The politics of distribution in Ethiopia's 'developmental state'

A growing literature highlights the pursuit of 'double-digit growth' and industrialisation within the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Party's (EPRDF) 'developmental state' model. Yet economic transformation has never been the sole focus of the EPRDF's thinking. Rather, the distributional implications of development have been a central concern ever since the party came to power in 1991 and even beforehand during the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front's (TPLF) liberation struggle and administration of Tigray during the 1980s. This presentation is based on empirical research on land, agriculture, social protection and employment conducted over the past 10 years, involving analysis of key informant interviews with political elites and bureaucrats, official and internal party documentation, and village level case studies. The analysis shows that the EPRDF has long sought not only to stimulate a rapid process of economic transformation, but also to manage that process in the interests of social and political stability, drawing on a range of policy tools to do so, including: state land ownership, agricultural extension, employment creation and, more recently, social protection. Despite significant shifts in the EPRDF’s development strategy over time, there is actually considerable continuity in the principles underpinning this distributional strategy that reflects the complex interplay of political interests and ideology, namely: delivering tangible progress to a broad section of the population as a means of building support, while also mobilising along ethno-nationalist lines. Ironically, however, while this approach has secured many successes, it has also exposed important limitations, in highlighting two of the central drivers of recent political upheaval within the country: an interlinked crisis of severe land and employment shortages, and the limits to ethno-regional autonomy under the federal system.