Destitution in Ethiopia’s Northeastern Highlands
Summary of unpublished report1
A blacksmith and a potter
Working with a number of local partners, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Save the Children UK (SC UK) have recently published a report on destitution in Ethiopia's north eastern highlands. The background for the study was conflicting evidence over whether poverty in rural Ethiopia was increasing, as well as a growing concern that diversion of increasing volumes of international assistance, to meet emergency appeals and annual food deficits, was displacing investment to address the underlying causes of chronic food insecurity.
The study area encompassed three zones of Amhara National Regional State, formerly known as Wollo province. Of a population totalling approximately 4.5 million, 90% were rural dwellers and engaged in smallholder agriculture as their primary occupation. Funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), the study set out to provide answers to the following questions:
- What is destitution?
- How do people become destitute?
- How many people in Wollo are destitute?
- Is destitution in Wollo increasing?
- What are the most appropriate policy measures to address destitution in Wollo?
Destitution was defined as a state of extreme poverty that results from the pursuit of unsustainable livelihoods, meaning that a series of livelihood shocks and/or negative trends or processes erode the asset base of already poor and vulnerable households until they are no longer able to meet their minimum subsistence needs. They lack access to the key productive assets needed to escape from poverty and become dependent on public and/or private transfers.
Mapping urban linkages
Fieldwork-based data were collected during the dry season months of November 2001 to March 2002. A household questionnaire was designed and administered to a stratified multi-stage random sample of over 2,000 households. The questionnaire included sections on household demographics, livelihood activities, ownership of and access to productive resources, migration, participation in social institutions, access to formal and informal transfers, achievement of basic needs, and a selfassessment of household well-being.
In order to determine numbers of destitute, three approaches were used.
- To facilitate self-assessment, households were asked "are you unable to meet the household's needs by your own efforts and unable to survive without support from the community or government?" In response to this, 14.6% households were classified as destitute, over half (54.9%) were classified as vulnerable, and 30.6% were considered to have viable livelihoods.
- Seventeen indicators of destitution were assessed, with cut-off points for each indicator applied. The proportion of households classified as destitute in terms of a single indicator ranged from 4.2 to 41.1%, with an average of 19.4%.
- A composite destitution index, combining the 17 single indicators, was scaled and weighted using principal components analysis. Overall, 95% of the 310 self-assessed destitute fell in the bottom 40% of households, as ranked by the destitution index. The 293 households that satisfied both these criteria were defined as destitute (13.8%), and much of the subsequent analysis was based on comparing this distinct group against the larger sample.
The study found that destitution in Wollo is gendered. One in three female-headed households, compared to one in twelve male-headed households, was destitute. Destitute households were more likely to be smaller than average - more than half of all single-person households were destitute - contradicting the common assumption that the poorest households tend to be large, with high dependency ratios. Labour constraints were also highly significant determinants of destitution. In this study, two-thirds of destitute households had no able-bodied males.
Respondents were asked to categorise themselves at four points in time - ten years ago, two years ago, one year ago and at time of interview. This showed that the proportion of destitute had increased nearly threefold over the past 10 years, from 5.5% to 14.6%, while vulnerable households had increased even more dramatically from 17% a decade ago, to 55% in 2001/2.
The analysis found that carrying capacity is the main cause of destitution - too many people trying to make a living from too little land. The poorest households in Wollo faced resource constraints of all kinds - land, livestock, labour, credit, inputs - which inhibited their ability to construct viable livelihoods and left them highly vulnerable to shocks that could push them over the edge at any time. Dependence on rain-fed agriculture, for example, exposes rural communities to recurrent livelihood shocks following rain failure. Idiosyncratic shocks are another source of destitution, i.e. loss of adult males through divorce or widowhood, or major health shocks like HIV/AIDS.
The authors of the study concluded that for the labour constrained destitute, little can be advocated except more comprehensive and effective safety nets or social protection transfers, although these are expensive and logistically complex to administer. For the working destitute, enhancing their access to productive resources is arguably the only feasible way of reversing processes of impoverishment, phasing out chronic dependence on food aid and empowering poor households to achieve sustainable livelihoods. Access can be improved, not only through asset ownership, but also community ownership. Support to both farming and the rural non-farm economy is essential. This requires market integration, investment in infrastructure and small town development. Proximity to small towns provides a clear route out of destitution and vulnerability for rural households and communities in the catchment area. Recommendations, therefore, fall into two categories, those that promote enhanced access to assets and those that promote more productive livelihoods.
1Sharp K, Devereux S and Amare Y (2003). Destitution in Ethiopia's northeastern highlands (Amhara National Regional State). IDS, SC-UK Ethiopia. A policy research project funded by DFID. April 2003
Taken from Field Exchange Issue 20, November 2003