Two very different books, both fascinating, attest to the socioeconomic and political progress Ethiopia has made during the last two decades -- and to the enormous challenges still facing this country, whose more than 90 million people belong to 75 distinct ethnolinguistic groups and whose recent history includes civil war and several massive famines.
Smith examines the substantial expansion of what she calls “meaningful citizenship” in the country since the 1970s, by which she means the actual exercise of rights inscribed in formal institutions but too often ignored. The formal promulgation of those rights has begun to empower traditionally subordinate segments of society, such as women and certain ethnic groups. Smith is cautiously optimistic, recognizing that progress slowed down during the contentious final years of Meles Zenawi’s tenure as the country’s strongman, which ended with his death in 2012. One particularly worthwhile chapter narrates the evolution of the role of ethnicity in Ethiopian politics and includes a nuanced analysis of the interaction between cultural norms and formal institutions in shaping the role of women in the country.
In their analysis of Ethiopian agriculture, the contributors to Dorosh and Rashid’s collection say little about the country’s ethnic or gender inequality, preferring instead to focus on less contested topics. The book describes the appreciable effects of the Meles government’s economic policies over the course of the last two decades, in particular its comprehensive food policy. Meles made substantial investments in rural infrastructure, liberalized agricultural pricing policies, and put in place an early warning system to combat food shortages. Partly as a result, the country witnessed a substantial decline in poverty and an improvement in food security. Massive famines such as those of the 1970s and 1980s now seem virtually inconceivable. But here, too, the story is one of many remaining challenges; as Dorosh and Rashid note, 45 percent of the population remains undernourished.