Drivers of Migration: Ethiopia’s Emerging Mobility Transition

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Although it is commonly assumed that rising levels of development should decrease the need to migrate, recent research from across the social sciences finds a countervailing trend: emigration levels appear to rise, not fall, as human development indicators increase and countries move from low- to middle-income status. However, more research is needed to understand the drivers of changing migration patterns in developing-country contexts, and the causes of variation in how countries experience this ‘mobility transition.’

This project examines the impact of Ethiopia’s historical development on the nature, volume, and direction of its internal and international migration. Our research identified three core shifts. The first is a widespread decline in nomadic lifestyles, leading to more sedentary lifestyles, beginning in the 1970s. All three government regimes we studied assumed settled life as the norm and advanced policies that effectively tie people to places. The second shift is an increase in migration from rural areas to urban settings, particularly after the current government shifted its focus to supporting private entrepreneurship and industrial capitalism in the early 2000s. The third shift is increased variation in the destinations of international migration. This is marked by a notable rise in international labor migration, both documented and undocumented, to a growing number of countries in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

The drivers of migration in Ethiopia are complex. Rising rural-urban and international labor migration are intimately connected to deeper social transformations Ethiopia has experienced, like rising GDP, expanding access to formal education, and changing ideas about what constitutes “good work” and a “good life.” Nevertheless, periods of rapid regime change and protracted conflict have led to persistent poverty, low educational attainment, and low connectivity across Ethiopia: despite its rapid economic growth since the 2000s, on a per capita basis, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. As a result, Ethiopian emigration remains relatively low—despite the presence of push factors, such as political conflict, climate change, or poverty. Bottom line: migration in Ethiopia is not just a story of displacement from conflict, poverty, and drought. Ethiopia’s migration is also driven by its economic development and social transformation.

Method and Results

We applied a social transformation perspective to explore how different dimensions of social change shaped migration and settlement trends in Ethiopia over time. We define social transformation as a fundamental change in the way societies are organized and resources are distributed and recognize several interconnected dimensions that constitute the social, including the political, economic, technological, demographic, and cultural. We focused on social transformations and mobility patterns under three regimes: an imperialist regime under Haile Selassie until 1974, the communist Derg regime from 1974 to 1991, and a self-titled “developmental state” from 1991 until 2018. The primary social transformation processes that we focused on are regime change and political conflict; commercial agriculture and industrialization; formal education; and infrastructure development. Overall, the Ethiopian case supports the general observation that rising international migration accompanies processes of human and economic development in low-income countries, yet it also shows that rising international migration is but one facet of a broader transformation in a society’s mobility complex.

Juxtaposing the Ethiopian case with other countries at similar levels of human and economic development is an important area for further comparative research into mobility transition and its variations across space and time. The three core shifts identified here are likely general enough to capture big-picture shifts in emerging mobility transitions elsewhere. This research can help move migration and development discussions beyond a focus solely on international migration to better understand how and why the entire mobility complex of a given society changes as the social transformations associated with modern-day development proceed. Rich countries allocate billions in development aid each year with the hope of reducing migration. This study suggests that development policies designed to address the root causes of migration will be less likely to achieve their aims if they fail to recognize the ways in which development can also be a driver of migration.



Kerilyn Schewel (Duke Center for International Development), Asmamaw Legass Bahir (Addis Ababa University)

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Climate & Sustainability, Migration, Economic Development, Africa, Ethiopia