Impact Story

Research on pastoralism highlights new directions for development

Published on 21 January 2021

Insights from more than fifty years of IDS research on climate, environment and pastoralism have challenged conventional thinking about environmental change and led to wide-reaching impacts in practice and policy.

The world is an uncertain, challenging environment for many people. This is true in some of the most marginal environments, where food and livelihoods rely on pastoralism. Pastoralists are livestock keepers looking after camels, cattle, yaks, sheep, goats and other animals in rangelands across 25-40 per cent of the world’s surface, involving many millions of people in over 100 countries making a living in some of the harshest conditions on the planet. Drawing from long-term fieldwork across Africa, Asia and Europe, our research with pastoralists has provided important evidence, grounded in people’s lived realities.

As IDS research shows, there is much to learn from pastoralists’ response to uncertainties. Pastoralists have always responded to climate variability, long before human-influenced climate change was identified. Understanding how pastoralists understand and respond to climate and environmental change has resulted in importance insights that have implications not just for those working in development, but also those working in health, finance and infrastructure.

IDS work on pastoralism has involved many major projects and initiatives. These include:

In addition, there have been consultancy engagements with field projects, notably with Oxfam, that had a substantial and influential field programme in dryland pastoral areas of Africa for many years. These have combined with policy reform efforts, including those supported by the UK’s aid programme, FAO and the World Bank, where IDS work helped to contribute to the framing and implementation of development activities on the ground.

Shaping arid-land management policies in Africa

Long-term research in the field, working with pastoralists and exploring their understandings of complex environments and responses to climate and environmental change, suggests some fundamentally different ways of thinking about development more generally. This means moving away from blueprint, linear, management approaches that assume a singular direction and a modernist vision of progress to one that embraces uncertainty and complexity to build resilience in the face of the climate challenge.

Work at IDS and elsewhere identified the importance of ‘non-equilibrium’ systems in dry rangelands. This has important consequences for understanding how environmental change happens. Where there is high variability in rainfall for example, livestock populations also vary, and they rarely reach a fixed limit. In 1996, the IDS book, The Lie of the Land, edited by Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, challenged the standard narratives on desertification and land degradation in Africa. Cumulatively, this research has helped reframed debates about land degradation and desertification, with wide-ranging impacts across UN agencies, national government agencies and others, rethinking the way rangeland management is thought about.

For example, long-term collaborator Mohamed Elmi moved from working with Oxfam to become the Minister of State for Development of Northern Kenya and other Arid Lands. His reflections on policy processes around changing debates in pastoralism show the importance of sustained research. In a discussion held in Nairobi to discuss the book, Pastoral Development in Africa: Dynamic Change in the Margins, Hon. Elmi commented: ‘The research offers a narrative of pastoral innovation, to which policymakers at the centre are rarely exposed’. Today, IDS is a close collaborator with FAO’s knowledge hub focusing on pastoralism, helping foster debates about pastoralism and drylands, as well as national governments and international organisations across the world.

Influencing development for uncertain times

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. Pastoralists exploit variability and live from uncertainty through skilled herding to make use of highly challenging environments – whether dryland plains subject to frequent droughts or mountain systems, where snowfall events can cause big problems.

Responding to uncertainty is a central theme of the European Research Council funded PASTRES programme. Thinking about uncertainty as an opportunity, and variability as a productive resource recasts the way development is thought about and practised.

As the recent STEPS Centre book – The Politics of Uncertainty: Challenges of Transformation – shows, this is as relevant to pastoralists as it is to others who are confronting uncertainties – whether in financial systems, migration policy or pandemic disease preparedness.

Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has put into sharp relief the need to embrace not deny uncertainty. Placing uncertainty at the centre of the development debate, drawing inspiration from research with pastoralists, is beginning to suggest new directions for development more generally.

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