Aspirations for Future Lives
The first set of studies (the left-hand side of Fig. 1) takes an individual-level perspective across a number of East African countries. While aspirations are the focus of attention, the constraints faced by individuals both in the formation as well as the pursuit of their aspirations are highlighted and analysed. Agricultural development as one of the most commonly used entry points for rural development is facing increasing scrutiny for often not considering the realities faced by their targets (e.g. Harris and Orr 2014; Gassner et al. 2019; Mausch et al. 2018; Dorward et al. 2009). Verkaart et al. (2018) theorized how aspirations would play out against the Dorward et al. (2009) framework for farming futures and outlined how different opportunity spaces and aspirations play out as incentives to adopt, or not, different technologies. The basic characteristics such as risk profiles, labour demands and existing farming systems are likely important drivers that need to be taken into account.
For this Special Issue, aspirations are not proposed as the solution for development efforts but are suggested as one additional tool to better align support mechanisms with the wants and needs of the people they are meant to assist. The perceived opportunity space plays a significant role across all contributions and the resulting plans, tactics and strategies towards reaching aspired futures. The interactions between development efforts and aspired futures are scrutinized and allow an in-depth assessment of underlying assumptions of development planners towards their constituency.
This sub-set of papers incorporates qualitative, quantitative and mixed-method studies that examine future goals and livelihood strategies while highlighting how these link to agriculture, youth, location and gender. Here, Tabe-Ojong et al. (2021) and Mausch et al. (2021) focus on inter-community diversity of aspirations and the influence of the opportunity space. Nandi and Nedumaran (2021), La Rue et al. (2021), Crossland et al. (2021) and Aring et al. (2021) focus more on individuals’ perspectives and investigate differences within groups faced with similar biophysical opportunity spaces. These studies provide a broad overview, highlighting the breadth and complexity of the issues, the currently used methods to measure and elicit aspirations and a summary of current gaps in understanding. There is a clear focus on how a consideration of aspirations in development efforts would have implications for current and possible future development approaches and themes such as migration, shocks or extension systems.
In their systematic review, Nandi and Nedumaran (2021) outline the importance of aspirations as frameworks for choices and investments in income-generating activities, predominantly associated with farming. However, they caution that aspiration failures are more prevalent in poorer and marginalized groups which raises concerns about widening gaps. The most commonly used method among the studies reviewed was the Aspiration Index developed by Beaman et al. (2012) and Bernard and Taffesse (2012, 2014).
This index is also the method employed by Tabe-Ojong et al. (2021) who focus on the influence of ecological shocks, such as invasive species (Prosopis and Parthenium) and less permanent threats such as the Fall Armyworm, on the level of aspirations. They caution that the presence of invasive species and the threat of pest emergence reduce aspirations and could lead to a downward aspirations spiral. In line with Nandi and Nedumaran (2021) they recommend focussing on increasing the capacity to aspire in efforts to avoid aspiration-based poverty traps.
Tabe Ojong et al. and Nandi and Nedumaran (2021) concur that the index is a useful tool that is easily integrated into standard surveys. However, in the context of this Special Issue, we would consider such an index as a measure of ambition rather than of aspiration. The index quantifies how much better off someone would like to be but offers few clues as to how any future desired state is to be brought about. This allows only indirect insights into any developmental support mechanisms that might be necessary.
Mausch et al. (2021) take a different approach and explicitly focus on how aspirations shape income portfolios across farm and off-farm income streams in their analysis of aspirational differences across contrasting regions of Kenya. Using a narrative-based approach, they highlight the importance of the perceived opportunity space in the formation of aspirations. Similar to Nandi and Nedumaran (2021) they point out that immediate needs often restrict the ability to pursue aspirations. Importantly, they found large yet often overlooked diversity within communities which could inform future options for effective development. Focussing on the role of agriculture as one of the most commonly used entry points for development support they reveal that even farming households share farming-related future visions in only 65% of cases.
Using the same sample of respondents, La Rue et al. (2021) investigate the widely held assumption that young people are not interested in farming as a livelihood. Their contribution also investigates the methodological influence in forming this assumption as they use both the aspiration index as well as a narrative-based approach. While there is a tendency towards increased farming-focussed aspiration narratives with increasing age of the respondent, the young people interviewed tend to envision at least a partial farming-based future. They aspire to remain in their rural homes and to mixed livelihoods involving both farm and off-farm activities. This reiterates the need for a range of support mechanisms that not only cater to diverse inter-personal aspirations but also to diverse portfolios of career activities.
Linking to the higher likelihood of aspirational failure of marginalized groups found by Nandi and Nedumaran (2021), Crossland et al. (2021) use narratives combined with focus group discussions to take an in-depth look at female aspirations in a region with high rates of male out-migration. Social norms limit migration by women but in the absence of men, women’s agency has increased. Based on their new de facto role as farm managers, they report increased confidence and more opportunities to make their own farming decisions. Such increased agency of women needs to be taken into account when designing and implementing training opportunities and other supportive approaches.
Aring et al. (2021) also highlight the critical boundaries of aspiration formation as uncertainties and socio-economic preconditions shape, or rather restrict, the opportunities to accumulate assets and grow. They also examine why some people explore more creatively what options exist and others are more passive and just ‘hang in’. The critical role of personal connections and social networks is one explanation for both positive or negative influences here. Taking a community-based perspective, the critical need to focus on an increased capacity to aspire emerges again as a potential factor for success.
Aspirations as Visions for Development
The second set of contributions (the right-hand side of Fig. 1) explores top-down political aspirations translated into large-scale development projects and their impact on livelihoods, but also how aspirations of individuals are influenced by such large-scale interventions. Nation states often adopt desirable futures from international organizations and express them in policy recommendations. For example, the World Development Report 2009 advocates the importance of agglomeration forces and suggests concentration of population and economic activities and so fostering large cities and rural–urban migration (World Bank 2009). The UN General Assembly in 2008 and the World Economic Forum in 2009 and 2010 stressed the importance of infrastructure in the form of the so-called growth corridors which are meant to integrate places and connect them to global markets (Paul and Steinbrecher 2013; Galvez Nogales 2014). These expectations are often based on neoclassical economic theories. In short, the improved connectivity and decreasing transport costs to markets allow, for example, farmers and touristic businesses to specialize and to generate economies of scale. It is assumed that this positive impulse attracts additional related firms (e.g. agro-input suppliers and food processors or tourism-related suppliers and restaurants) located at different places along the growth corridor. These new players are expected to enhance spatial concentration processes along the corridor, providing employment and spillover effects. Another example of top-down political aspirations is the introduction of community-based conservation, heavily supported by NGOs. Trying to balance out the need to preserve biodiversity but at the same time allowing for sustainable land use by local residents, community-based conservation has been introduced in many African countries. Often, protected areas were established across communal lands with a strict zoning plan defining which landuse is allowed and affects e.g. farmers in their daily practices and thus livelihood strategies (Hulke et al 2020). In all cases, political aspirations are meant to create opportunity spaces for the locals.
The papers in this section cover a number of themes around political aspirations of desirable futures described above including urban migration (Chamberlin et al. 2021), wildlife conservation (Matejcek and Verne 2021), large-scale irrigation schemes (Höllermann et al. 2021), growth corridors and value chains (Kalvelage et al. 2021); road infrastructure (Greiner et al. 2021) and megaprojects (Müller-Mahn et al. 2021). These studies provide the readership with a fine-grained, contextually sensitive examination of the ways in which aspirations interact with broader government-led attempts to improve peoples’ livelihoods using a broad range of methods.
Contrary to the expectations of the World Bank, urban centres in many African countries are not able to provide employment opportunities to the massive flow of labour from rural to urban areas. Chamberlin et al. (2021) analyse under which conditions out-migration can be mitigated and test quantitatively whether more vibrant rural economies in Zambia have an impact on the exodus of youth from rural areas. Overall, they demonstrate that more vibrant rural economies are less prone to out-migration although the sectoral composition matters. They find that the particular opportunity space can have contrasting effects. Market orientation of agriculture reduces out-migration as it increases local opportunities but a stronger rural non-farm economy increases out-migration as it makes it easier to find non-farm employment elsewhere. The importance of agriculture in shaping opportunity spaces is also shown by Crossland et al. (2021), especially for women.
This opportunity space is what is often attempted to be changed through large-scale development initiatives such as growth corridors or large irrigation schemes like SAGCOT. These irrigation schemes can also reduce negative environmental effects which Tabe-Ojong et al. (2021) highlighted as negatively affecting aspiration levels. Höllermann et al. (2021) and their investigation of how the presence and prospects of irrigation schemes affect aspirations against the background of group dynamics provides further insights into the interaction between people, the environment and support mechanisms as crafted by politicians and development agencies. Supporting the notion that the biophysical opportunity space (here reliable water supply as a key input into farming) is a critical component of aspiration formation, they outline how external changes in this opportunity space affect local aspirations and decision making.
A similar approach to broadening the opportunity spaces of rural people is investigated by Kalvelage et al. (2021) who analyse how community-based resource management (CBRM) schemes under the recently created Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) impacts local livelihoods. CBRM is designed to combine nature conservation and rural development, with conservation areas serving as a resource base for wildlife tourism. In parallel, the growth corridor policy aims to integrate the region into tourism global production networks (GPNs) by means of infrastructure development. Yet, the promise of linking infrastructure development and tourism policies through conservation envision has not materialized. Tourism-driven development reaches only a very limited number of rural residents who are employed in low-wage jobs and/or receive payments from conservancy managements. On the contrary, tourism businesses outside Zambezi e.g. in the capital Windhoek or travel agents in Europe are able to appropriate value created in the resource region.
Connecting to Kalvelage et al. (2021) and their critical investigation of tourism-based development, Matejcek and Verne (2021) shed light on the potential downsides of these top-down development approaches through their focus on human–wildlife conflicts. Matejeck and Verne (2021) focus on the localized effects of the aspirations of globalized development actors for nature conservation and the societal values these bring about. These interactions and possible disconnects between local aspirations and needs are a critical component in making national and global goals have relevance for local populations and allow them to benefit from, and contribute to, these targets. In the Kilombero Valley, they focus on a recent project by the African Wildlife Foundation to restore degraded wildlife corridors. The tension between local residents’ aspirations for future lives collides with restoration efforts promoted by outside actors. This finding emphasizes how closer consideration and alignment of these conflicting goals are critically important as resources are otherwise spent unproductively or even destructively. A reconsideration of the restoration-as-development approach is needed to effectively facilitate both local development and nature restoration in co-habituated spaces.
One of the common approaches for creating opportunities in remote regions is increasing the connectivity to markets through building new roads. Greiner et al. (2021) outline how rural roads affect livelihoods, values and knowledge of rural people and shape their views on infrastructure projects in more general terms. They are able to confirm some earlier findings on the positive effects of roads, not only for better-off households, but also for the poorer segments. People’s openness to social change appears to be improved as they also become more educated, and their values change with the presence of roads. However, other segments of the society in the focus region of the northern drylands of Kenya avoid roads and have less positive perspectives on such infrastructure as their (agro-)pastoral lifestyle tends to be negatively affected. These heterogeneous effects need to be taken into account when planning infrastructure development initiatives.
Finally, Müller-Mahn et al. (2021) take the example of three ‘megaprojects’ in Kenya and outline how the proposed concept of the ‘politics of aspirations’ leads to success or failure of these types of projects in relation to the local benefits they set out to provide. Their literature-based contribution reviews three megaprojects in Kenya, i.e. the construction of an International Airport and an abattoir at Isiolo, the Galana-Kulalu scheme and the standard gauge railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. Especially for the case of the Isiolo projects they highlight the role of policy or politicians’ aspirations which in some cases can take the form of ‘wishful thinking’ and potentially lead to failures. However, complex projects like these are difficult to evaluate and while some promises may not have been kept others may still materialize. Their politics of aspiration concept allows analysis of the formation of political aspirations and the capacities to aspire by the various actors involved and how these two factors translate into action.
Linking and Aligning Aspirations
The third group of two studies (the top of Fig. 1) explores how the understanding of people’s aspirations for future lives can be utilized to support development efforts of NGOs, governments or other development actors to better align support mechanisms and future development visions.
Dilley et al. (2021) describe, through in-depth interviews with the extension workers that offer insights from their daily work, how people’s aspirations too often misalign with development interventions. They combine the accounts of people who farm with those of extension agents who link the visions of political and development projects to those of the target groups. After outlining drivers of aspiration formation along a framework for technology adoption (Glover et al 2019) they explore how extension services respond to these drivers and link with aspired futures. They suggest that aspirations may be an important entry point to facilitate more responsive programming of national and international development agencies.
It is at this critical connection where the approach of Neely et al. (2021) could offer valuable new avenues for implementation. They outline their participatory process ‘Stakeholder Approach to Risk Informed and Evidence-based Decision-making (SHARED)’ that aims to enable evidence-based decision making and they describe its application to the development of the Turkana development plan in northern Kenya. They show how this planning process adopted methods that take a range of citizen and stakeholder views into account. The use of this methodology could bring household aspirations to the attention of decision makers and allow them to incorporate these into their processes, thus enabling the alignment of political processes and decisions with a population’s needs and wants.