Migration, Development and the Urbanization of the Good Life: Mobility Transitions in Rural Ethiopia
This paper examines how Ethiopia’s “development” over the last century impacted the mobility patterns of a traditionally seminomadic peoples in the central lowlands of Oromia. Using original survey data, in-depth interviews, and ethnographic methods, this research uncovers how, within just four generations, one village experienced two mobility transitions: from seminomadic pastoralism into settled agriculture, and then from rural agriculture into more mobile, urban-centric lives. To explain these transitions, this paper advances a social transformation framework to explore how different dimensions of social change — the political, economic, demographic, technological, and cultural — impact aspirations and capabilities to migrate or stay. It finds, first, that the sedentarisation of seminomadic lifestyles was an integral part of modern nation-state building in Ethiopia. The integration of this once peripheral region into a centralised, hierarchical state disrupted traditional patterns of socioeconomic organisation with the effect of tying people to places. Second, it finds that rural out-migration among younger generations — whether to neighbouring towns or to the Middle East — is primarily driven by rising access to formal education, growing rural-urban connectivity, and the expansion of the market economy. In Ethiopia, where most analyses of rural out-migration focus on the factors that “force” young people to abandon agriculture and rural lives, this case study shows why rising rural out-migration is part and parcel of “development” as it is practiced today. Rather than alleviating the need to migrate, this research suggests that development often creates the need to migrate.