Pastoralist Resilience: the Roles of Customary Institutions in Central Afghanistan

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In Brief

This paper draws on the findings of research on the roles of customary institutions in building resilience of pastoralists in Kabul and Parwan Provinces of Central Afghanistan against complex humanitarian misfortunes. The study revealed malik, Jirga and shura contribute in addressing shocks and stresses through managing natural resources, conflicts, and maintaining the rules and norms, respectively.  These institutions encourage pastoralists to take cautionary actions in the face of disasters and promote social support and cooperation that includes all-inclusive mobility, zakaa-based livestock sharing, rationing of feed during winter, payment for livestock services and construction of flood prevention dams, as well as reporting the situation to the government. Pastoralists’ resilience is heightened by unified families regardless of the nature of the shocks and stressors and peaceful coexistence. Efficiency of customary institutions in managing rangelands, mobility and negotiation with neighboring sedentary farmers, adaptation to changes and uncertainties, and re-organization of institutions towards ecological sustainability are the factors that indicate resilience of pastoralists in the study area. Respondents suggested the need for government and other actors to build the capacity of customary systems at field and policy levels to enhance local microfinances, natural resources management, peaceful pastoral communities and links to market systems.

Worldwide, there are over 200 million pastoralists living in harsh and uncertain contexts where alternative farming systems are hardly possible.1,2 Livestock reared in pastoral systems contribute significantly to national and regional economies and provide important environmental services such as carbon sequestration, fire prevention, and biodiversity conservation.1

About 10% (2.5 million people) of the total population of Afghanistan are pastoralists (also locally known as Kuchis) and inhabit marginalized parts of all provinces of Afghanistan.3,4 Over 35% of the export earnings of Afghanistan comes from pastoralists’ livestock and their outputs (live animals, meat, leather, cashmere, karakul etc). Conservative estimates put the total landmass suitable for pastoralist at 45% while optimists estimate from 70-85% which has huge potential compared to the extensively exploited 12% arable land in Afghanistan.3

The Kuchis in Afghanistan suffer shocks and stresses associated with extreme insecurity and conflict and natural disasters such as drought, flooding, and rampant livestock disease outbreaks. These limit the competence of the sector to contribute to the national economy of the war torn Afghanistan.5 Drought incidence from 1999 to 2002 was reported to decimate as high as 70% of the Kuchi livestock.3

According to De Weijer (2007) and Desta (2009) the extreme droughts that have been recurring for at least the last 10 years have depressed the Kuchi’s ability to recover and maintain their herd. Furthermore, informal conflict management mechanisms and skills to negotiate access to water and pasture have been weakened. As a result, the Kuchi system is in a downward spiral of increasing poverty and food insecurity.1

The roles of customary institutions in resilience building in pastoralist areas are well documented in Somalia,2 Kenya,6 Botswana,7 Ethiopia,5,8 Mongolia9 and Uzbekistan10. It is apparent that customary structures are what sustained populations through decades of conflict and weak governance in Afghanistan. They play significant roles in governance, security, and socio-economic facets of the rural communities.11,12 This justifies the importance of understanding customary institutions to bridge the gap.13,14

Understanding how Kuchi communities in Afghanistan were organized and how they traditionally solved issues was fundamental in developing a successful resilience system. Saltmarshe and Medhi (2011) underlined that the triumph of local governance initiatives in Afghanistan ultimately depends upon how technocratic outsiders are able to navigate the web of customary institutions and actors. Therefore, it is very timely to revitalize appropriate customary systems of Kuchi communities in order to salvage their livelihoods from further deterioration.1

So far there are no comprehensive research endeavors to study how customary institutions function in building resilience of Afghan Kuchies against natural and/or man-made shocks and stressors. This research; therefore, examines the customary institutions involved in building resilience of pastoralists in the Central Afghanistan.

Survey Design and Research Methodology
In this study, 153 pastoralist/Kuchi households and 6 elites/experts were interviewed from Kabul and Parwan Provinces of the central Afghanistan in 2015. Kabul province is located at latitude 34-31′ North and longitude 69-12’ East. The province includes the capital city of Afghanistan (Kabul) with a total population of 4,227, 261.15 Parwan province is located at latitude 35o 3’ North and longitude 68o 55’ East.16 It is one of the ancient locations in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan with a total population of 653,362.15 The survey was specifically conducted in 7 villages of the Bagrami, Qarabagh and Deh Sabz districts of Kabul and 3 villages of the Baghraam district of Parwan Provinces respectively. The districts were selected because Kuchi nomads were settled in the areas during the study period.17

The study entails descriptive and explanatory as well as quantitative and qualitative research approaches.18 Convenience sampling was used to locate the samples with security and seasonal mobility of the Kuchi communities being taken into account.18 The households were selected based on systematic sampling in which every other household was interviewed. For the key informant interviews, snowball sampling methods were used per the approach recommended by Walliman (2006). A semi-structured questionnaire was administered for the households and elites to learn their thoughts of the roles of customary institutions in building resilience.

The quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive univariate, bivariate and multivariate statistical methods.18 The findings of the qualitative information obtained from the household surveys and the elites’ perspectives were used to analyze and build on the quantitative findings.

Results and Discussion

Livelihood Strategies of Pastoralists in Kabul and Parwan
The study was carried out through a household survey of 153 pastoralists of Pashtun ethnicity and key informant interview of six elites/experts in Kabul and Parwan Provinces. In relation to the length of mobility, the elites highlighted that there are three types of pastoralists in Afghanistan – mobile, semi-settled and settled pastoralists. This agrees with the findings of De Weijer (2005) and Tepper (2008) that highlights mobility between different countries, between provinces of Afghanistan, and settled agro-pastoralists, respectively. The research suggests that pastoralists/kuchies are characterized by possession of livestock, mobility, speaking a unique dialect, and settlement in a typical kuchi tents.

The respondents suggested that they are in one of the better-off (33%), medium (31%), poor (25%) and/or very poor (10%) categories of wealth ranks (Table 1). A better-off pastoralist owns 380 shoats (sheep and goats), 2.4 camels, 5.2 donkeys, 4 cattle and 2 dogs whereas the very poor/destitute have 37 shoats, 1.7 donkeys and 1 dog on average.

Table 1 Wealth ranking of interviewed pastoralists
SN Wealth Rank N %
1 Better-off 51 33.33
2 Medium 48 31.37
3 Poor 39 25.49
4 Very poor/Destitute 15 9.80
Total 153 100

Customary Institutions in Central Afghanistan
Nearly all (98.6%) respondents agreed that local Kuchi leaders, mainly Maliks (Pashtun clan leaders), play key roles in managing rangeland and water resources, while 96% considered Jirga (elders assembly) as the main customary institution in conflict management (prevention, control and defense) among the pastoralists of Kabul and Parwan Provinces. This concurs with the findings of De Weijer (2002) and Wardak (2003). Brick (2008) emphasized that malik is an executive authority that intervenes with issues related to land ownership in Afghanistan. In cases of conflict, the jirga system assembles meetings with each of the rivals separately and then brings the sides together to resolve the clash and address strategies to prevent factors that would cause conflict. If the conflict is beyond the capacity of jirga, they immediately report to loya jirga and/or government so that these authorities can take actions at higher levels.

Moreover, 78% of the respondents believe that shuras (the council of clerics) enforce or make decisions as to the rules, customs, norms, beliefs and practices developed by Malik and Jirga. Besides facilitating mobilization of resources for destitute pastoralists, Shuras are engaged in linkage and coordination with other pastoral communities, reporting the situation to the government and attracting non-governmental organizations and donors as discussed by elites.

This research has also brought to light that in addition to the above customary institutions, pastoralists/Kuchies have the so called ashar (volunteers) that are specifically assigned to address Kuchi problems jointly. De Weijer (2005) and Brick (2008) added Hamsaya (a sacrificed traditional protection of neighborhood) and Arbab (a part of Malik) as members of the customary institutions that help settlement of pastoralists with farmers for grazing and brokerage between the government and pastoralists for land ownership respectively.

Adopted from this research and Schutte (2009), De Weijer (2005) and Bricks (2008)
Fig. 1 The structure of customary institutions and their mechanisms.


As such, this research is consistent with the fact that there are patron-client related customary institutions in Central Afghanistan. The potential interactions between customary and formal institutions that are more of complementary as is the case in shura and jirga and competing as is the case in malik with government structures has been articulated in the research. Customary institutions interact with formal institutions in four modalities (complementary, accommodating, substitute and competing) as indicated in table 2.23-25

Table 2 A typology of customary institutions
Outcome Effective formal institutions Ineffective formal institutions
Convergence Complementary Substitutive
Divergence Accommodating Competing

Source: Helmke and Levitsky (2004)

Shocks/Stressors, Resilience Context and Factors in the Study Area
Respondents and elites prioritized drought, conflict, livestock disease epidemics, conversion of rangelands into settlement/farming, public health epidemics and flooding as the major shocks and stressors in the study area. These shocks and stresses are exacerbated by politicized grazing rights and ethnic identities leading to conflict.

Customary institutions provide decisions in preparing to- and responding against shocks and stresses. The respondents in this research ranked early selling of some of their livestock, preparation and use of feed reserves, and diversification/synergy of livelihoods in that order to prepare themselves against shocks and stresses. The comparison of age groups and preparatory activities to increase resilience between now and 15 years ago reflected that there is no statistically significant difference between age groups (p>0.05) (Table 3).

Table 3 Age groups and the strength of customary institutional supports between now and 15 years ago
Age Observed Weaker No change Expected Weaker No change P value
18-35 53 18 49.6536 21.3464 .36
36-50 36 21 39.8627 17.1373
>50 18 7 17.4837 7.51634

Chi-square test

Roles of Customary Institutions in Building Resilience
Resilience against shocks and stressors for pastoralists in Afghanistan is defined by the elites (Box 1) as the capacity of pastoralists to maintain livestock resources after disasters. Pastoralists are considered resilient against shocks and stresses if they are able to reduce the impacts of livestock diseases, maintain secure places for living after a flooding incidence, put in place strong customary institutions and use saved cash to safely survive in emergency situations. At household and village levels, resilience is indicated, according to the respondents, by the pastoralists maintaining their families without anyone migrating to urban areas in search of labor and a peaceful coexistence between the pastoralists respectively.

Bujones et al. (2013) stated that resilience aims to understand the systemic shocks and stressors that people are exposed to and the mechanisms present in their community to withstand them. Resilience is a future oriented tool that offers a lens with which one explores stresses and shocks to understand livelihood trajectories thereby helping people prepare for disasters and mitigate the impacts before, during, and after the strikes.27,28

Adopted from the statements of Baival (2012) and Folke et al. (2002).
Box. 1


About 75% of the respondents pointed out that the presence of ‘efficient customary institutions’ is the key to help pastoralists become resilient against drought, while for conflict, 95% indicated that, ‘learning and adaptation to live with changes and uncertainties’ is important for resilience. Continuing to uphold their livestock population and maintaining mobile pastoralism dictates resilience against livestock disease epidemics among 72% of the respondents, and developing barriers and/or being able to live on the top side of a swamp area increases resilience against flooding among 93% of the respondents.

The respondents further emphasized that ‘introducing microfinance, feed production, and natural resources management’; ‘capacity building and empowerment of customary institutions’ and selection of resilient livestock species and breeds are strategies that ranked 1st to 3rd in making the pastoralists resilient. Pastoralists in Afghanistan and throughout the world have already started selecting robust livestock species that are resistant to shocks and stresses. This comprises of selecting hardy goats, camels, and donkeys to replace cattle and sheep via their customary institutions.29-31 Likewise, the study established that ‘empowering the animal health service sector and better management’; ‘accessibility of rangelands and water resources’; as well as ‘increasing access to market systems for pastoralists’ make them persistently resilient in the future.

Adopted from the statements of Baival (2012) and Folke et al. (2002).
Fig. 2 Customary institutions and their roles in innovation and resilience.


These findings are consistent with the principles of resilience as addressed by Baival (2012) and Folke et al. (2002). Williamson (2009) also stressed “the presence of customary institutions is a strong determinant of development” which increases people’s livelihoods in addition to making them resilient against shocks and stresses.

The leveraging of customary institutions in Afghanistan has strong outputs in terms of creating empowered and sustainable reforms.13 Linking the customary institutions with the formal sectors such as Community Development Councils (CDC) and Women Development Groups could lead to reduction of structural inequalities that obviously are crucial to eliminate poverty, in addition to creating the opportunity to empower women and leading to resilience.32 This linkage leads to increasing opportunities for Afghan pastoralists to gradually strengthen their malik, jirga, shura, elders and other religious institutions to organize and respond to shocks and stresses before, during, and after the incidences in much better ways than now.

Rauf (2009) in Pakistan highlighted the importance of customary institutions for being the keys to foster innovation. This has been reiterated through the responses of the current study, such as the capacity of 44% of respondents to diversify or alternate their livelihoods, increase their understanding of shocks/stresses and market systems, or selection of livestock breeds and species that are resistant to the current shocks/stresses. The Afghan government and other stakeholders that are involved in resilience building need to explore such views and make use of them. Stanfield et al. (2010) assessed the importance of customary institutional decisions to develop national policies and strategies in rural Afghanistan, instead of top-down policies and requests for community approval. Similarly, Kantor (2009) emphasized that customary institutions are key in creating social ties in cases of micro-credit and food security at large, the absence of which leads to higher vulnerability. Elites and experts in the study underscored that the government needs to formulate policies and strategies to develop the customary institutions and their roles in responding to shocks and stresses.

This study highlighted that the customary institutional set up has been weakening compared to 15 years ago, mainly as a result of interference by government to replace them with formal institutions. Unfortunately, government regulations, the formal rules, and even some of the international organizations still disregard the customary system.35,38 Christensen (2010) has made a clear assessment of the failures of the formal institutions that recognized that “jirga and shura are often staffed by less-capable decision makers, with unclear lines of authority, improper influence by local powers, and perpetuation of norms and practices that are extremely detrimental to women”. It is very obvious that Afghan women are deprived of several of their rights all the way from access to resources, utilization of assets/equipment, and control of any input or output in their environment.
The interviewed pastoralists and elites argued that all actors, including government, incorporate policies and strategies to empower customary institutions. There is a need to train the communities and the customary institutions in the areas of resilience building. This would help to boost local microfinance loans, natural resource management, peaceful pastoral communities, and links to market systems. Looking at the detailed analysis of Afghanistan and its historical background, customary institutions cannot be overlooked when trying to make the pastoral communities more resilient.19

This study explores the types and roles of customary institutions, their organizational structures, activities in responding to shocks and stressors, and their potential as sources of resilience building in pastoralist communities in central Afghanistan. Overall, 153 pastoralist households and 6 elites responded to semi-structured questionnaire surveys, each of them providing thought-provoking discourse about customary institutions.

Nearly all respondents agree that maliks (leaders of the Pashtun Clan) are the main players in managing water and rangelands; jirga (assembly of the elders) in conflict management; and shura (the council of clerics) in maintaining the rules, customs, norms and believes. In short, each of these plays a critical role in resilience in the region. The process of assistance to pastoralists in response to shocks and stresses, such as moving together to grazing land, provision of stored feed especially during winter, payment for emergency veterinary services, helping in the value chains of livestock, constructing protection walls in cases of flooding, and reporting to the parliament or politicians as final resorts are all roles of customary institutions.

Resilience against shocks/stresses is secured if the pastoralists are able to reduce the impacts of livestock diseases, maintain secure places for living after flooding incidence, put in place strong customary institutions and use saved cash to safely survive in emergency situation. Building resilience is displayed by very minimum family migration for search of labor outside of their neighborhood at household levels and peaceful coexistence of pastoralists at village levels. An efficient local institution to manage rangelands, mobility, and negotiation with sedentary farmers is the first thing to be done to enhance resilience against drought. On the other hand, resilience against conflict is augmented by learning and adaptation to live with changes and uncertainties.

As we move forward, resilience of pastoralists in the central Afghanistan will improve if all actors, including government, incorporate policies and strategies to empower and build the capacity of customary institutions thereby augmenting local microfinances, natural resources management, peaceful pastoral communities and links to market systems.

The author appreciates the participants and respondents involved in this research for spending their valuable time and inputs. The research also benefited from the kind support of Dr. Gerard Downes in providing invaluable and constructive guidance while performing this research.


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