Researching the politics of development



Crises and social protection in Ethiopia: New challenges, new opportunities?

Dr Tom Lavers
12 April 2016
ESID research on the politics of social protection shows that crises have been central drivers of social protection expansion in Ethiopia, and elsewhere. Today, Ethiopia is rocked by further challenges: the most severe El Niño in decades, leading to a food crisis in which some 15-18m people are expected to require support during 2016; and an unprecedented series of protests across small towns and cities in Oromiya. As well as presenting a major predicament for Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, do they also offer an opportunity for an expansion or a re-think of social protection policy?
Within the ruling elite in Ethiopia, a major food crisis in 2002/03 and the 2005 elections—at which the government suffered major losses in urban areas and widespread anti-government protests afterwards—are often referred to as ‘Armageddons’: existential crises for the ruling party. Our research shows that part of the government response in each case has been to expand social protection: creating the Productive Safety Net Programme in 2005 in direct response to the food crisis; and, belatedly, settling on an Urban Productive Safety Net (UPSNP) that is due to launch in April 2016 to respond to urban unemployment.
The PSNP has been widely praised as a success story since its launch in 2005. Certainly, regular evaluations show that it is relatively effectively administered and that it has been successful in securing household consumption and protecting household assets, as intended. During the current food crisis it has also proven to be an essential means of responding to large-scale emergencies.
That said, the current food crisis serves to demonstrate that government food security policy has been much less successful in addressing the root causes of food insecurity and achieving ‘graduation’—another central objective. Large numbers of people remain on the brink of food insecurity and highly vulnerable to climatic shocks. While some PSNP recipients have the potential to achieve self-sufficiency, many others are unlikely ever to do so through agricultural production alone. Nonetheless, the PSNP and the government’s land policy serve to keep many food-insecure people in rural areas, where they are reliant on food aid, and out of urban areas, in the interests of political stability.
Might the severity of the current food crisis force the government to question the sustainability of this strategy and re-think policies on food security, agricultural development and urban migration?
Protests in Oromiya flared up in late 2014 and again in late 2015. The spark in each case was the Addis Ababa ‘Masterplan’, which proposed the economic integration of Addis Ababa and surrounding parts of Oromiya regional state. For many Oromos the proposals constituted an attempt to steal Oromo land, compounding the loss of Finfinnee (the Afaan Oromo name for Addis Ababa), which many claim as an integral part of Oromiya. However, the roots of the crisis go much deeper. From the government’s perspective, recent protests—like the electoral crisis in 2005—are driven by high rates of unemployment. Yet the protests also increasingly draw on Oromo nationalist sentiments that have been growing steadily over the past 20 years.
The UPSNP will provide cash-for-work and unconditional cash transfers for the extreme poor and is linked to programmes providing livelihood training and grants to set up independent businesses. As such, the programme seems well-suited to government concerns about urban unemployment and, in the context of ongoing protests, strong pressure from the highest levels of government to identify new policy solutions.
The UPSNP will initially support 600,000 people in 11 of the largest cities. However, the Ministry of Urban Development also hopes to extend coverage to 4.7m people in 972 small towns and cities across Ethiopia. Many of these small towns are exactly those affected by recent anti-government protests. Could the latest existential crisis help secure broader support within government—and, indeed, funding—for this expansion?
In Ethiopia, the challenges of urban unemployment and rural food insecurity are complex and interlinked. Though expanded rural and urban safety nets might address part of the problem, finding jobs for Ethiopia’s vast numbers of young people—with few prospects in agriculture and limited urban employment opportunities—will remain a major challenge for years to come. As, it would seem, will the growing sense of Oromo nationalism, which is likely to prove difficult to put back in the box.
Read the Working Paper: ‘Social protection in an aspiring ‘developmental state’: The political drivers of Ethiopia’s PSNP‘.