The paradox facing agricultural policy in Ethiopia was neatly encapsulated in this statement by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in 2000: “The agricultural sector remains our Achilles heel and source of vulnerability. … Nonetheless, we remain convinced that agricultural based development remains the only source of hope for Ethiopia.” The reality is that most Ethiopians continue to struggle to make their living from smallholder farming, despite low returns, high risks, and the evident inability of agriculture to provide even a reliable subsistence income, let alone a ‘take off’ to poverty reduction and sustainable economic growth.
Policy-makers and analysts, both national and expatriate, have vacillated between arguing for increased investment in smallholder farming, commercialising agriculture, or abandoning smallholder agriculture by promoting diversification or urbanisation instead. It is often remarked that, if Ethiopia can solve the profound challenges facing its agriculture sector, the lessons will be applicable in many other parts of Africa.
In terms of policy processes, Ethiopia is unusual within Africa in that national policy-makers have very clear visions for the agriculture sector, and have implemented several radical interventions in attempting to realise these visions. Examples include the villagisation programme (in the 1970s), a nationwide land redistribution programme (from the mid-1970s to early 1990s), and large-scale resettlement of farmers (in the mid-1980s, and again since 2003). In the pastoralist areas, the government is convinced that sedentarisation is the only viable long-term option. At the same time, people in power in Ethiopia have strongly resisted attempts by external actors to impose their own visions for agriculture on the sector – Prime Minister Meles, for instance, is implacably opposed to privatisation of land, fearful that the inevitable result would be a mass urbanisation of poverty, as farmers lacking alternative assets would be compelled to sell their land to survive the next major drought and migrate en masse to Addis Ababa.
So Ethiopia presents unique opportunities for this Consortium to learn from and to contribute to, both in terms of the seemingly intractable problems its agriculture sector faces and in terms of the dynamic and constantly evolving policy debates that government, donors and other interested parties are engaged in. Our ambition would be to contribute to moving these debates forward, through a combination of empirical analysis (and reanalysis) of existing data, and an innovative participatory methodology (based on identifying and exploring alternative ‘policy scenarios’) that allows diverse perspectives to be heard and reflected in the policy-making process.