Frustrated herders

I dislike being herded into certainty

Louise Glück, Nobel poet

Inability to tolerate empty spaces limits the space available

W.R. Bion, psychoanalyst


How is it that we outsiders–researchers, NGOs, government officials–can be certain about pastoralist wants and needs? One answer is that pastoralists tell us what’s what.

Another answer, the one I explore here, is when pastoralists do no such thing. Even if they say, “This is what we want and need,” there are important occasions where they are no are more omniscient about their needs and wants than are the researchers, NGO personnel and government officials, or for that matter the rest of us.

On the upside, a continuing asking and answering can clarify the respective needs and wants–even if in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways by those involved.


So much for the obvious. I want to go on and suggest, however, that the terms, “needs and wants,” do more a disservice when it comes to pastoralists living with and on uncertainty as I understand it.

The problem is when needs and wants fit too easily in with the language game of deprivation and gratification. In this view, pastoralist needs and wants are deprivations that continue and only change when gratified. Each term implies a future, and both terms imply something can be predicted. Policy types and NGOs, I think, are more apt than not to treat needs and wants as a species of prediction, for which planning and its cognates are suitable responses.

I also think any such notion isn’t helpful in the cases with which I am familiar. The reality of contingency is that the future, let alone the present, is not predictable. In this reality, peoples’ needs are more an experiment than something to be met, fulfilled, gratified or not.

That in turn means interactions among policymakers, NGO and researchers with pastoralists are themselves to be recast as experimental, at least in the sense that policies, projects and programs are about how the parties concerned weather their interactions.


Let me sketch three of the policy and management implications:

1. First and foremost, frustration of wants and needs–be they pastoralist, NGO, researcher, or government–is more to the point than deprivation and gratification.

Frustration not only because needs and wants aren’t fulfilled, but also frustration over having to figure what the needs and wants really are. Researchers are frustrated, pastoralists are frustrated, NGO staff are frustrated, and so too some government officials.

The good news is when learning to handle frustrations, induced with government and NGO interventions, means having to think more about what works and that more thinking means better handling of inevitable frustrations ahead. (“When” indicates no promises that either happen.) This applies as much to their researchers as it does to the pastoralists they study. So too for others involved.

Better handling contingent frustrations and living with/on uncertainty obviously overlap–but not completely. To my mind, a center of gravity around frustration highlights what’s missing in notions of “resilience in the face of uncertainty.”

Handling frustrations better is about what you–you, me, pastoralist, NGO staff person, researcher, government official–do between bouncing back and bouncing forward. Namely, the gap between having to be resilient and actually being resilient is, in a word, frustrating–and how to make that productively so is a core development question (pastoralist or other).

Another way to put it is that “uncertainty causes frustration” happens in ways significantly different. There are those brought up short by unexpected contingencies in major shocks and surprises and are frustrated in moving beyond them. There are others who depend on major shocks and surprises in order to demonstrate how capable they are in moving on. We interviewed emergency managers who said they were best when careful prior planning made a difference in disaster response. Others, however, felt that wasn’t enough. As an emergency planner and coordinator put it, “I think what makes a good emergency manager is you feel uncomfortable being off-balance. . .That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the field. When nobody has the answer that’s when I feel most capable in my job”.

2. Still, saying we have to handle frustrations without being paralyzed or stalemated sounds like a bit too much like ego-psychology and self-help.

I’m arguing, though, that these frustrations are better appreciated when recast as the core driver of relationships between and among pastoralists, researchers, NGOs and government staff. Bluntly stated, this is how the principal sides know they are in a relationship: They pose problems for the other and when those problems are frustrating, the salience of the relationship(s) increases for more parties.

This is why I make it such a big issue about just who are pastoralists talking to. Are they actually frustrated with this really-existing government official or that actually-existing NGO staff person? Who in government, if anybody, are pastoralist kith and kin talking to or want to talk to? Are they in a relationship, however, asymmetrical, or is it that others are just a nuisance, if that? Is the researcher actually frustrated with the pastoralists s/he is studying and, if so, in what ways is that frustration keeping their relationship going? Here too it is important, I think, to distinguish between those skilled in riding uncertainties and allied frustrations and those whose skills in relationships or otherwise are elsewhere.

(To be clear: I’m talking about better handling frustrations by not avoiding or trying to escape them. What bothers me are those descriptions on out-migration to Europe from the Sahel where migrants who survive seem portrayed in terms of victim-as-escape artist. Some may indeed be escaping; others, I suspect, are better understood, more formally, as managing frustrations in relations that persist.)

3. So what?

I have to be careful here not to generalize. Obviously, there are many effective policy types, NGOs, researchers and pastoralists.

To me as a policy type, it’s highly problematic recommending that government officials and NGO staff be in an authentic conversation with pastoralists taking the lead, if and when those doing the recommending are not themselves in an authentic conversation with government and the NGOs. This is particularly the case where pastoralists bear all the risks if and when those recommendations go wrong.

My reading of current peer-reviewed literature suggests, by way of example, that some researchers want nothing (more) to do with status-quo governments and savior-NGOs, who in the view of the researchers would be to blame anyway were mistakes not caught beforehand during the recommended changes. Again, I do not want to be seen as generalizing here.


Which neatly segues into: Where am I in all the above? Am I taking a synoptic view above and beyond the frustrations below? No way!

I too write from frustration. I too cannot know myself, because I cannot be everyone else in relationship to me. The paragraphs above are my best take. I don’t doubt this take would be different–must change–had interactions differed along the way during my career and in my reading to this point.

The broader point, though, remains: Does any of this relate to your experience, and if so, how so?

NB. As for my reading, the books of Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and essayist, are reflected in almost every sentence above, either by way of direct crib or light paraphrase.

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