07 December 2017

PhD on World Bank development interventions in Ethiopia


On 2 October Surafel Gelgelo Kumsa defended his PhD thesis in International History, titled “World Bank Development Interventions in Ethiopia: The Case of Wolayta Agricultural Development Unit (WADU), 1970–82”. Professor Aidan Russell presided the committee, which included Professor Gareth Austin, Thesis Director, and Dr Carlos Oya, Research Coordinator at the Department of Development Studies, University of London. Based on evidence derived from the WADU experience and Ethiopia’s post-war relations with donor agencies in general and the World Bank in particular, Dr Surafel sheds a critical light on some elements of post-development theory.

How did you come to study World Bank development interventions in Ethiopia?

The choice of my research topic has a bit of history. When I arrived at the Graduate Institute in September 2012, my plan was to write my dissertation on the political economy of state-society relations in Ethiopia from the late 1890s to 1974, taking Wolayta as a case. This was intended to address one major criticism against the conventional historiography of Ethiopia, i.e., its bias in favour of Amharic-Tigrinya speakers and adherents of Orthodox Christianity of north and central Ethiopia and marginalising peoples in the southern half of the country. But after discussion with my thesis supervisor, Professor Gareth Austin, I decided to narrow my research down to a study of a specific World Bank project, Wolayta Agricultural Development Unit (WADU). I hoped that although the dissertation would be about a particular development project, it would provide, through the analysis of donor-recipient relationships, critical insights into the motives of foreign aid, mechanisms of dominance, agency and the exercise of power in international development cooperation.

Can you tell us more about your dissertation and those critical insights?

Taking WADU as a case study, my dissertation investigates the role the World Bank played in the economic development of Ethiopia, and local reactions to this external, government-supported intervention. WADU’s operation spanned the last four years of the imperial regime and the early years of the Derg, the left-wing military government. It therefore provides an ideal opportunity to study the interplay between local and external forces in the development process, the dynamics of international development cooperation, and the relationships of power and agency under two Ethiopian governments with radically contrasting ideologies. Conceptually, the study is framed within some of the major debates in the history of development studies and seeks to test modernisation, dependency and post-development theories. However, the main thrust of the analysis is assessing some elements of post-development theory based on evidence derived from the project’s experience and Ethiopia’s post-war relations with donor agencies in general and the World Bank in particular.

The study shows that although the development intervention represented a considerable step towards realising the objectives of rural development, on the whole, it was only partially successful in making the development of the low-income sector self-sustaining. The reasons are multifaceted: the design of the various WADU programmes was not based on the full knowledge of national and regional political and socio-economic interests and interrelations; the variation in the availability and distribution of agricultural resources within the region; the allocation of land and labour time between various options and activities by farmers; levels of productivity and variations in it to efficiently realise its objectives. Consequently, WADU was not able to meet its broad-based social and economic development goals, and some project practices, in fact, led to unforeseen negative consequences with lasting detrimental impact, a major example being the further widening, instead of narrowing, income disparities within Wolayta society – a major objective of the rural development project. Besides, expectations of quick returns (or attaining measurable targets) and not appreciating the long-term benefits of the project dictated the adoption of a top-down transfer of technological innovations at the expense of adaptive research. WADU’s Research Unit, which was mandated to conduct empirical researches on peasant production practices, was preoccupied with the routine compilation of reports associated with WADU activities and consequently, no research breakthrough was achieved to radically alter the existing systems of agricultural production.

The dissertation demonstrates that modern Ethiopian history has been shaped as much by, and in interaction with, global developments as by local developments. What emerges from the empirical data is a compelling array of evidence against the tendency in the conventional historiography of Ethiopia to downgrade the role of foreign agency to a secondary place in shaping the course of political and economic developments in the modern history of Ethiopia. In relation to theory, I argue that, contrary to positions critical of development, the practice of development intervention experienced in Wolayta was not solely geared towards meeting the economic interests of donor countries and organisations. I show that after the 1974 Revolution, despite the newly socialist orientation of the host state, the World Bank’s developmental fund disbursement in Ethiopia increased whereas its intervention in the planning and execution of the project decreased.

Finally, the findings of my research suggest that with good planning that takes into consideration local and national institutions and structures and physical environment, such projects can benefit target communities. This is contrary to post-development theory’s rejection of the positive effects of international development projects and its call for an altogether abandonment of development itself. Based on an overall evaluation of the findings, my study argues both for a more historically grounded appreciation of peasant agency in development processes and for a balanced assessment of the role of international and national actors and interests in development policy, i.e., an assessment that does not place too much emphasis on any one actor or ideological force.

Your dissertation then contributes towards redressing gaps in Ethiopian historical studies. Such findings cannot but be helpful in regard to current development policies and practices.

From the point of view of actual utility, a comprehensive account of WADU’s history would serve as a reservoir of data to inform development practitioners, donors and policymakers about the challenges and prospects of implementing similar initiatives in the future. Currently the World Bank is involved in financing various development projects in Ethiopia. Harnessing vigorous development collaboration requires dispelling mistrusts and suspicions of ulterior intentions by stakeholders on both sides. Obviously, how the Ethiopian government and grassroots community perceived the outcomes of previous development projects could be a source of either trust or mistrust. Perceptions can emanate from unfounded bias or informed cognition. Therefore, my study of WADU might contribute to the formation of an informed judgment on the past and thus to a more rational approach for future development endeavours.

How will you remember your doctoral experience?

My PhD journey was challenging but at the same time it was an exhilarating experience. The study period was filled with several moments of doubts, frustration and depression. There were times when I contemplated quitting the programme but always felt the light at the end of the tunnel. The thought of my kid always gave me some motivation to hang in there. I wanted to be a model and a reference point for her. Equally important was the constant encouragement and support of my thesis supervisor, which made me persist in the race. The study period also provided me with an important opportunity to experience the outside world, notably Geneva, an exceedingly comfortable home. Invariably, the ideas and moral support of the people whom I met in Geneva proved a real inspiration to keep me on the track while the financial support from the Graduate Institute and the dedication and commitment of its staff to help students provided the motivation when I needed most to move on. Now I look back with a great sense of accomplishment.

What are you doing now?

I have returned to my country, Ethiopia, where I am preparing to resume teaching and research work at the Department of History, Addis Ababa University.


Full citation of the PhD thesis: Surafel Gelgelo Kumsa. “World Bank Development Interventions in Ethiopia: The Case of Wolayta Agricultural Development Unit (WADU), 1970–82.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2017.

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