1.1 Research objective

Regardless of substantial shifts in the competitive landscape within the EPRDF/PP, the liberalisation and anti-corruption drives and the increasing ethnicization of popular political attitudes, the key legitimating factor of the regime has remained largely unchanged. Historically defining poverty as the biggest threat to the regime’s survival, the EPRDF relied heavily on output legitimacy based on a top-down developmental state model driving continuous economic growth and thereby justifying its continued existence, while at the same time lacking a solid popular mandate and implementing significant repression of dissent.[12] Although Ethiopia’s state-led Growth and Transformation Plan has given way to the more entrepreneurial Homegrown Economic Reform Plan, the underlying approach of tackling instability through increasing employment remains a core legitimating factor.[13] In a similar vein, a substantial part of donor policy in Ethiopia operates under the same assumption that (un)employment is a key driver of the instability affecting the country and that expanding employment could substantially reduce tensions. While (un)employment is undoubtedly a major component of political contestation throughout the country and should be a prime concern for government and donors alike, it should be kept in mind that substantial strands of research have highlighted the more complex nature of that relationship (especially in contexts with high informal employment and/or fragility).[14] For instance, trade unions have highlighted the importance of decent work rather than overall employment, research on illicit economies in the United States underlines how informal employment can lead to increasing marginalisation and aggravate grievances, while ethnographic work has shown how economic development in Ethiopia might translate into marginalisation of its young people.[15]

This report seeks to examine the relationship between urban informal (self-)employment and stability in Ethiopia.[16] It hence poses the question to what extent employment in the urban informal sector allows for the expression and reduction of (existing) grievances.[17] The report commences by outlining the wider socio-economic trends driving grievances among newly urbanised youth. This chapter considers the country’s sustained high economic growth in the face of persistent poverty, rapid population growth, demographic changes and increasing urbanisation, as well as patterns of inequality and marginalisation faced by those (self)-employed in the informal economy. The following chapter discusses the rapidly changing political context in Ethiopia, covering changes in governance as well as the re-emergence of ethnic nationalist forces. It focuses on changing patterns of EPRDF/PP political mobilisation, the weakening of party cohesion and the political mobilisation tactics of opposition parties. The fourth chapter covers the importance of ethnic identities and networks in employment. It commences by considering the long-standing ethnicization of the formal sector, and subsequently explores the rising importance of ethnic identity in informal employment and urbanisation patterns. The last chapter of this report summarises findings relating to grievance expression and their deepening or reduction through informal employment, and makes recommendations for more effective programming aimed at reducing ethnic tensions among those employed informally in urban spaces.

This report seeks to inform the debate on the impact of informal employment and stability in Ethiopia based on desk research and fieldwork in Addis Ababa. It should be remembered, however, that Ethiopia is highly diverse ethnically and that conditions across the country vary significantly.[18] Additionally, urbanisation and ethnic political contestation are rapidly changing the situation in many of these locations. As a consequence, dynamics described in this report cannot be expected to hold across Ethiopia, and extrapolations of such dynamics that do not take into account the local context may obscure important differences. Additional limitations are placed upon this research, as an in-depth examination of the ethnicization of Ethiopian politics is beyond the scope of this report. Additionally, the instability caused by these dynamics affected the conduct of the research. Even in the context of substantial political liberalisation, several respondents were hesitant or unwilling to fully express their views, while in other cases fieldwork sites outside of Addis Ababa were inaccessible due to ongoing violent ethnic clashes.[19] While data collection for this report attempted to account for such issues, no reporting on such a sensitive contested issue can claim to be exhaustive. Lastly, this report was developed before the Covid-19 outbreak that hit Ethiopia in March 2020 and the subsequent military operations in the Tigray regional state. These developments have significantly affected political contestation and the reform process, and are also likely to have had an effect on a number of the dynamics described in this report.

Abdu, B. 2018. ‘Diplomats, media optimist about Abiy’, The Reporter, 31 March,link (accessed 20 April 2020).
Human Rights Watch. 2019. ‘Ethiopia: Growing Uncertainty Marks Abiy’s First Year in Power: Early reforms followed by rising tensions, security breakdown’, link (accessed 20 April 2020); Vertin, Z. 2019. ‘Alfred Nobel catches ‘Abiy-mania’: Praise and caution for Ethiopia's prize winner’, link (accessed 20 April 2020).
Davison, W. and Tewele, L. 2018. ‘Abiy attacks impunity as MetEC and NISS officials held for graft and torture’, Ethiopia Insight, 15 November, link (accessed 20 April 2020).
Kursha,K. 2020. ‘Respecting self-determination could prove good governance model for Ethiopia’s southern nations’, Ethiopia Insight, 22 September, link (accessed 10 December 2020).
Salam, K. 2019. ‘Ethiopia’s Year of Reckoning: Ahead of elections in 2020, Ethiopia has many problems to address. Here are our top reads on how Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power and what comes next’, link (accessed 20 April 2020).
Yusuf, S. 2019. ‘What is driving Ethiopia’s ethnic conflicts?’, East Africa Report 28, Institute for Security Studies.
Yusuf, S. 2019. ‘Drivers of ethnic conflict in contemporary Ethiopia’, Monograph 202, Institute for Security Studies; Tasfaye, E. 2020. ‘Amid blackout, western Oromia plunges deeper into chaos and confusion’, Ethiopia Insight, 14 February, link (accessed 20 April 2020); Kleinfeld, P. and Parker, B. 2020. ‘Ethiopia’s other conflicts’, The New Humanitarian, 23 November, link (accessed 31 December 2020).
Fisher, J. 2020. ‘Ethiopia: at the roots of the conflict in Tigray’, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 11 November, link (accessed 31 December 2020); Freudenthal, E. 2020. ‘Ethnic profiling of Tigrayans heightens tensions in Ethiopia’, The New Humanitarian, 16 December, link (accessed 31 December 2020).
Protests, riots and violence against civilians data from Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) (see www.acleddata.com).
De Waal, A. 2013. ‘The theory and practice of Meles Zenawi’, African Affairs, 112 (446), 148-155; Fouriej, E. 2015. China's example for Meles' Ethiopia: when development ‘models’ land, and interview with Ethiopian academics, Addis Ababa, 2017.
Gebre, S. 2019. `Ethiopian PM says reforms will deliver 3 million jobs in 2019-20´, 2 July, link (accessed 22 April) It should be noted however that Ethiopia’s growth is often considered as ‘jobless growth’, as job creation fails to keep pace with GDP growth and is insufficient to create opportunities for the two million Ethiopian young people entering the workforce each year.
Approximately 81% of employment in Ethiopia is informal (Desta, C. 2018. ‘The urban informal economy in Ethiopia: theory and empirical evidence’, Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review, 34(1), 37-64).
Throughout this report, the term urban informal (self-)employment is used to refer individuals working at both registered and unregistered enterprises without a contract (mostly wage labourers), as well as self-employed individuals running small unregistered businesses in urban environments.
See Panhurst, A. and Dom, C. (eds), 2019, Rural Ethiopia in Transition: Selected discussion briefs, 2018, Addis Ababa.
For example, when several construction workers were asked why they did not discuss the heavily publicised protests their building site was engulfed in just days prior they simple noted: ‘Because we want to survive.’ (Addis Ababa, November 2019).