University of Sussex
Mohamed, Tahira Shariff.pdf (45.95 MB)

The role of the moral economy in response to uncertainty among Borana pastoralists of Northern Kenya, Isiolo County

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posted on 2023-06-10, 06:08 authored by Tahira Shariff Mohamed
Drawing on Gudrun Dahl’s book Suffering Grass, the thesis traces changes and continuities in pastoralists’ moral economy practices in Kenya’s Isiolo County since 1975, examining how such practices are combined to respond to uncertain conditions in two sites (Kinna and Korbesa) – one more urban and the other more remote. The thesis asks: What is the role of the moral economy in response to uncertainty among pastoralists of Northern Kenya, and how has it changed since 1975? Through a longitudinal design centred on participatory historical event mapping, key informant interviews, indepth narrative case studies, archival searches and photo-voice methods, the thesis explores changes in the area over time, including those due to environmental factors (drought/animal disease), land-use change (conservancy, national parks) and shifts in political economy (governance, markets, politics). Despite these many changes, and highly uncertain conditions, pastoralism remains the dominant source of livelihood in both Kinna and Korbesa. Pastoralists rely on fundamental practices such as herd mobility, livestock species and livelihood diversification, and investing in social relations in order to navigate livestock production uncertainties. Within these practices, particular moral economy practices, centred on collective redistribution of resources remain significant. The thesis identifies five types of moral economy practice. In the more remote pastoral setting, with intensified insecurity and limited state and institutional presence, practices of redistribution and comradeship are central. In the more urban pastoral setting, with a proliferation of institutions, markets, diversification and investment, institutionalised support and collective crisis management through the use of newly important technologies are seen. Contrary to the assumption that the moral economy is waning due to social stratification and individualisation, the thesis finds that moral economies persist, and new forms are emerging. These enhance flexible response to shocks and crises. The thesis offers three substantial contributions to understanding pastoralists' livelihood trajectories and ways moral economies evolve, for whom and with what consequences when managing uncertainties. Firstly, through a qualitative longitudinal approach, working from a classic ethnographic account and assessing changes and continuities over 45 years, the study contributes to a better understanding of pastoral settings in Northern Kenya. Comparing moral economy practices in two distinct settings, remote and near urban, and among social groups, young/old, wealthy/poor, women/men, the thesis uncover the inequalities within pastoral societies and spatial geographies. These inequalities reveal that the 'grass' (pastoral production) was not wholly resilient. It depends on whose grass, where, and what access to survive and be resilient. Secondly, the thesis unveils the gaps in understanding pastoralists' moral economy by revealing that moral economies are not merely linked to 'tradition', 'subsistence' in pre-capitalist societies as is sometimes assumed. Pastoralists' moral economy practices are centred on organising for 'flexible survival' under uncertain conditions. The thesis offers a more profound, culturally rooted understanding of everyday moral economy practices. It showed how they contributed to how pastoralists survive, thrive and respond to uncertainties in the past 45 years through redistribution, comradeship, diversification, and collective response to protect the livelihoods from external threats, in each case going beyond the standard, market-based capitalist relations. Thirdly, the thesis adds to the understanding of spatial and vernacular understanding of vulnerability and responses – including the gender and generational differences between them. These deeper complexities - were often missed in externally defined aid/safety net programmes in pastoral areas. My interest in assessing how pastoralists create their safety nets and generate collective solidarities in response to uncertainties creates a greater appreciation of pastoralists' diverse moral economies and how they could be recognised and strengthened in the moves to extend social protection systems to pastoral areas.


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  • eng


University of Sussex

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