The controversial effects of villagization in Ethiopia and the role of the EU in Africa’s urbanization

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Setting up the context

In the developing world, Africa has experienced the highest urban growth during the last two decades – at an approximately 5% per year. This rate is expected to hold well into 2050.[1] Current urbanization in Africa happened in the context of major global events which have ultimately shaped its course. The confluence of the world economic crisis with the global food and energy crises has had several effects. They have affected, in certain cases one more than the other, the urbanization processes in the continent.  This blog discusses about some of drivers and issues behind rural-urban migration in Africa and the social and economic effects these have on people constrained to migrate. What are the repercussions of current eviction policies favoring urbanization in Africa? The focus on a case study, based on a national urban plan implemented in Ethiopia since 1974 – the so-called Villagization program, will help reflecting about possible answers to this question. At the end of the discussion, the EU’s role with regards to urbanization in Africa will be analyzed and some recommendations will be provided.

What is Villagization?

Villagization can be described as “the grouping of population in centralized planned settlements”.[2] Villagization programs typically promote the concentration of people in villages. These programs often change the traditional ways of life to a certain extent, as most of the communities pushed to move come from nomadic or pastoral societies.

An historical account of the Ethiopian Villagization development programs

After the Ethiopian revolution in 1974, the communist Derg regime introduced socialist economic and political initiatives, such as the establishment of producer cooperatives and the implementation of state-farm programs. Villagization became an integrative program for Ethiopia’s new political course. It was focused on moving large villages to newly-established settlements in order to promote basic social services.[3] [4]  In 1991, when the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the Derg regime, the villagization program ceased to exist. The newly-established Government of Ethiopia (GoE) deemed it as inhumane and inefficient. Nevertheless, in 2010, after nearly a decade in power and amidst some controversies, also the GoE launched its first villagization program.[5]

The current social repercussions of villagization policies in Ethiopia

When the first villagization program was implemented by the Ethiopian Derg regime, the objective was to villagize 33 million rural people in 20 years. Today, the villagization program is set to move approximately 2 million people from isolated homes to village sites selected by the GoE. In these new villages, authorities promised to provide the relocated communities with basic services, such as health care, education, sanitation and crops.[6] Nevertheless, this hardly corresponds to the reality on the ground. For instance, a Human Rights Watch report about the implementation of a recent villagization program in Ethiopia’s Gambella region found that most of the indigenous populations were not only forced to move against their will, but they were also lacking basic services in their new villages.[7]

In 2016, the residents of some lands in Ethiopia’s Oromya region took on the streets of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The main reason was the Addis Ababa Master Plan – a urban development project aimed to enlarge the city borders at the expense of farmland in the Oromya. The plan imposed the Oromo people living in those lands to relocate in new government-built settlements. Today, several analysts find in those grievances the beginning of the current Ethiopian political crisis, which is believed to be the worst political crisis the country has experienced since the Derg times. The crisis was characterized by two consecutive States of Emergency, in 2016-2017 and 2017-18, and a change in government leadership at the beginning of 2018.[8]


The reasons leading to the scramble on the African continent are various. First, Africa accounts for about 60% of the world’s arable land, while most of its countries do not achieve 25% of their potential yield. Second, recent state policies encourage land-driven FDI to increase public revenues. Third, and most importantly, the majority of the 1,4 billion of hectares of rural plots have no formal tiles (i.e. property rights are close to inexistent in most African countries’ rural lands) or belong to the state.[9] Local socioeconomic divisions increase after the land grab takes place and conflicts arise.[10] As such, land-grabbing and villagization policies are pushing people to move, but not only from rural areas to cities. They are also pushing people to embark on longer journeys. Many people want to reunite with family members who migrated abroad. Others, decide to opt for second migration as the social pressure and job entry barriers they found in the nearby city they moved to are too high.[11]

The EU role on urbanization in Africa

Recent reports have shown how the action of the European Union in Africa has reinforced pre-existing phenomena such as land-grabbing and villagization. For instance, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) adopted by the European Parliament in 2009 provoked European-led large land grabs in the Global South for the production of agro-fuels (i.e. palm oil, sugarcane, corn). Another major example stems from the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Europe is the world’s largest importer food, 60% of which is grown outside European borders. To sustain the demand for food in Europe, the EU’s virtual net import of land – the amount of land required to produce one unit of a given agricultural good – was close to 35 million hectares, almost equal to the size of Germany.[12]

The European Union shall act in support to neighboring societies’ growth aspirations by sustaining initiatives that pose limits to the adverse social and economic effects often encountered by local populations. To achieve that, we propose few recommendations:

  1. The EU shall formulate a robust response to land grabbing. This could include the extra-territorial obligation of EU Member States to prevent their own citizens, companies and third parties from undermining the rights to food and private property regulations in partner countries.
  2. The EU shall change its investment strategy from one focused on investors’ interests to one that focuses on investors’ obligations. The EU should require all investment treaties signed by Member States to include stringent human rights clauses. Additionally, given the secrecy which surrounds many land deals, the first step to holding investors accountable is for the EU to set up a registry of all EU public and private actors involved in large-scale land acquisitions abroad.
  3. The EU shall not consider urban development in the Global South as a stand-alone sector, but as a cross-cutting theme involving several major development policies. Since 2011, the EU has provided support averaging €360 million per year for programs linked directly or indirectly to urban development.[13] Yet, as the Ethiopia case study has shown, even EU’s closest partners are undergoing violent processes to achieve the development these countries need to reach. EU development programs containing firm and fair urbanization components should therefore be developed.

Author: Vittorio Capici, former ECDPM trainee – Migration Program

Image courtesy of Alan via Flickr.

[1] African Development Group (ADG) (2012). Urbanization in Africa. Online article available at: (Accessed on 27 August 2018).

[2] Lorgen, C. (1999). The experience of Villagization: Lessons from Ethiopia, Mozambique and Tanzania. London: OXFAM GB, January 1999. Available at: (Accessed on 27 August 2018).

[3] Cohen, J. M. & Isaksson, N. (1987). Villagization in Ethiopia’s Arsi Region. The Journal of Modern African Studies, pp. 435-464. Available at: (Access on 27 August 2018).

[4] Yntiso, G. (2009). Why did Resettlement Fail? In Moving People in Ethiopia: Development, Displacement and the State, by Pankhurst, A. & Piguet, F., pp. 119-129. Woodbridge: James Currey, 2009.

[5] The Development Assistance Group (DAG) Ethiopia (2014). Findings and Recommendations on CDP and South Omo. Available at: (Accessed 27 August 2018).

[6] Prunier, G. The Ethiopian Revolution and The Derg Regime. In Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia: Monarchy, Revolution and the Legacy of Meles Zenawi, by Éloi Ficquet & Gérard Prunier, 209-31. London: C.Hurst&Co., 2015

[7] Human Rights Watch (2012). Waiting Here for Death: Forced Displacement and Villagization in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region. New York: (ISBN) 1-56432-854-6.

[8] Chala, E. (2016). Ethiopia scraps Addis Ababa ‘master plan’ after protests kill 140. Newspaper Article: The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed 4 July 2018).

[9] Melis, G. (2016). The Socio-political impact of “land-grabbing” in Africa and its destabilizing effects. Centro Studi Internationali (CeSI). Available at: (Accessed 2 September 2018)

[10] Crabtree-Condor I., Casey, L. (2012). Lay of the Land: Improving land rights to stop land grabs. Available at: (Accessed 1 September 2018).

[11] De Schutter (2011). Guidelines to prevent ‘land grabbing’ crucial for food security. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. News Article available at: (Accessed 1 September 2018).

[12] Transnational Institute (TNI) (2012). The European Union and the Global Land Grab. Available at:

[13] The World Bank Group. (2015). Investing in Urban Resilience: Protecting and Promoting Development in a Changing World. Available at: (Accessed 1 September 2018).

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