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Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme: Power, Politics and Practice

Summary of research*

Location: Ethiopia

What we know: The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) is an established, large-scale social protection effort by the Government of Ethiopia targeting rural, food-insecure households.

What this article adds: A recent qualitative study explored the role of power and politics in the PSNP in seven communities in two regional states of Ethiopia. The authors conclude that while there is positive impact, the implementation of the programme is problematic. In these communities, the PSNP was highly politicised, systematically neglected all of the participatory components outlined in the programme design, excluded the feedback mechanisms and entrenched political power. Understanding the existing political climate in operational environments is critical.

Ethiopia has made significant progress in reducing poverty, with a decrease of the population living in poverty from 46% in 2005 to 30% by 2010 (the population increased from 57 to 88 million during the same period). The country has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world; gross domestic product (GDP) was between 8.6 and 13.6% from 2004 to 2016. The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) is one of the Government of Ethiopia’s (GoE) most effective programmes to support people living in rural areas, who make up over 80% of the population.

The PSNP began in 2005 to support food-insecure households and enable them to overcome vulnerabilities without eroding their assets, and over time to support households to build assets. In 2015, more than seven million people had been supported by it, with an expected expansion to ten million people. The PSNP is mainly implemented by the GoE, with assistance from development partners. The programme, now in its fourth phase, has been widely studied and found to have positively impacted food-insecure households. Some studies claim that the impact is modest compared with progress made in comparable non-client households, although even critical assessments point to significant positive change. The PSNP has three key components (see Box 1). A recent study explored the roles of power and politics in the implementation of the PSNP. The authors contrast the plan (the Programme Implementation Manual) with its practice and explore why divergences may be occurring.

Box 1: Overview of PSNP

Public works programme

Eligible households with able-bodied adults are enrolled on this programme, with work geared towards enhancing infrastructure and enriching community-based resources, such as schools. Public works activities occur for six months each year, during which clients receive a salary based upon household size. Clients are expected to graduate from the programme when they gain sufficient assets.  

Direct support programme

Those who are unable to work due to disability, illness or age are enrolled in the direct support programme (payments are for 12 months of the year).

Temporary programme

Temporary clients are pregnant or lactating mothers or caregivers for a malnourished child, who are enrolled in the public works component and temporarily shifted into direct support.


The qualitative research methods involved detailed interviews with clients and former clients of the PSNP, as well as relevant government staff (community leaders, development agents, community health workers and school staff) in seven communities in southern Ethiopia from two regional states. Given political sensitivities in the country, researcher connections were utilised to select communities for the study. These relationships were pivotal in establishing the trust needed to gain insight that might not otherwise have been shared. Interviews consisted of four group interviews with each community-based government body (in groups of two to six staff members), and 46 key informant interviews with PSNP clients, which were conducted voluntarily and anonymously. A large number of issues were raised by both government staff and community members; this research focused primarily on the common concerns and key discrepancies in the experiences of PSNP clients. Due to regional diversity within Ethiopia, this study was never expected to have great external validity.


Selection and graduation

Lodging an appeal


Work commitment

Power tends to corrupt


The study authors conclude that the programme has had a large and beneficial impact, but its implementation has been shaped and co-opted to maintain and strengthen political power. Furthermore, the findings challenge donors and practitioners to recognise the ways in which their funding and approaches to programme design are both empowering and disempowering individuals and to better understand the existing political climate in operational environments.


*Cochrane, Logan, and Y Tamiru. 2016. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program: Power, Politics and Practice. Journal of International Development 28 (5): 649–665. doi:10.1002/jid.3234.


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Reference this page

Cochrane, Logan, and Y Tamiru (). Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme: Power, Politics and Practice. Field Exchange 53, November 2016. p14.



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