Ethiopian Journal of Economics

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The Economic and Political Cost of Not Integrating Indigenous Knowledge in Agrarian Policy Making in Ethiopia

T Bonger


abatua laygedel
wendimua laygedel
arsew yabluat inji
hodua endaygodel

Since her father cannot kill
nor can her brother
let them feed her
by cultivating so that her
stomach will not be empty

[From a popular Ethiopian melody]

When the property and the knowledge of a people increases,
the government's policy and wealth parameters also increase.
As the knowledge and wealth of people develop, the
governments’ instruments of policy implementation acquire
additional strength [effectiveness]".

Negadras Gebrehiwot Baykedagn.
Written in 1917, Translated as State & Economy in
Early 19th Century Ethiopia,
Karnak House & Red Sea Press, 1995. pp 53-54

This paper examines the pitfalls of an otherwise well intentioned agrarian reform which formed the centre piece of the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution. It is contended that most of the non-anticipated negative consequences emanated from the adoption of Euro-centric model not sufficiently interfaced with the specificity of rural Ethiopia. The paper focuses on the implication of the reform for rural migration, the related problem of famine, redistribution of rural incomes and the impact on the welfare of the rural and the urban poor and accumulation. Finally, it brings to the fore the gist of an indigenous knowledge source on the political economy of Ethiopia which may have provided better policy reform base for the Agrarian Reform. In the search to compress the agrarian structure of Ethiopia into the social trajectory of European societies, it has been variously conceptualized as part feudal, part capitalist or wholly feudal or capitalist by writers and different political protagonists. The term feudo-bourgeoisie was the common theme which informed the political tract of analysts and activists alike on the eve and during the course of the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. Informed by the fuedo-bourgeoisie paradigm, exempting tenants from the payment of land rent, the Reform of 1975 abolished ‘land-lordism’, to contain ‘relation of exploitation’, it prohibited the hiring in and the hiring out of labour. Similarly, it set a maximum of 10 hectares of land per peasant which could be operated without hiring labour and attendant exploitation. While most large farms were converted into State farms, those more than 10 hectares in peasant areas were apportioned to the nearby households. The great agrarian reform of Ethiopia provided an unfettered access and security of tenure especially to those who were tenants in the pre-reform period and opened up the prospect for new institutional and technological set up to unleash a dynamic process of agricultural development. However, possible gain from such a potential were constrained by setting cultivation ceiling at 10 hectare in one season rain-fed agriculture, the curtailment of open and competitive channels of marketing, undue bias in favour of State farms and the inefficient operations of the AMC. In the face of increasing population and declining per capita output of food, these contributed towards the creation of a new crisis manifested in very low producer and very high consumer prices, vastly increased imports, dependence on food aid and drastic reduction in the welfare of the urban and the rural poor. One of the root causes of the agrarian crises was the wrong conceptualization of the agrarian problem and the attendant uncritical application of statist policies in the form of State farms, marketing corporations and compulsory delivery of grain all copied without innovative adaptations from the social experiences of other societies. The policies led to mis-allocation of resources and failed to establish prices, which, while being sufficient to motivate peasants, would have been affordable by the rural and urban poor. The stifling of the movement of labour had a devastating effect on the drought prone agriculture. In the end, the institutions of the State provided comfort to the State elite at the expense of the welfare of the disadvantaged in society. By curtailing the trend towards accumulation, it stifled the medium and long-term growth prospect of the national economy. The political cost to the Derg has been obvious. GHB's conceptualization of State and peasants, defining the parameters of the role of the State in development in general and agriculture in particular and the articulation of the relation between agriculture and industry and the policy implications therein could have gone a long way in drawing more down to earth realistic agrarian policy measures at the historical moment when Ethiopia was on the threshold of radical change. Alas! as the Amharic saying goes “bej yale worq ende medab yekoteral”: "that gold in one's own hand is undervalued as if it were copper"

Key words: Agrarian reform; Ethiopian revolution; Peasantariat; Agrarian crises; Agrarian classes; Feudalism; Distress surplus; Gultegna; Neftegna; Peasantization; Retail Price Index.

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