Shared Values, Institutions and Development: The Case of the Gurage and Oromo of south-western Ethopia

This research is concerned with the construction of identity through institutions that seek to change the conditions under which people exist in South-western Ethiopia . For the purpose of understanding the deeper aspects of identification, it investigates shared values that form the basis of collective actions aimed at promoting development at local levels. But it also examines the outward signs of identification to the extent that such institutions are based on people’s claims to belong to one or the other group and serve as markers at the interface, in their interaction with others. In Ethiopia one such institutional model that combines the deeper and outer signs of identification is provided by ethnic-based associations having the express aim of undertaking community development activities, which, given their flexibility, have at times also shown to be political pressure groups. As a whole, such a model provides the intermediate link between local kinship and territorial groupings and the nation state as the maximal social organisation, although networking and identification extend to transnational levels as well.
The research focuses on shared perceptions of people belonging to Gurage and Oromo ethnic groups about constraints to development and on the social institutions these people use to harness ethnic identity in order to achieve development at their ethnic and other levels. The research examines the conditions under which such ethnic identifications are (re)created and changed, especially in reference to a state system that controls the production and distribution of goods and services, to which different groups of people relate differently. The familiar depiction of ethnicity is that of it being ‘an atavistic remnant’. But within current political policies of Ethiopia it is being pursued as ‘a modern phenomenon demanding accommodation within the political life’ in the country. In this context, the research deals with the question of how the changes in (official) recognition of ethnicity and the associated institutional changes within which ethnicity is intended to play a leading (developmental and political) role have affected ethnic identifications, as they widen or get narrow, and how these have, in turn, influenced policies with regard to bases of socio-political organisation in the country.
The phenomenal growth of urbanization and the associated rural-urban migration during the post-conquest periods of the late 19 th century and onwards in Ethiopia have resulted in increased population movements to new areas and various forms of interactions between different ethnic, religious and other groups of people. Among the strategies used by people to cope with the new (urban) environment is recourse to solidarity groups and institutions which coordinated assistance to individuals in difficult situations such as at bereavement or when they got ill, facilitated economic support through informal financial institutions, and implemented community development projects in migrants’ areas of origin as well as in their new places of residence. Through these institutions, (implicit) values found in the form of generally accepted ways of socio-economic interactions and relationships, collectively known as custom(s), but also expressed (explicitly) in written bylaws, are stressed to instil predispositions of cooperation and solidarity. The research aims to explore these values in order to contribute to our understanding of individual and social behaviour, in general, and ethnic-based, development-oriented identity constructions, in particular, and how these have come face to face with reactions from without (other groups and the state system) within the framework of not only development management but also in larger nation building processes.

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