Too Much Inequality or Too Little, Inequality and Stagnation in Ethiopian Agriculture

inequalityThe agricultural sector remains our Achilles heel and source of vulnerability …Nonetheless, were main convinced that agricultural based development remains the only source of hope for Ethiopia. (PrimeMinister Meles Zenawi 2000).

A powerful strand of thinking about the causes of long-term agricultural stagnation in Ethiopia defines the problem in terms of inequality. Indeed, it is possible to interpret most Ethiopian agricultural policy initiatives of the past three decades in terms of divergent views on the extent and consequences of rural inequality.

This article investigates the hypothesis that (too little rather than too much) inequality has contributed to agriculture’s under performance, and considers the implications for policy in terms of four alternative pathways for Ethiopian agriculture. Any Ethiopian over 40 years old has lived through three remarkably different political regimes:

  • the feudal imperial era under Emperor Haile Selassie;
  • the socialist military dictatorship of ColonelMengistu’s Derg; and
  • the market-oriented,Westernaligned democracy of PrimeMinister Meles Zenawi.

Each regime has imposed an entirely different set of policies on smallholder agriculture, where over 80 per cent of the population makes its living, yet all three have presided over an agricultural sector that is stagnant and acutely vulnerable to recurrent drought and other livelihood shocks. Following the “creeping coup” that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie during the 1974 famine,the Derg implemented a radical agrarian transformation based on redistribution of land.

Between 1976 and 1991, all rain-fed farmland in highland Ethiopia was confiscated and redistributed,after adjusting for soil quality and family size, among all rural households. This land reform was motivated not only by the Derg’s Marxist egalitarian ideology, but by its conviction that feudal relations in agriculture had exposed millions of highland Ethiopians to intolerable levels of poverty andvulnerability. Redistribution therefore had both equity and efficiency objectives. It was implementedas a mechanism not just for breaking the power of the landlords, but also for eradicating historically entrenched inequalities in control over land, with the aim of achieving sustainable increases in agricultural productivity and rural incomes.

Was the Derg’s economic analysis flawed? Hindsight suggests that the land reform was a political success but an economic failure. The Derg period is now remembered as a time of militarisation, war and repression, the worst African famine of the twentieth century, economic stagnation and failed development programmes –villagisation, state farms, forced resettlement. Redistributing land may or may not have been anecessary step for enhancing rural livelihoods, but it was evidently not sufficient. The Derg’s land reforms did not extend to the right to buy and sell land, which constitutionally belongs jointly to the state and the people.