09 February 2024

Self-accomplishment in a “development limbo”: life paths of nomadic pastoralists in Turkana, Kenya

In 2012, the discovery of crude oil in Kenya suddenly placed Turkana County under the national and international spotlight. Eight years later, a number of challenges led to the suspension of extractive activities, leaving behind unfinished roads, dry water pipes and pending CSR projects. Focusing on the interplay between oil extraction and the changing life paths of nomadic pastoralists, Elisabeth Schubiger illustrates in her ethnographic PhD thesis how local communities face the challenge of self-accomplishment in a “development limbo”. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

The journey to my research topic was quite unexpected. Originally, in 2018, while I was posted for a job in Kenya, I was intrigued by the ongoing dynamics taking place during the Early Oil Pilot Scheme (EOPS) in Kenya’s newly established oil extraction areas. However, Project Oil Kenya suspended operations in late 2019 when I started my PhD, and since is in a process of re-evaluating the viability of the project. Consequently, activities in Turkana were reduced to a minimum. Instead of investigating the distribution of revenues, I researched what has been left behind: unfinished roads, dry water pipes and pending Corporate Social Responsibility projects; and a local community that was uncertain of Project Oil Kenya’s whereabout. 

Can you describe your thesis questions? 

The core questions revolve around the interplay between oil extraction and the changing life paths of people in Turkana. In the beginning, I determine and describe the “petroscape”, a landscape that is loaded with the potential that oil extraction offers. Further, I explore the uncertainties that occurred because the petroscape didn’t hold what it promised and changed into what I call a “development limbo”. I discuss how the affected pastoralist communities coped with the development limbo, created by unrealised expectations, and uncertainties. 

What was your methodology?

My methodology was deeply immersive, spending over 12 months in ethnographic fieldwork by living together with the pastoralist communities stemming from the exploration areas. I engaged in participant observation, conducted interviews, delved into oral histories, analysed media, and embarked on walking interviews to capture the pulse of the local dynamics.

How does your thesis contribute to research into the impact of development interventions on local populations? 

My dissertation aims to make a contribution to a nuanced understanding of how the local community conceives the establishment of a crude oil extraction site in relation to the pending promise of continuous progress. I’m delving into the emic perspective, exploring the significance attached to crude oil extraction and how affected communities navigate this economically valuable resource, crucial for producing things like petroleum and plastic. I aim to provide insights into the local dynamics, showcasing how crude oil is touted as a development catalyst while not glossing over its negative impacts.

More broadly, I aim to bring to the fore a long-overdue conversation about the assemblages of development interventions that do not translate into the promises made by state and non-state development actors. I seek to illuminate how stakeholders affected by these unfulfilled promises navigate constantly changing futures and how they experience this state of in-betweenness, which I call “development limbo”. 

What could be the social and political implications of your thesis?

Beyond the academic realm, my research highlights the disenchantment faced by communities when promised benefits are left unfulfilled. Politically, it underscores the imperative of adapting more nuanced and responsive approaches to community engagement in development projects. The local perspective becomes paramount in understanding the true impact on the ground.

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Elisabeth Schubiger defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology on 18 January 2024. Associate Professor Aidan Russell presided over the committee, which included Senior Lecturer Yvan Droz, Thesis Director, and Professor Vigdis Broch-Due, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, Norway.

Citation of the PhD thesis: 
Schubiger, Elisabeth. “Turkana Oil Prospects: Petroscapes, Development Limbos and Self-Accomplishment at Kenya’s Northern Frontier.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2024.

Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the thesis via this page of the repository. Others can contact Dr Schubiger at

Banner image by Elisabeth Schubiger.
Interview by Nathalie tanner, Research Office.