This article investigates the implementation of small‐scale entrepreneurship programmes in inner‐city Addis Ababa. Drawing on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, it discusses the failure of these programmes to open up opportunities for social improvement for young people. It also analyses how young people confronted with this failure suggest ways of conceptualizing ‘alternatives’ to established development concepts of poverty reduction, such as microfinance and small‐scale entrepreneurship. In doing this, the author does not pretend either to offer a grand solution or to invent a brand new developmental concept. Rather, the aim is to provide a critical commentary on the reasons why some of the current academic debate on alternatives to neoliberalism have, de facto, amounted to an endorsement Ethiopia's political authoritarianism.