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Researching Development in Lowland Ethiopia: Some Insights

Tok Bel, equity and quality of education process owner, Bureau of Education, Lare woreda, Gambella Region. “Parents and children need to understand the value of education. When children receive education, their chance of going into conflict in their community is minimal. Out of school children are more prone to involve in conflict situations. Even in the recent Murle attack, most lives that were saved were those of children who were attending school when the incident happened,” explained Tok Bel. Tok also explained that the education system needs to address the issue of equality and equity by which all tribes including minority groups get access to education closer to their homes. “Whenever there is the issue of equity, whenever we are not able to fulfill the demands to equally serve all communities, conflict and clashes in these communities is inevitable.” © UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Meklit Mersha

The Ethiopian government argues that land investments, and the accompanying villagization scheme (also called commune programme), constitute the mode of development suitable to the lowlands, i.e., in areas like South Omo and Gambella. However, this stance is not accepted by members of the local community as well as various international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), scholars (in particular anthropologists with extensive knowledge in the concerned areas) and the Ethiopian diaspora. The argument they advance is that such extensive land investments are being pursued through a dispossessive process at the expense of the agro-pastoralists and shifting cultivators in the lowlands. Furthermore, they argue that, the villagization scheme defeats its stated purpose of service delivery to the local population, as it ‘removes’ and ‘concentrates’ the lowlander in villages, further expanding land alienations. This contestation between the government and, mainly, international NGOs and the Ethiopian diaspora sets the context within which conducting fieldwork in the Ethiopian lowlands became particularly difficult. This is especially the case after 2008, when demand for farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa surged and continues to be difficult, as I’ve experienced recently whilst conducting fieldwork in august 2016.

Challenges to fieldwork in the Ethiopian Lowlands

As a result of their differences, The Ethiopian diaspora along with the academic community and international NGOs have spread negative publicity of the Ethiopian government’s doings in the lowlands. They target donor agencies (the World Bank and UK’s Department for International Development) in their activism, and the impact was particularly felt by the government. As such, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democracy Front (EPRDF), the ruling coalition leading the country since 1991, resorted to constraining the spaces of such research backed information on the lowlands from reaching, what it calls, ‘rent-seeking’, ‘anti-development’ forces. In the past five years, there is a perceptible increase in sensitivity and reluctance to give research permits, support letters and data (be it through interview or documents) when it comes to research focusing on land deals and villagization in the country. This is felt both at the federal and regional levels, as well as at lower administrative levels.

Even if one manages to get the proper support letters and goes to his/her case study area, he/she will be facing further challenges. Local officials are intent on making sure that ‘outsiders’ get the ‘right’ information only. This will translate into attempting to steer the data collection process by selecting the data sources. Furthermore, following the government’s ‘false dichotomy’ between ‘developmental’ and ‘rent-seeker’ actors, local actors struggle to ensure that the researcher is not from the latter group or that s/he does not get swayed by information received from ‘rent-seekers’/‘anti-development’ actors at local levels. Not knowing how to carefully navigate these dynamics results in the generation of a biased data and research outputs with poor objectivity.

Past this hurdle comes the actual task of conducting the data gathering from/with members of the local community and the experts and officials of local government. Two types of challenges emerge at this stage. The local community assume a researcher coming from the centre, be it with a support letter from a University or a line Ministry, as influential and do not hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity to air their grievances over a range of issues.

While this could be an opportunity to get detailed information, it elicits expectations, which the researcher cannot meet afterwards. Meeting such expectations would require the researcher to take up the role of an activist as well. Although researchers may believe that this role does not affect their role as a researcher or even the quality and objectivity of their work; it becomes easy for the government to label their findings as ‘biased’ and ‘activist writings’, rather than serious academic works.

As such, experts and officials working for local governments take all the necessary measures to not fall outside the official line and frame of discourse in local development issues. A researcher’s attempt to get past that façade and get the nuances and ‘hidden scripts’ would figure as an attempt to push them outside the sanctioned discourse into saying what is commonly taken as the views and attitudes of ‘rent-seekers’ and ‘anti-development’ actors. It takes time and patience to build rapport to get past this ‘wall’.

Even then, informants working for the local government are very hesitant of what will come out of their giving an interview on the matter. Even if an informant does not go an inch outside the remits of the ‘developmental’ discourse, s/he will not want to get recorded. I have come across some informants alluding that I might record their interview with my phone, even though I have respected their choice of not getting recorded. This proves the extent of fear and by corollary the difficulty of generating as much diverse views from the field as possible to produce a comprehensive and objective report on the matter.


The discourse of building a developmental state and the intention to make the ‘developmental’ mind-set hegemonic in Ethiopia is contributing to further increasing the difficulty of engaging in development research. The researcher, especially if Ethiopian, feels pressured to write ‘developmental’ outputs in various forms. As the incumbent takes academics as bastion of the opposition, her/his critiques will not be taken as objective and rational arguments, rather as politically motivated. Even worse, the need to be on the safe side pressures informants to align themselves within the government’s discourse. This not only has the potential of introducing a methodological bias, but also forces the researcher to go to greater lengths to generate alternative views and explanations.

Fana Gebresenbet

Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University

Image source: UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Meklit Mersha

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