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Responding to uncertainty: who are the experts?

Uncertainties are everywhere, part of life. But how to respond? Who are the experts? These are questions that we are debating this week at an ESRC STEPS Centre symposium. But they are also questions very pertinent to daily life in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere in the world.

Everyday uncertainties

For example, last week in Zimbabwe, a new currency arrangement was announced overnight. The multi-currency regime disappeared and all monetary transactions within the country had to take place in the Zimbabwe dollar. No-one expected this to happen so suddenly.

This year too farmers have confronted uncertainties in their farming practices, with a widespread drought. An El Nino event was predicted, but what impact this would have, where on cropping and livestock production was unknown. Farmers and herders have had to adapt and innovate.

Many of those who received plots as part of the land reform after 2000 are still awaiting confirmation of the status of their holdings. Offer letters have been issued by multiple authorities and sometimes to different people. Many with medium-scale A2 farms were promised leases, but their issuing has been painfully slow. Securing finance has therefore become very uncertain.

Agricultural markets have always been uncertain, as prices supply with both local and global demand. But selling tobacco, for example, has become more tricky today. Contracting arrangements are fragile, and auction sales are subject to all sorts of mediation making prices unclear. Even getting your crop to the sales floors can be subject to uncertainties, as police extract bribes at roadblocks.

In the past two decades, the economy as a whole has been informalised. Secure, stable jobs are rare. Instead, many must make a living in a highly precarious setting. The kukiya-kiya economy – improving and making do – is the norm. This provides opportunities, but also challenges. Traders in an urban setting selling vegetables can have their businesses closed down at a stroke, as some ‘planning’ law is invoked by the local state. This has devastating consequences for traders, and their farmer suppliers.

Improvised responses, remembered pasts

These are just some examples; there are many more. Zimbabweans have become experts at responding to uncertainty. The old certainties of the past, based on stable, agreed plans, rules and regulations have gone. Informality means that transactions across numerous players have expanded.

And, added to this, people must respond to the wider global challenges of climate changedisease outbreak and volatility in financial markets, for example. Layered uncertainties intersect in an increasingly complex setting. Improvisation, experimentation, adaptation, negotiation are the watchwords in the performance of responding to intersecting uncertainties.

This can generate anxiety and stress. Confronting these challenges is not easy when you are having to make a living. Life depends on navigating a whole array of uncertainties. Coping takes many forms. When formal systems don’t exist or are not trusted, gossip, rumour and informal networks become important. Who knows what the parallel market rate is? Where is the best place to market a product? What time of day or night is it safe to travel on the road and avoid costly extortion? All these questions are regularly asked by Zimbabwe farmers (and others), with responses exchanged via Whatsapp. When the stresses of responding to uncertainty increase, humour is a good release. Jokes, stories, satire and songs are all very Zimbabwean outlets.

Some dream of the past, conjuring up a vision of when things were all apparently OK. Some even refer back to the colonial past when order and stability were features. Back then, so the narratives go, you knew where you stood; the system worked; a contract meant a firm agreement; the local currency was strong. Of course, nostalgic memories of the past are part of how the challenges of today are coped with too.

Yet, these constructed pasts of course don’t reflect the reality. Stability and order were created in favour of a certain elite and arbitrary intervention – removal of land, arrest for dissent, forcing of conservation measures on agricultural land and so on – were part of this regime of control. The past is not the answer to the future, even when the present is especially challenging.

Uncertainty: a sign of the times

It’s not only Zimbabweans who must confront the challenges of the new contexts of turbulence, complexity and uncertainty. This is a global phenomenon as the old systems fail to contain and control. Whether it’s climate chaos, the collapse of financial systems, mass migrations, epidemic disease outbreaks or the unravelling of political settlements, uncertainties are everywhere. And the old systems of control and order – what James Scott called ‘seeing like a state’ – no longer function. Our institutions are not geared up to respond to complexity and uncertainty of the sort seen today. They are failing on all fronts, and new alternatives are needed.

This is the topic of the symposium this week organised by the ESRC STEPS Centre at Sussex, which I co-direct. With participants examining everything from crime to volcanoes, we are aiming to unpack the politics of uncertainty, and explore the implications. I don’t think we will nail it in two days, but the event has attracted much interest from very diverse fields. We have participants focusing on finance and insurance, as well as disaster risk management and disease preparedness. Others have been researching new technologies – from driverless cars to CRISPR genetic tech – while others are concerned with global migration and expanding cities.

A central feature of these discussions is the distinction between uncertainty (where we don’t know the likelihoods of outcomes) and risk (where likelihoods are known, or can reliably be estimated). This is important, because how you respond must differ. With risk, clear control-based management is possible. Models, designs and plans all provide support for a rational, directed response. With uncertainty, you cannot predict, and different responses must follow. As Andy Stirling – the other co-director of the Centre – points out in this short video, there are other dimensions of incertitude too; and taking these seriously is essential.

In advance of the symposium – and as part of the background work for our PASTRES project on pastoralism and uncertainty – I produced a (rather long and quite dense) working paper called ‘What is Uncertainty and Why does it Matter?’. You can read it here. It is an attempt to grapple with the vast literature on risk and uncertainty. You can judge for yourself whether I was successful; it wasn’t an easy task!

Taking uncertainty seriously, I argue, is essential for addressing complexity, turbulence and contexts where knowledge about what the future holds are unclear. But this also requires a radical rethinking of how we go about everything from technological assessment to disaster preparedness to infrastructure design to the management of financial and market networks. In other words, it means a fundamental rethinking of what we once thought of as ‘development’.

This is a rather big, perhaps overambitious, argument, but I think it’s important. I was lucky enough to be invited to Copenhagen University recently to receive this year’s Ester Boserup prize for development research. I was very pleased to accept, especially as I am a big fan of Ester Boserup’s work, as it was always thoroughly empirically-based, challenging of conventional wisdoms and radically interdisciplinary, and often not accepted by the mainstream. My talk (35 min talk in video also below) tried to lay out these arguments, of why embracing uncertainty means a radical rethinking of development.

Who are the real experts?

The uncertainty working paper and the Copenhagen talk lay out the bigger arguments, but we must recognise that there are those, by both necessity and choice, who are already living with and off uncertainty, from whom we can learn.

This includes the pastoralists we are researching with in Amdo Tibet in China, southern Ethiopia, western India, northern Kenya, Sardinia and southern Tunisia as part of the PASTRES project, who have for millennia have made a living in highly variable environments.

Zimbabweans too are experts in uncertainty – perhaps especially so, given the turbulence of the political and economic setting over the past two decades. Zimbabweans have been learning the skills and aptitudes, and managing the stress and anxiety, that an uncertain world requires.

Nostalgic dreaming of an imagined past is not the answer, but inventing new practices and institutions that make the informal, networked, volatile, uncertain world possible – less a source of stress and anxiety, but supported and facilitated – is a crucial challenge for us all.

The experts who can radically transform both thinking and practice in development must therefore include Zimbabwe’s farmers and traders, along with pastoralists, front-line health officials dealing with disease outbreaks, brokers in complex, volatile, financial markets, and reliability professionals in critical infrastructures – and the many, many others. All of whom, in different, dispersed ways, are inventing a future (in ways as yet often unrecognised) that matches the huge challenge of uncertainty.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.