’s aid programme, FAO and the World Bank, where IDS contributed to the framing and implementation of development activities on the ground.

Learning to embrace uncertainty

Much IDS research over the years has highlighted the importance of uncertainty – where we don’t know and can’t predict the probability of outcomes. Responding to uncertainty is a central theme of the European Research Council-funded PASTRES programme. Pastoralists live with uncertainty, exploiting variability and, through skilled herding, making use of highly challenging environments – whether dryland plains subject to frequent droughts or mountain systems, where snowfall events are unpredictable.

Uncertainty needs to be placed at the centre of the development debate, and inspiration can be drawn from research on pastoralism. From this, fundamental new directions can emerge for how development is framed and practised – moving from linear management approaches that assume a singular direction and vision of progress towards ones that embraces uncertainty and complexity to build resilience.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the need to embrace and not deny uncertainty. The recent STEPS Centre book The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation shows how living with uncertainty is as relevant for those working in financial systems, migration policy or pandemic disease preparedness, as it is for pastoralists.

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