Rural destitution is a growing phenomenon in Ethiopia, closely associated with population growth, resource scarcity, crop failure and famine. This paper attempts to further our understanding of destitution by discussing its attributes, local developments that contextualize it, and the causes and processes which explain why certain households fall into or emerge from a state of destitution. The study was conducted in a woina dega community in Wag Hamra zone and a kola community in South Wello. The research methods used in the study consisted of group interviews with men and women and household case studies.
Important aspects of the socio-economic context that condition the distribution of destitution include the occurrence of droughts, the variable impact of land redistribution, other mechanisms of gaining land and development interventions, declining trends in resource availability, and ecological and living conditions. The discussion of the causes and processes of destitution demonstrates the role of severe or repeated crop failure, poor access to assets and the social development of households in bringing about destitution. The resilience of households that manage to avoid destitution despite experiencing various hazards lie in their substantial assets, diversification activities and social networks. On the other hand, households that are reduced to destitution have to rely on limited income-earning activities and support from other community members to survive. Some households do manage to escape destitution on the basis of successful investments in crop and livestock production, efforts to diversify their income sources, and resource donations from kin and friends. Favorable conditions including access to key assets such as land, labor or reproductive animals have to be available to households if this is going to be likely. Development interventions such as credit provision for seed, animals and income-earning activity, road building and those promoting urban growth have had some impact in allowing households to avoid impoverishment. Finally the paper argues that that fight against destitution and poverty in the Ethiopian highlands should integrate four vital strategies: an anti-drought/famine strategy, an agricultural strategy, an income diversification strategy and a demographic strategy