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.

Elders play a prominent role in the transmission of values in rural Ethiopia
(Photos: Getinet Assefa, 2004. Right picture – Paint-sign-post of CHAD-ET in Woliso town, Oromiya Region)

The research is contextualised in South-Western Ethiopia, a setting characterised by complex livelihood practices, high cultural diversity, and varying connections to centers of political power. In the institutional landscape characterizing migrants’ new environments and their areas of origin, the indigenous institutions on which the research focuses constitute part of a larger, non-state structural complex that coexists with structures of the nation state. Through decades of existence as such, these institutions have served as alternatives for people to engage in independent initiatives for socio-cultural, economic and political empowerment. The research aims at understanding these institutional complexes, their purposes and the ideals they use to rally membership and consequently to realize (developmental) objectives in their different forms. By exploring various socio-cultural, economic and political contexts at different levels (local, regional, national, transnational), it tries to answer why mobilizations based on ethnic belongingness or shared local origin has been considered a better way to serve the causes of development.
Ethiopia has now more than 70 million people belonging to around 85 ethnic groups of widely different sizes of population. The selection of the Gurage and Oromo ethnic groups is based on appreciation of the notable experiences of their members, who (forcedly or willingly) migrated to the capital Addis Ababa and elsewhere in the country, in forming self-help development associations to help them cope with the new phenomenon of urban life and link the rural hinterland (their origin) with modern infrastructure, social and economic services. It is also based on the perceived differential reaction of other cultural groups and the state towards the self-help and development initiatives and associations of the two groups of people or sections of them.

The above pictures depicting peoples’ cooperation at work in Gurage area show examples of reciprocal work parties that constitute one of the most important shared traditional values in rural Ethiopia
(Photo: Getinet Assefa, 2004)

The last few decades have seen an increasing interest in the study of indigenous institutions in Ethiopia , in general, and urban self-help associations, in particular, with focus mainly on their proliferation and the roles they play in development in different contexts. In an attempt to further the understanding of such institutions and their implications for theories of conflict and integration, it is argued that these institutions are not merely aimed at solving practical problems. The current research examines whether such institutions are meant to replace traditional forums or events, such as rituals and social performances in which cultural values used to be shared, shaped and nurtured, for the promotion of new (developmental) values which are stressed in the construction of new (or affirmation of old) ethnic identities for a new nation.

Addis Ababa and other major urban centers in Ethiopia are conglomerates of people of diverse cultural and geographical origin.
(Photo: Getinet Assefa, 2004)

The study is based on anthropological approaches to ethnicity, in which its meaning has for long been emphasised from the standpoint of either of the two polar theories of primordialism or essentialism (which treats ethnicity as a ‘given social existence’ emanating from ideas of shared origin and culture) and instrumentalism or constructivism (which emphasise the interactional setting of ethnicity). But it draws on recent theories that have introduced the need for a comprehensive engagement with the ethnic phenomena that simultaneously takes into account content and boundary. Of particular interest for this research is the suggestion to understand ethnicity as a particular social formation and as an aspect of interaction, among other things, for the investigation of the historical and social circumstances in which a particular ethnic configuration has developed, and a subsequent localization in time, place and social scale of the ethnic phenomena in question.
Studies focusing on groups in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere have been preoccupied by ambiguous relationships or connections between ethnicity and conflict. Analysis has focused on violence within the context of change characterised by increasing and intolerable stress on the material and social culture of people and the struggle for control between different groups to which they belong. This explains interaction as conflict that takes the form of violent encounters between groups which struggle for survival, as their livelihoods have come to be negatively affected by ecological conditions, unfavourable market systems, and dictatorial governance structures.
The research investigates the conditions for and variations in ethnic collective actions of different groups and how ethnic collective actions are related to development processes perceived to be within the reach of actors and how groups so mobilised behave in reference to one another, without necessarily having direct conflicting encounters, by engaging in competition to advance their own aims. The concept of competition as a form of interaction between groups who are not necessarily in contact with each other, rather than conflict as a form of contest between groups in which direct contact is an indispensable condition, fits the purpose of the research very well. Competition theory will also be used to examine the role of elites in creating and transforming ethnic identities among both groups as socio-economic and political transformations took place in the country. Such an instrumentalist view of ethnicity will be combined with examining factors causing shifts in levels and salience of ethnic boundaries and why and how the latter are favoured over other forms of social organisation to give a better picture of processes of ethnic mobilisation.
Finally, what is called a political opportunity approach will be used to analyse migrant mobilisations, although in the context of Europe, in order to examine ethnic-based claim-making as being affected both by institutional opportunities created as part of nation building processes and by national model of citizenship. The extent to which institutional opportunities are perceived by different groups to be inclusive or exclusive affects ethnic mobilizations to either become more radical or a moderate action repertoire of groups. Citizenship models are examined in terms of national identity, as defined by certain elements of what is considered to be the core culture such as religion or ethnicity and the extent to which they give people legitimacy to intervene in and a way for claims pertaining to the national public space and provide a framework for the recognition of ethnic and cultural differences.

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