Rural Ethiopia contains about 85 % of the country’s population, nearly all of whom are smallscale peasants living on small agricultural farms in the highland parts of the country. With population increase, particularly in the past century, the rural population has grown from
approximately 12 million people around 1900 to about 64 million in 2007. Farm sizes, however, are less than one hectare per household on average; the livestock population, while considerable, is insufficient to provide a labour force to plough the land. Farm productivity is at a minimum, and land degradation due to agricultural practices is widespread.
A major factor of strength, and perhaps a weakness at the same time, is the strong sense of identity in rural Ethiopia. Traditions, norms and values are strongly ingrained and portrayed, the sense of meaning appears clear even if only indirectly articulated, religions are powerful and proud, daily farming activities settled and based on long experience, ethnic and religious conviviality largely well developed and practiced, and the common language well preserved and distinct. This strength of identity, however, is also a weakness in terms of future development. The younger generation manifests a different interpretation of identity than their ancestors. This is probably influenced by modern impacts from outside, through radio, education, the Internet and personal contacts, as well as through critical observation of the present state of peasant households. Most critical, however, is that these elements of rural identity have been, and are still being, carried into politics and policies concerned with
development, by people who grew up in rural areas and maintain their previous identities, even though current circumstances may require differential approaches.
Modern development in rural Ethiopia follows practices brought to Ethiopia mainly from outside, but which are adapted to local conditions and underlain by the values and norms of traditional rural Ethiopia. As a consequence, the emphasis in development is on infrastructure, such as road and air access, education, health services, and the maintenance of natural resources. Although agriculture, the primary sector of occupation in a subsistence-oriented
community, has the potential to increase productivity considerably, this cannot take place within the present context of rural household economies.
Modern development alone, however, will not suffice to bring about sustainable development, which in rural Ethiopia can be enhanced if a paradigm shift takes place from current ‘agricultural development-led industrialisation’ (ADLI) to a proposed ‘industrialisation-based agricultural transformation’ (IBAT). The agricultural work-force needs to be diversified, from primary sector occupation to secondary and tertiary sector employment. Rural areas need fundamental reforms in land use practices, technologies and organisation of labour and rural
space. Sustainable use of natural resources needs to become the basis of all agricultural activity in rural areas, to prevent even greater loss of current potential.
The challenges for developing rural Ethiopia lie in an overall increase in productivity in all sectors in rural areas, i.e. in the agricultural, secondary, and tertiary sectors. Sustainable land management, including soil, water and biodiversity conservation, must become the basis ofagricultural activity on all land. Policies addressing rural-urban linkages, land tenure issues, and questions of demographic transition, as well as issues of education and health, can be particularly supportive in accelerating this change. A sectoral transition from the dominance of the primary sector to more emphasis on the secondary and tertiary sectors would have the
potential to accelerate change, although perhaps at the risk of social and public security, for which particular care must be taken. Demographic transition, furthermore, probably reached a peak several years ago, but may require attention until a more or less stable population number is reached in the longer-term future. New identities may be formed during this transition, moving from association with traditional rural Ethiopia to association with a
modern, interlinked rural-urban landscape.