Ethiopia – A developing country

Visit to Ethiopia – Background Issues

This part of the trip was also attended by a representative of the Arkleton Trust and one other and is therefore a combination of reflections from the Jatan participants and the Arkleton Trust representatives.

From the diary of one participant:

“We write this as we travel from Addis Ababa to Hawassa on an unmade road through villages of homes made of mud, grass, corrugated iron and wood.  Most people live below the poverty line, wherever that line is drawn here.  They fight for survival, not against each other but against a harsh environment and a regime that closed its doors to outside technological, political and financial influence until the mid 20th century.  Cooperation is one boy scooping water from the single village water point to enable another to wash his hair.  There is some wealth here, but social development is slow and suffers from the same inequalities as any country seeking to move to a market economy and to export competitively. 

We are with a group of Ethiopian and Indian rural family and community social and health workers, who work for development and family guidance NGOs and are here to share experiences and learn from each other’s cultures…”

Background on Ethiopia

“This section covers those issues raised by FGAE in their introduction and matters raised during the visit because of their relevance to what we were seeing and the relevance to their work.  It does not purport to be a full account of background issues of Ethiopia but serves as a guide to understanding the perceptions of those giving the information and my reflections.”

General Background

The Federal Republic of Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, is landlocked, by Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, South Soudan and Kenya.

In the 3rd century Ethiopia (at the time referred to as the Kingdom of Axum) along with Rome, Persia and China was a great power and archeology places the oldest humanoid fossil (Lucy) as being found in Ethiopia.  History, legend and Christianity are integrally linked to the country through such relics as the Arc of the Covenant, which is found in Northern Ethiopia (although it is kept from sight of everyone except one monk who guards it).  In the 4th century Ethiopia was the first major empire to adopt Christianity as its State religion.  A large proportion of Ethiopians are still following the Ethiopian Coptic Christian faith.

Ethiopia has never been colonised although it was once occupied by Italy for a short period and Eritrea was taken by Italy.  Ethiopia has fought wars to remain independent – two against Italy and one with England in the reign of Queen Victoria when the King of Ethiopia summarily jailed 15 Englishmen.  The war with Mussolini (1928 – 1935) saw the UK and Ethiopia in harmony again as Churchill gave troops to Ethiopia between 1935 and 1937 in a peacekeeping role against Italy’s future incursion.  After that fight the King closed the borders of Ethiopia to any involvement with outside nations.  This effectively prevented any technological progress until the 1990s. At other times both Turkey and Egypt have also tried to invade Ethiopia.

Ethiopia had a monarchy until the end of the reign of Haile Selassie in 1974, when a military junta, backed by the Soviet Union, overtook the country, leading to a communist period of power.  President Mengistu (1974 – 1991) was the first President of Ethiopia during this time, but it was not a happy country, being at war for 17 years with over half a million citizens dying in the war and approximately one million in the famines of the 1980’s.   By 1990 the Soviet Union had stopped providing economic support to Ethiopia and the lack of Soviet support contributed to the fall of Mengistu.  Following Mengistu there was a transitional government.  By 1994 a new constitution was drawn up to include a two-chamber government and an independent judiciary.  Mengistu is now in exile in Zimbabwe and was tried in absentiafor, and found guilty of genocide.  In 1995 the first multi-party elections were held. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (1995 – 2012) was elected together with Negasso GIdada as President.  Meles Zenawi was considered by Ethiopians to be a ‘visionary diplomat’ and commenced a programme of development.  Boarder wars with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000 cost the country greatly in lives as well as financially, however it strengthened the ruling government’s power base with the community.  Further elections were held in 2011, which caused tension, as there were allegations of fraud and intimidation.   The current Prime Minister is Halimariam Dessalegn who had been Deputy Prime Minister and took over as Prime Minister upon the sudden death of Meles Zenawi in 2012.  He intends to continue in power until elections, which are scheduled for 2015.   Within the House of Representatives there are currently 37% women and the aim of the government is that this should be 50%.  There are women leaders in local government as well but the level is far lower.

The country has over 80 different languages based on the 82 different tribal areas (now regions) and many of these languages, and cultures, cross the borders with their neighbours.  Hence there are inter-marriages between Ethiopians and Somalis, Sudanese, and many other African neighbours.  There have been wars between these neighbours in the past, but now Ethiopia is a country at peace (and people appear proud of this).  The two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia are the Amhara and Oromo.  The main language spoken is Amharic.  Of the ethnic groups some 56 are found in the south of Ethiopia and only 24 in the north.

Ethiopia is the 10th most populated country in the world with approximately 93.8 million inhabitants (World Bank, 2013, CIA 2013) and the second highest population in the African

continent.  Population increase is a major development issue for the government. The total fertility rate was 6.7 children per woman of reproductive age in 1994, and it declined to 5.9 in 2000, 5.4 in 2005, and 4.8 in 2011.   Even so the population growth rate is in the top ten highest in the world and this is expected to give a population of 210 million by 2060.  Therefore organisations such as FGAE are an important part of the government’s population strategy.

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is almost at the central point of the country and was first developed as a palace at the top of a hill by King Menilik II.  It is said that his wife saw the hot springs at the base of the mountain and they moved down to that point to start the development of the new city.  The queen named the town Addis Ababa (meaning ‘new flower’).

In Addis Ababa the current government is building large areas of apartment blocks and demolishing existing traditional and ‘shanty’ housing.  The community are offered new apartment housing for the equivalent of US$5,000 at the current bank interest rate of 7.5%.  Most people are happy to take this offer but others are not.   These apartment blocks house about 75,000 people in each community and there are many of these areas being built around the perimeter of Addis.

In rural areas such as the northern mountainous areas of Lallibella and Axum this housing expansion is sponsored by the World Bank but built as small individual housing schemes rather than apartment blocks.  These areas are being targeted because they are World Heritage sites.  In the rural South, this housing development is not seen to the same degree as in the North and the traditional houses are far more frequent.


Ethiopia now has the highest GDP in Eastern and Central Africa.   However GDP per capita is the lowest in Africa.  Inflation is high and civil service payments are high due to the massive infrastructure work that the government is engaged with.   The main export of Ethiopia is coffee.  Indeed the Ethiopians claim that Ethiopia is the origin of coffee from a place called Kaffa.  Ethiopia has economic growth in tourism and exporting fruits such as strawberries as well as its coffee.  Internally, employment is primarily farming, (much of it subsistence), with a huge growth in the government employment for construction (through contracts with private companies), government employment, civil servants, police, army, etc. and the blossoming tourism industry.  The government has taken many of the people from the streets and offered them training in these areas, followed by employment.  The feeling amongst the urban middle classes is that there are jobs to be had but some people do not want to take them.  Beggars on the street are still a common sight.  In areas like Lallibella, Axum and Gonda to the north, tourism accounts for a quarter of the employment.  Visitors are encouraged not to give to beggars as it does not encourage them to take work, or in the case of children to go to school.  However, begging is seen as an easy way to gain from the tourists.  Whilst poverty and hardship are still in evidence it is very hard for many people to resist the beggars.

Ethiopia is considered to be one of the least developed countries on the UN Development List (173th of 186) with 39% of the population living on less than $1.25 per day (UNDP, 2013).  On the multi dimensional poverty ratings it is the poorest nation in the world with 87.3% of the population living in multi dimensional poverty (UNDP, 2013).  A labourer would earn on average 70Bir per day (approx. £2.10).


Schooling is free until university level.  At university, students do not have to repay their fees until after they have graduated and started work.  The number of universities in Ethiopia has increased to 31 from about 3 two decades ago.  The university student population has increased from 5,000 to 50,000.

Children start primary school at aged 7 years.  In rural areas they will attend either the morning or afternoon shift.  In Addis, the children get a full day at primary school.  Schooling is not compulsory but most people see the benefit in sending their children to school.  If children have not finished their education by 18 years old, but want to continue and are considered to have the ability, they can continue to almost any age.  If they get to year 10 only if they are considered to be bright enough can they continue with years 11 and 12.  It was unclear who makes the decision about their aptitude, but the implication was that it was based on pass marks.  Because schooling is not compulsory, the children can leave at any stage.  In primary school approximately 40-50% of children are girls, by high school this has fallen to 20-25% and only 15-20% of university students are female.  This compares to population proportions that are estimated in by CIA (2013) to be 1:1 by teenage years.

Children will speak their own regional language, plus they may be taught Amharic (Ethiopian language spoken by the largest number of people and the government), and English.  The standard of English, even amongst primary school children is good in tourist areas and reasonable in other areas if the children have attained high school entry (personal assessment only).

The government lists literacy rates at 82% nationally.


A law was enacted in 2004 outlawing female genital mutilation but it is still prevalent today, especially in rural areas.  It is practiced by some tribes more than others but according to a study performed by the Population Reference Bureau, Ethiopia has a prevalence rate of 81% among women ages 35 to 39 and 62% among women ages 15–19 (Fedman-Jacobs and Clinton, 2010).

The doctor shortage is problematic (2.5 per 100,000).  Last year the government started a programme to attract people into the medical professions.  Any natural science graduates who have achieved a qualifying pass mark are eligible to undertake a four year medical course to train as a doctor.  The medical students do not have to pay university fees and they get paid a small stipend during their training (approximately 1000 BIR per month – about £30).  At the end of their training the doctor must work in Ethiopia as a doctor for at least double the length of their training.  So if they extend their training (specialisms or just taking extra time) their ‘conscription’ is also extended by a factor of two times.  The doctor will not receive their graduation papers until this period of work has been completed.  The doctor has to go to wherever the government sends them (including rural areas) but the government does not tend to push people to go to rural and remote areas because they disappear if the posting is too harsh or not acceptable.   There is also a need for more doctors in urban areas.  The terms of the agreement between the student and the government are signed before the training commences.


The famines of the 1980s were well publicised internationally and support was offered through various international development strategies as well as ‘Live Aid’.  Ethiopia suffered bad famines again in 2011 following the lack of rain for two consecutive rainy seasons.  Crop failures are a constant problem for Ethiopian farmers.  Despite having a large number of rivers and some large water reserves, there is very little used for irrigation or power production.

Agriculture is one of the largest contributors to GDP in Ethiopia (approx. 40%).  There are some larger farms / producers who use mechanisation, however most farmers in rural areas are subsistence farmers using non-mechanised means to cultivate their land.  Unlike India where you may see old small tractors or at least bullocks pulling ploughs, in Ethiopia it is more normal to see men, women and children in the fields, bent double with hand tools for digging, tilling and harvesting.  This is primarily due to the economics but also because of the mountainous or hilly terrain where terraces are cut into the slopes.  The farm areas in the south are flatter with open areas and regular coverage of grass and acacia trees for shade.  The farm boundaries are marked with wooden fences and /or cactus fences, although there are large open areas that appear to be grazing used by many farmers.  Animals (cows, goats and sheep) are herded all day between feed and water.  In the north where it is more

The staple crops are wheat, barley, teff and sorghum.  This leads to a staple diet where injura is the national staple (made from teff flour).  A mixed meat and vegetable diet is the norm, with Wednesdays and Fridays being fast days for the majority of the population (due to the religion followed).  Fasting requires that no meat or animal product is eaten, but vegetables can be consumed.  Pork and shellfish are not eaten at all (a religious requirement of the Coptic church).

Ethiopia used to have 60% coverage of forest.  By the beginning of the 20th century it was down to 35% and now is approximately 10%.  The government is encouraging replanting of trees.  The trees have been used traditionally for building houses (wooden structures covered with mud, with grass roofs on a wooden frames, in a round shape, single room).  Newer houses are the same wall construction, wood and mud, but they are rectangular with corrugated iron roofs.  The wood used for house building is primarily olive wood.  It is also used extensively as scaffolding for larger city buildings. It is also used for fencing, making donkey carts, agricultural tools, firewood, furniture etc.


The majority of Ethiopia has a very pleasant temperature.  For example in Addis in the summer the temperature is about 22- 30 degrees centigrade with it dropping to around 17 in winter.  Rain falls in winter most days.  Summer is dry.  In the north the summer is dry and the wet season is approximately April to September.  The south is a little hotter, and by all accounts the temperatures are increasing due to climate change.


Most Ethiopians are religious.  The dominant faith is Ethiopian Coptic Christianity (over 60% of the population) with about one third being Muslim.  In the northern areas (such as Lallibella and Axum) this percentage is closer to 95% of Ethiopian Coptic Christians.  This is reflected in a dominance of white cheesecloth being seen worn by people on their way too and from church and in the national dress of the central areas where the dominant tribe is Amharic.

Linked to the Christian beliefs of Ethiopians, they do not work to the Gregorian calendar, as they believe that Christ was born at a different time.  Their calendar is approximately 7 years and three months behind the Gregorian calendar.  So for example 19-02-2014GC is 10-02-2006EC.  Their new year is based from September 6th each year.


Over the past ten years the central government has been working on developing the infrastructure in the country.  They gain assistance from organisations such as the World Bank, the EU, the UN, and countries such as the UK, France and Belgium.   Housing and roads appear to have been a priority in Addis in particular, as is building a train line.  The only current trains running in Ethiopia are along the 681 km track from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, east of Addis.

The government is prioritising the provision of roads along major routes between towns.  There was a ten-year road improvement programme started in 1997 and this has been extended.  Twenty years ago there was only 5000 km of road, whereas now it is approximately 50,000 km.  However on-going maintenance is problematic.  The further south you go from Addis the worse the condition of the roads with more unmade roads.  60km can take well over an hour to drive on what is a predominantly straight road, with light vehicular traffic.   The animals and people walking on the roads add to the length of time taken as well as the potholes.  The government has prioritised the training of engineers to improve the infrastructure through the universities (along with health professionals, as described earlier).

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