Menu ENN Search

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Summary of unpublished report1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: National social assistance programmes to improve child nutrition

This is a summary of a Field Exchange field article that was included in issue 69. The original article was authored by Chloe Angood, Christiane Rudert and Tayllor Renee...

FEX: National social assistance programmes to improve child nutrition: Lessons from Burundi, Ethiopia and Tanzania

View this article as a pdf Lisez cet article en français ici Chloe Angood is a Knowledge Management for Nutrition Consultant for UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa...

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Addressing urban food security through electronic cash transfer in Kenya

By Sumananjali Mohanty Sumananjali Mohanty has been working with Oxfam Kenya programme for the past four and half years, initially as the Urban Food Security and...

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: 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: Comparing cash and food transfers: findings from a pilot project in Sri Lanka

By Lili Mohiddin (Oxfam GB), Manohar Sharma (IFPRI), Anette Haller (WFP Rome) Lili Mohiddin, Manohar Sharma & Anette Haller Lili Mohiddin has been an Emergency Food Security...

FEX: Remittances and their economic impact in post-war Somaliland

Published paper1 War affected Somalia - Tarabuunka IDP Camp, Mogadishu. An enduring difficulty of assessing needs amongst certain emergency affected populations has been...

FEX: Cash transfers and health education to address young child diets in Kenya

View this article as a pdf Chloe Angood is a Knowledge Management for Nutrition Consultant for the UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office (ESARO) Penjani Kamudoni...


Reference this page

Destitution in Ethiopia’s Northeastern Highlands. Field Exchange 20, November 2003. p7.



Download to a citation manager

The below files can be imported into your preferred reference management tool, most tools will allow you to manually import the RIS file. Endnote may required a specific filter file to be used.