Frustrated herders

Inability to tolerate empty spaces limits the space available

W.R. Bion, psychoanalyst


How is it that we outsiders 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 question askers–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.


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 change only for the better when gratified. Gratifying needs and wants, as such, turn into as a species of prediction, for which planning and its cognates are suitable responses.

The reality of contingency is that the future, let alone the present, is not that predictable. In this reality, peoples’ needs are more an experiment than something to be met, or not.


Let me sketch three of the policy and management implications:

1. First and foremost, the frequency of wants and needs being frustrated–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. 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.

2. Still, saying we have to handle frustrations without being paralyzed or stalemated sounds like a bit too pat an answer.

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.

3. 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 for them, 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.


Where then am I positioned with respect to all the above? Am I above all this/

I too write from frustration. I too cannot know myself, because I cannot be everyone else in relationship to me. The paragraphs above are, in other words, my best take on the issue. Nor do I doubt that my 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?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s