Ethiopian development policy has taken a modernist approach that goes back to the expansionist empire-building project in the late 19th century. It goes along with narratives of transforming pastoralism into an agrarian system, shifting smallholder agriculture into commercial plantation farming, villagization (resettlement of people into designated villages), urbanization, and – in the post-1991 period – transforming peri-urban agricultural lands into building plots, industrial zones and floriculture plantations run by big companies. Over the last three decades, successive governments sought to develop Ethiopia through commercial agriculture, the expansion of industries and mega-development projects such as hydroelectric dams that have led to the displacement of thousands of people, land dispossession, and environmental pollution (e.g. in the cases of mining, flower farming, and tanner industries). As a consequence, land grabbing (the partly illegitimate appropriation of large-scale lands by corporate investors) became a major field of conflict in Ethiopia. Land grabbing both in the country’s pastoralist lowlands as well as agrarian highlands leads to a severe disruption of local communities’ livelihoods, which in turn is triggering migration and environmental destruction. This article provides a concise analysis of Ethiopia’s development and modernization path with an emphasis on land grabbing and resource appropriation that has led to displacement and internal migration. It also gives insights into the situation of (internal) migrants and the problems they face.
Development through Dispossession: Ethiopia’s Top-down Development Model
Since the mid-19th century, successive Ethiopian rulers and governments have sought to foster Ethiopia’s development by emulating development models from more developed states – an approach which Christopher Clapham described as "politics of development emulation".
Peasant dispossession has been legitimated by legal frameworks and through the narrative of development across different regimes. For example, over the last two decades, millions of peasants in the administrative regions of Oromia, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR), Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz and Afar lost their land due to the expansion of floriculture, industrial zones, urban areas (particularly the unregulated expansion of Addis Ababa) development and agribusiness projects. This development gained speed when in 2005 the ruling party officially adopted the so-called developmental state political economy that enhanced strong state intervention in development programs.
Development-Migration Nexus in Ethiopia
Poorly planned development programs often lead to social crisis and cause displacement, environmental degradation and conflict. In this regard, for the local population top-down development strategies that are planned, implemented and managed without active participation of the local population become a liability rather than an asset. They produce landlessness and therefore disrupt livelihoods of rural agrarian and pastoral communities who are forced to leave rural areas in search for possibilities of existence elsewhere.
Displacement and migration in and from Ethiopia is historically associated with conflict, natural disaster, famine, and state-led persecution. More recently, it is triggered by worsening economic situations in rural areas related to landlessness as a result of land grabbing – all these factors made Ethiopia become one of the countries in the Horn of Africa with the highest number of internal and international migrants.
Over the last fifteen years, internal migration patterns shifted from rural-rural to rural-urban and urban-urban migration. According to a study published by the World Bank, between 2000 and 2005 the major part (about 40 percent) of internal migration took place within a rural context whereas rural-urban migration was less relevant, representing about 25 percent during that period. This picture changed in subsequent years: While rural to rural migration decreased to 23 percent in 2008-2014, rural-urban migration soared to about 34 percent in 2008-2013.
The shift in migration patterns in Ethiopia coincides with the proliferation of land grabbing in the country following the 2007/8 global energy and food crisis, and the government’s 2005 adoption of the “developmental state model”. As life in rural areas became increasingly difficult due to land grabbing and the lack of necessary social infrastructures as well as due to increased persecution of the youth for their political perspectives
Internal migrants are faced with difficulties related to legality. In Ethiopia, when people change their place of residence, they are required to get a new identity card indicating their new place of residence. That ID card is a requirement for employment in the new place of residence as well as for accessing state services, open bank accounts, joining associations and renting apartments. However, many internal migrants have problems getting a new identity card either because they cannot obtain a leave letter from the administration in their hometowns due to bureaucratic hurdles, or because urban government officials are reluctant to provide them with the ID card in an effort to discourage people from rural-urban migration.
As Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country with strong regional differences, internal migrants may have difficulties communicating with the local population in their new places of residence and adapting to the local culture. People from rural areas may also find it difficult to adapt to an urban setting. Internal migrants are often viewed with suspicion and considered to be potential criminals. They are often confronted with sexual harassment and labor exploitation. Especially young migrants run the risk to be drawn into inter-group violence by manipulative political actors.
The Ethiopian government portrays internal migration – particularly rural-urban migration – as barrier to development. The government’s rhetoric of agriculture-led industrialization policy promotes containing the productive force within rural areas. It also portrays rural-urban migration as spoiler of socio-economic conditions in urban areas by exacerbating unemployment, crime, and poverty, and increasing costs of life.
Displacement induced by development projects such as the expansion of commercial agriculture is interlinked with other forms of displacement that force Ethiopians to leave their homes. Conflicts and natural disasters are two main reasons for internal displacement. In some cases, conflicts are the result of development policies and erupt from disputes over land and access to resources. Likewise, natural disasters may be a consequence of development strategies that speed up environmental degradation e.g. due to the massive expansion of commercial agriculture. At the end of 2019, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) registered 1.7 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Ethiopia. A year earlier there were even more than three million internally displaced persons, many of whom, however, returned to their hometowns as part of repatriation programs of the Ethiopian government. In 2019, the country ranked number nine among the countries with the highest number of IDPs worldwide. Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised to undertake economic reforms, improve youth employment, vowed to fight corruption and to ensure peace and stability, the country is currently descending to a critical political and economic crisis. Given these developments, internal displacement and migration will likely continue on a high level.