03 Apr, 2019

SURPRISING ETHIOPIA: Forget Famine but Food and Migration Challenges Remain

by Mattia Grandi

Mattia Grandi, Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (Pisa, Italy)

Often crystallized in the vast public imagination as a place of conflict and starvation, Ethiopia is in fact a fast-developing country, which many look at as a model. Between the blurred lines of recent historic events - the revolution against a brutal communist regime during the ‘80s, the democratic consolidation in the ‘90s, the border war with Eritrea at the dawn of the new millennium, and the economic boom experienced throughout the last decade - a less stereotyped image of the giant of the Horn still struggles for recognition.

Ethiopia is making a transition from a subsistence farming nation afflicted by famines to an agricultural exporter. It is home to one of the largest migratory waves in Africa – yet most of the migration is into the country and within the country, not exporting its own hungry citizens.

Large challenges remain ahead. The country’s political system remains repressive. Ethiopia still sucks in large amounts of development aid, fails to feed its entire population, and it is beginning to see migrants flow out, mostly to the Middle East.

Young and Wealthy?

Ethiopia’s economic performance demolishes the conventional wisdom of a starving, impoverished country. Besides being among the world’s fastest growing economies, with its continuously breaking record levels of GDP annual growth (more than 10% on average over the last ten years), Ethiopia is regarded as a role model for poverty reduction and a positive example of inclusiveness. According to official sources, during the last decade extreme poverty has indeed halved (from 61 to 31 percent), thus making the country one of the few to meet the first of the Millennium Development Goals worldwide[1].

At the same time - and contrary to another common wisdom over African realities - inequality is decreasing. The country’s GINI index has decreased to 39.1 in 2015 from the 1995 value of 44.6. A burgeoning Ethiopian middle class has emerged[2]. Per capita wealth has more than tripled in 10 years only (2007-2017) - despite a population growth estimated in 24 million in the same timeframe - and is expected to increase even further in the next future (+40% by 2023).

The face Ethiopia is showing the world is not about growth alone then, but rather progress towards poverty eradication and inclusive economy: especially with regard to social services, such as education, health, water and sanitation as well as infrastructure. The expansion in access has been “tremendous” in the labelling of the Development Programme of the United Nations[3].

Besides hard data and cold facts, the hypothesis that Ethiopia is booming is evident across the vibrant streets of its capital city, where luxury buildings and new businesses are multiplying alongside modern railways at the forefront and foreign investors’ stylish facilities. If these are among the most tangible signs of a blossoming Addis Ababa, there is evidence to turn the inadequate, biased and stereotyped image of a backward Ethiopia into one of success.

The other side of a success story

Despite the recent progress, Ethiopia still faces serious challenges. While the officially proclaimed goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2025 might be achieved, the current conditions of most Ethiopians still raise concerns, especially with regard to political rights and civil liberties, as well as in terms of the degree of stability, social cohesion and harmony within such an heterogenous polity of more than 100 million people.

The rule of law in this young democracy is not yet mature. In the last general elections in 2015, opposition parties only gained 5.1% of overall valid votes and freedom of expression is restricted. Ethiopia is ranked among the 30 worst countries in the world in terms of freedom of information[4]. Minorities are persecuted – riots erupted in Oromia Region and other areas since 2015. NGOs are limited in their activities. According to Freedom House, Ethiopia is a “not free authoritarian state [willing] to repress the opposition, independent media and other sources of dissent”[5], while presenting at the same time very high levels of corruption[6]. Similar conclusions are advanced by the Fraser Institute, whose Freedom Score ranks Ethiopia among the five worst countries in Africa and -more worryingly perhaps- shows how patterns of ‘human’ freedom have actually worsened rather than improved over the last decade[7].

All is not bleak, politically speaking. Changes within the structure and functioning of the inner dynamics of the ruling coalition, including the leadership change that in 2018 brought reformer Abiy Ahmed to power have opened venues for “unprecedented changes”[8] and “electrified” the country with a promising wind of political reforms[9]. Young, charismatic and energic, the new leader of the ruling coalition has in few months succeeded where his predecessors failed. He has moved forward the peace process with Eritrea, released political prisoners, lifted bans on media and ended a prolonged state of emergency[10].

Where gold is covered in wax

The picture of Prime Minister Abiy’s resolute smile is at odds with the images of the social riots that have shaken the nation up. Similarly, the colourful and joyful celebrations of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Day (every 8 December) clash with the mourning chants soaring from the deadly Oromo-Somali territorial disputes.

These contradictions are explicit in one of the most important traditions in the Ethiopian culture, the literary metaphor of “the wax and gold” (Sen-ena-Werq in Amharic), where the wax is the apparent meaning and the gold the underlying ‘actual’ significance[11]. Mostly used in the poetry tradition to make the actual message (often soaked in political criticism) implicit, the ‘wax and gold’ analogy is applied to the politics of Ethiopia. For some, the ‘wax’ is nowadays the face Ethiopia has projected globally, that of a booming economy experiencing impressive improvements in poverty eradication and social inclusiveness, while the hidden ‘gold’ is the underlying social instability across the country that an unresolved anxiety for structural reforms, full democratization and equity in opportunities brings about.

It could also be read otherwise: that the real nature of modern Ethiopia, prosperous and glittering, still struggles to emerge because of the ‘wax’ (challenges and controversies) it is covered with. Being one way or the other, the two-fold nature of an Ethiopia ‘rising, but’ often emerges out of economic considerations and socio-political inquiries.

Portrayed as the main actor for regional stability in an area familiar with disruptions and secessions (e.g. in Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan), Ethiopia is at the same time domestically challenged by separatist movements and power struggles. Once praised for the innovative foundation of an ‘ethnic’ federalism, the country is at the same time criticized for an unequal distribution of resources based on ethnic cleavages.

These are just few among the swirling examples of Ethiopia’s double nature. While the pro-growth and the pro-poor narratives promoted by the state authorities populate official documents and strategic plans, the giant of the Horn still figures amongst the main recipients of international aid, especially in humanitarian food assistance. How does it happen that a country that has quadrupled its GDP in less than 10 years (from less than 20 billion USD in 2007 to 80 billion USD in 2017) fails to feed its own peoples?

Land policy and food emergencies in Ethiopia: what’s the catch?

With 3.8 billion USD per year in development assistance, Ethiopia figures among the five largest recipient countries in the world and is by far the biggest on the African continent[12]. Much in details, in terms of sectoral distribution the proportion of humanitarian assistance accounts for 32% of total aid, a value that is considerably higher than the global average (13% only)[13]. While the country is continuously exposed to climatic hazards and natural disasters (recently, for example, the 2011-12 East Africa drought, the effects of El Niño Southern Oscillation in 2015-16, including the 2016 deadly floods that hit the country etc.) as well as to recurrent crises of refugees fleeing from neighbouring countries (such as Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan), the high levels of humanitarian need in Ethiopia are triggered by other key factors, such as local conflict and the increasing number of forcibly displaced people, inadequate land and food policies, and protracted marginalization of large sectors of the Ethiopian society both in terms of access to and utilization of resources.

The Humanitarian and Disaster Resilience Plan (HDRP) launched by the Ethiopian government and humanitarian partners for 2018 estimated a population in need of assistance within the country of around eight million, and almost 1.5 billion USD funding requirements to face several crises in terms of relief, rehabilitation and recovery, especially in the Regional States of Oromia and Somali. In particular, more than half of the total requirements (751 million USD) were channelled to purchase food items from abroad for immediate emergency assistance.

Paradoxically in a country where food accounts for three quarters of total exports, where malnutrition has been curbed by 33% in 15 years, where agricultural productivity has sharply increased (+82% in the crop production index from 2006 to 2016), where the value added of the agricultural sector has tripled in 10 years (from 8.3 billion USD in 2007 to 27.3 billion USD in 2017), people can’t afford to feed themselves[14].

The agricultural sector in Ethiopia has long been acknowledged as the foundation of the country’s economy and has been regarded as the key for industrial development. The government has insisted on the rural intensification of farming systems towards the completion of the agrarian transformation from a subsistence agriculture to the development of agribusiness. Foreign investments in the sector are flowing in from China, India, Turkey and the Gulf states. Whether agribusiness and export-directed production would also increase the food security of Ethiopian farmers and improve the livelihoods of rural populations remains an open question.

People on the run: between shocks and the ‘culture of migration’

As of January 2019, almost three million Ethiopians were searching for a better fate fleeing from desperate situations at home, the highest number across the planet[15]. Known among the development practitioners as IDPs (Internally Displaced Peoples), forced migrants that remain within the Ethiopian boundaries are considerably a much larger proportion than the few that leave the country.

Interestingly enough, 83% of Ethiopian IDPs identify ‘conflict’ as primary driver of displacement, while only the remaining half million indicate ‘climate-induced events’ (e.g. drought and flooding) as the main cause of their forced dislocation[16].

Ethiopia hosts the second largest refugee population in the African continent (after Uganda’s). The top three African countries in terms of origin of the combined populations of refugees and asylum seekers are located in the region, South Sudan, Somalia and Sudan[17]. These humanitarian catastrophes and massive displacements represent a constant challenge to the state authorities and their development partners.

Despite the lack of reliable data on irregular emigration from Ethiopia, there is evidence of recently increased outbound migration streams, especially towards the Middle East, but also within Africa (to South Africa, primarily), with few attempting instead to reach North America and Europe. The migration flow to the Middle East particularly targets Saudi Arabia; surveys indicate that 60% of current migrants are female, mostly from poor large households in rural areas[18], and despite the well acknowledged (from 92% of the migrants) risks associated with the irregular journey to Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, “42 percent indicated that the benefits of migration were worth the risks”[19]. Migration seems a rewarding coping strategy, especially among female workers, for household survival.

Yet, “there is no evidence that households are better-off from having a migrant in the Middle East”[20]. In some rural areas the ‘culture of migration’ brings pressure to bear on adolescents and youth to compete with each other to move out of their communities, for “those who decide to stay behind or who cannot move are stigmatized”[21]. The ‘successful ones’ are those that complete the full labour migration corridor to the Gulf, not necessarily those whose remittances allow their households to increase their wellbeing. Wedged between extreme shocks and family pressures, many youths in Ethiopia have no choice but to migrate as they walk on the tightrope of system disruptions, policy barriers and social stigma.

Surprising Ethiopia: no cuts, no buts?

Ethiopia teaches many important lessons, as well as it challenges the stereotypical pictures by means of which the second most populous country in Africa is sometimes portrayed. Economic indicators and surveys on public policy agendas show how large public investments and extensive poverty reduction strategies had a positive impact in Ethiopia, both in terms of sustained growth and poverty alleviation.

Nevertheless, wealth creation has turned out to be insufficient. Investments in agriculture and rural development are not likely to automatically improve livelihoods or curb migration[22]; export-led agribusiness might unveil the keys to inclusive development and job creation, but also prove to be incompatible with existing agricultural extension services and smallholders’ farming systems; policy barriers hinder mobility such as land tenure and much-promised reforms are incomplete.

Ethiopia escaped colonial rule but not poverty nor famine. Nowadays, its peoples are hungry for reforms that could turn promises into progress for the whole nation. Annoyed with the buts that have long populated most of the discourses over their country, Ethiopians struggle for a new image: will a move away from the ‘rising, but’ picture lead towards a new ‘surprising Ethiopia’ narrative, with no ifs or buts?

  1. World Food Programme (2018), Ethiopia Country Brief, WFP Ethiopia, December 2018, retrieved from https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000102521/download/?_ga=2.223296347.1730586131.1552558204-1257093264.1552558204
  2. African Development Bank (2011) ‘The middle of the pyramid: dynamics of the middle class in Africa’, African Development Bank Market Brief, Tunis: AfDB, retrieved from https://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Publications/The%20Middle%20of%20the%20Pyramid_The%20Middle%20of%20the%20Pyramid.pdf
  3. UNDP (2018), Ethiopia’s Progress Towards Eradicating Poverty, Paper presented to the Inter-Agency Group Meeting on the “Implementation of the Third United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (2018 – 2027)”, April 18 -20, 2018, Addis Ababa Ethiopia, retrieved from https://www.un.org/development/desa/dspd/wp-content/uploads/sites/22/2018/04/Ethiopia’s-Progress-Towards-Eradicating-Poverty.pdf
  4. In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, Ethiopia ranked 150th over 180 countries for the year 2017 (https://rsf.org/en/ethiopia).
  5. Freedom House (2019), Freedom in the World 2018. Democracy in Crisis. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018
  6. Ethiopia ranks 114th over 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018 published by Transparency International (https://www.transparency.org/country/ETH)
  7. While 134th in 2008, Ethiopia ranked 150th in 2016 over 162 countries (Vasquez, I. and T. Porcnik (2018), The Human Freedom Index 2018, Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, retrieved from https://www.fraserinstitute.org/sites/default/files/human-freedom-index-2018.pdf
  8. Soliman, A. (2018) ‘Knack for Balancing Reform and Continuity’, Chatham House, 27 April 2018, retrieved from https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/ethiopia-s-prime-minister-shows-knack-balancing-reform-and-continuity
  9. Burke, J. (2018) ‘ 'These changes are unprecedented': how Abiy is upending Ethiopian politics’, The Guardian, 8 July 2018, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/08/abiy-ahmed-upending-ethiopian-politics
  10. ‘Abiymania. Ethiopians are going wild for Abiy Ahmed’, The Economist, 18 August 2018, retrieved from https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/08/18/ethiopians-are-going-wild-for-abiy-ahmed
  11. Girma, M. (2011). ‘Whose meaning? The wax and gold tradition as a philosophical foundation for an Ethiopian hermeneutic’, Sophia, 50(1), 175-187.
  12. Data related to the total net Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the period 2013-17, average (OECD, 2019, Geographical Distribution of Financial Flows to Developing Countries 2019: Disbursements, Commitments, Country Indicators, Paris: OECD Publishing).
  13. Bilateral ODA by sector, percentage, average for the period 2016-17 (OECD, op. cit.).
  14. All data from the World Bank’s Open Data repository (https://data.worldbank.org), accessed on 9 March 2019.
  15. USAID (2019). Ethiopia – Complex Emergency. Fact Sheet #1, F.Y. 2019, retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/documents/1866/ethiopia_ce_fs01_02-05-2019.pdf
  16. Ibidem
  17. IOM (2017). World Migration Report 2018. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.
  18. Kuschminder, K., Andersson, L. and M. Seigel (2018) ‘Migration and multidimensional well-being in Ethiopia: investigating the role of migrants destinations’, Migration and Development, 7:3, 321-340.
  19. IOM (2017). Op. cit.: p. 181
  20. Kuschminder, Andersson, and M. Seigel (2018), Op. cit.: p. 14
  21. IOM (2017). Op. cit.: p. 184
  22. Knoll, A., Rampa, F., Torres, C., & Molina, P. B. (2017). ‘The nexus between food and nutrition security, and migration. Clarifying the debate and charting a way forward.’ ECDPM Discussion Papers, n. 212 - May 2017. Maastricht: European Centre for Development Policy Management.