Stable Jobs, Precarious Lives: Rural Public Servants in Ethiopia

Sarah Howard

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis explores the functioning of the Ethiopian state through the lives of rural public servants in a peripheral area of Amhara Region. Narratives about the strong, authoritarian and innately hierarchical nature of Ethiopia's developmental state emphasise the coercive nature of policies and structures that reach down to ever smaller units of the population. However, scrutiny of those charged with carrying out this work, as individuals and social actors, has been neglected. Based on long term ethnographic fieldwork in North Shewa, this thesis provides an account of the lowest level of the state through close attention to the everyday social worlds and professional responsibilities of teachers, extension workers and administrators. In chapters that concentrate on child nutrition, latrine promotion and the idea of education, and through an individual life history, I show the physical, affective, emotional and relational consequences of state work on state employees themselves. I also look at the role of substances - including breastmilk, shit and coffee - in constituting the state, as part of its continual construction through everyday practices and performances, rather than existing as an abstraction.

This thesis challenges the notion of the universal desirability of state employment in Africa. Despite their success in education and achievement of stable, formal work in a context where such jobs are scarce, these public servants feel themselves to be marginalised, socially isolated and dependent on local people. Furthermore, the prospect offered by government work is slow, unheralded and stretches into a rural future. Government workers bounce between villages in a quest to get closer to the urban, or exit from state employment for the 'struggle economy' of petty trade or the siren lure of illegal migration. Their precarious mobility stands in contrast to narratives about youth, uncertainty and aspiration, which assume formal employment to be a means of social and economic progress.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Goldsmiths, University of London
Award date30 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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