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Summary of unpublished report1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:

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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%.
  3. 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.

Counting housholds

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.

Show footnotes

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

More like this

FEX: History of nutritional status and Concern’s response in Dessie Zuria woreda, Ethiopia

By Sarah Style Sarah graduated with a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2009. She recently returned from Ethiopia...

FEX: What is Livelihoods Programming? (Special Supplement 3)

2.1 Livelihoods principles and the livelihoods framework The livelihoods principles and framework form the basis of all livelihoods programming. The fundamental principles of...

FEX: An overview of REST’s implementation of the Productive Safety Net Programme

By The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) Mekelle Team The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) has been in existence in Ethiopia for over 30 years, starting out as a relatively small...

FEX: Post-drought restocking Can its impact be sustainable?

By Ahmed Alkadir Mohammed Ahmed Alkadir Mohammed is currently a Disaster Risk Management Specialist with the World Bank, Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) Team. Prevously...

FEX: Swaziland Cash and Food Transfer Programme

By Rosie Jackson Rosie Jackson currently works for Save the Children UK as an Emergency Food Security & Livelihoods Advisor. Based in London, she provides technical support to...

FEX: Emergency Food Security and Livelihoods Project in Amhara and Oromia regions

By Sarah Coll-Black and Matt Hobson Sarah Coll-Black is a Social Protection Specialist working with the World Bank in Ethiopia and Kenya. She has been involved with Ethiopia's...

FEX: Food insecurity and mental health among community health volunteers in Ethiopia

By Sarah Coll-Black and Matt Hobson Sarah Coll-Black is a Social Protection Specialist working with the World Bank in Ethiopia and Kenya. She has been involved with Ethiopia's...

FEX: Emergency Food Security and Livelihoods Project in Amhara and Oromia regions

By Shekar Anand, Oxfam Shekar is Programme Director for Oxfam GB in Ethiopia. Past experience includes working with OXFAM, CARE, CIDA, and Government in Aceh, India, Zimbabawe...

FEX: Income and employment support (Special Supplement 3)

5.1 Introduction The provision of cash as an emergency response has the potential to impact on all elements of the livelihoods framework by providing the means to protect or...

FEX: Evaluation of post 2007 election violence recovery programme in Kenya

Summary of report1 The Safaricom vehicle at Kinyach Police Post – the distribution point for the cash transfer project Evaluation headlines: The NGO, Concern Worldwide,...

FEX: Dynamics of livelihood diversification in post-famine Ethiopia

Summary of published paper1 Wollo, Ethiopia Income diversification has been shown to be positively associated not only with wealth accumulation but also with an increased...

FEX: From the editor

Ethiopia is a diverse country where a significant proportion of the population live on or below the poverty line, where food insecurity is widespread and rates of acute...

FEX: Livelihoods analysis and identifying appropriate interventions (Special Supplement 3)

3.1 Livelihoods assessment and analysis in emergencies The livelihoods framework provides a tool for analysing people's livelihoods and the impact of specific threats or shocks...

FEX: A New Household Economy Method for Assessing Impact of Shocks

By Celia Petty and John Seaman1 Celia Petty is Social Policy and Livelihoods Adviser at Save the Children UK. She has worked as an adviser on food security and livelihoods...

FEX: Review of targeting methods in HIV programmes

By Josh Colston Josh Colston studies demography and public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In the past he has worked as lecturer in British...

FEX: CTC in Ethiopia- Working from CTC Principles (Special Supplement 2)

Isolated village in the highlands of South Wollo, Ethiopia. By Kate Golden (Concern Ethiopia) and Tanya Khara (Valid International) In December 2002, nutrition surveys...

FEX: Issues and challenges for livelihoods programming in emergencies (Special Supplement 3)

8.1 Introduction The previous sections of this supplement have highlighted various challenges in livelihood support programming in emergencies. Most of these are within the...

FEX: Ethiopia: Challenge and Change (Special Supplement 3)

By Catherine Allen, Concern WW Work on the Wollo Irrigation Canal, one of the Concern WW livelihood programme activities Concern WW is trying to create mutually reinforcing...

FEX: Revisiting ‘new variant famine’ in southern Africa

Summary of published research1 The 'New Variant Famine' hypothesis was first published in 2003. It postulated four factors contributing to worsening food shortages in southern...

FEX: 2011 famine in South Somalia: the role of the early warning information System

By Abukar Yusuf Nur – Nutrition Analyst, Ahono Busili – Nutrition Team Manager, Elijah Odundo – Nutrition Data Analyst, Joseph Waweru – Nutrition Analyst, Louise Masese –...

Close

Reference this page

Destitution in Ethiopia’s Northeastern Highlands. Field Exchange 20, November 2003. p7. www.ennonline.net/fex/20/destitution