It is generally believed that poverty in rural Ethiopia has fallen significantly since the early 1990s, thanks to improved governance and economic liberalisation policies. This paper presents several arguments that challenge this view. The first questions the methodological foundations of the panel survey data from which these positive trends are derived: we argue that the original sampling frame was so small and nrepresentative that there is no basis for extrapolating national poverty rates and trends from the six case study villages. The second argument questions the conceptual approach preferred by these studies: poverty estimates based on levels of current consumption are heavily determined in Ethiopia by seasonality, annual rainfall and food aid receipts. The third strand considers alternative sources of data on changes in well-being in Ethiopia: recent qualitative studies report that the poor perceive themselves as poorer and more vulnerable than 'official' poverty headcount figures suggest.
Finally, we report findings from our own survey in the chronically poor and historically famineprone region formerly known as Wollo. Firstly, a significant proportion of households in the study area are destitute - destitution being defined as inability to meet basic needs, lack of key productive assets, and dependence on transfers. Secondly, the numbers of destitute people, and of people vulnerable to becoming destitute, have increased over the past ten years. Thirdly, the crisis of livelihoods underlying this trend is affecting entire communities - the dominant pattern is an aggregate downward shift, rather than stratification - and the decline of wealthier households is exacerbating the vulnerability of the poorest. These findings cast serious doubts on generalisations about poverty trends in Ethiopia. At the very least, national-level data need to be disaggregated: improving national trends may conceal pockets of entrenched poverty and a deepening livelihoods crisis in parts of rural Ethiopia.
Is poverty really falling in rural Ethiopia? [Draft], presented at Staying Poor: Chronic Poverty and Development Policy, Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, 7-9 April 2003. Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC), Manchester, UK, 30 pp.