The Economist’s Middle East and Africa section has a piece on the plight of those exposed to environemntal disasters due to climate change. The article talks a bit about the nomads of northern Kenya and how their livelihood remain endangered as the place gets drier and the drought cycle shortens. As I have stated before, it is not enough for us to pretend that the type of lifestyles still maintained by the nomads of Kenya, and Africa in general, are sustainable. The simple truth is that they are not. It is 2009 and human beings should not still be living at the mercy of nature, if they can avoid it. It is time these communities were given incentives to start laying the groundwork for a sedentary lifestyle. This is not cultural imperialism or anything. It is what’s practical.
And by the way, it is not condescending to say that nomadic pastoralism belongs in the stateless past when there was no concept of land tenure or stuff like libraries and hospitals and schools that require a sedentary lifestyle. “Incentives” here means some sort of nudge in the right direction. And to be quite honest, sometimes communities might make the wrong choices if the state stays out of their business. If a community chooses a lifestyle that kills half its children before they are five, confines women to the fields and kitchen, promotes high illiteracy rates and is generally backward by universally accepted standards of human life then I believe that the state has a duty to intervene. Now I know that for most of Africa the state is largely unable to do anything, and that is why there are NGOs everywhere (well to some extent). But this (the existence of an interventionist developmental state) ought to be the case.
How we can make the state do what it ought to do is another can of worms. But I think that right off the bat those involved in the development industry should always make it clear that the aim is to guarantee people a decent livelihood and not to merely make them comfortable in their poverty by pretending to “respect” their cultures and ways of life. This faux-respect is the kind of stuff that should never leave anthropology seminar rooms.
And going back to the Economist piece, the clown who wrote that piece should know that talking about the poor of the global south “picking up sticks” in conflicts is not cool. Such a condescending tone does not help anyone. The cheap humor is not worth it.