10 December 2021

Connections and continuities in the history of Ethiopia’s agrarian development (1930s–1950s)

In his PhD thesis, Michele Sollai investigates the history of agrarian development in Ethiopia from the Italian occupation (1936–1941) to the early post-WWII years. While considering the various development plans advanced by the fascist regime, the Ethiopian government, and international agencies from the 1930s to the 1950s, the dissertation concentrates on how these plans translated into practice, how development projects were lived and transformed by local actors “on the ground”. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

I remember reading a lot of literature on colonial development during the first year of the PhD. The fact that current development thinking and policymaking in a particular African country, for example, may have colonial roots and antecedents particularly caught my interest, and I began wondering: what about the history of development in Ethiopia, professedly the only “uncolonised” country in sub-Saharan Africa? Then, the starting point of my research became that of inquiring whether the historical trajectory of development in Ethiopia was really as exceptional and peculiar as it is commonly assumed, or whether the Italian fascist colonial occupation, albeit short-lived, may have played a role. As soon as I started digging into this topic, I developed an additional motivation that helped me to further refine my research focus. In the last decades, several (largely Italian) scholars have been playing a key role in fighting a long-standing public and institutional amnesia about Italian colonialism. Thus, relevant historiography has been mostly driven by the urge to reckon with a violent, uncomfortable past. While necessary and immensely valuable, I felt that this inward-looking perspective – so much Italo-centric and fascist-centric – somewhat inevitably neglected the broader and deeper significance of Italian colonial rule for the history of twentieth-century Ethiopia. Centred on the global scope and local manifestation of the Italian occupation, and aiming to show its long-term impact on the history of Ethiopia’s agrarian development, I decided to frame my thesis as an attempt to redress – at least in part – this historiographical gap. 

Can you describe your thesis questions and methodology?

In a nutshell, my thesis is dedicated to answering the following questions: What was the relationship between experts and farmers in the context of agrarian development in Ethiopia? How did the dynamics of this “development encounter” inform agrarian development as a whole? What are the connections and continuities in the planning and practice of agrarian development during the colonial occupation, World War II, and the early post-war years?

Methodologically, the thesis shifts – or rather balances – the focus from the macrolevel of policymaking to the microlevel of the practice of agrarian development “on the ground”. Accordingly, it adopts a parallel shift with regard to available sources. On the one hand, the thesis relies on a wide range of published sources – from official reports and institutional accounts to travelogues and scientific publications – in order to get a comprehensive grasp of scientific research on Ethiopia’s agriculture and environments and of experts’ views on their development. On the other hand, it emphasises how archival sources such as field reports, local officials’ correspondence and farm accounts can render the phenomenon of development in its entirety beyond static representations in official documents. 

What are your major findings?

The thesis shows in the first place how all agrarian development projects devised by Italian colonial policymakers, UNRRA, FAO, and US officials from the 1930s to the 1950s encountered numerous problems in their implementation. In the face of a clear, widespread, yet unexpected disjuncture between theory and practice, local colonial and development officials sometimes found pragmatic, convenient solutions to their predicaments. New ideas came out of practice, emergency solutions turned into permanent development frameworks. From development planning stemmed various unplanned developments, which together formed the “practice” of development that the thesis explores in the Ethiopian context. 

By integrating the analysis of theories and planning to that of practice, the thesis then shows how agrarian development in Ethiopia encompassed multiple, parallel visions of modernisation. Alongside the emphasis on the diffusion of large-scale mechanised agriculture and Western technologies, development projects in Ethiopia could also be geared towards small farming and rural communities, support a gradual approach to modernisation, and relativise the precepts of modernity in favour of “local” resources.

Looking at the concrete circumstances in which such ideas and projects materialised means of course focusing on the role and functions of its local protagonists. In this light, “experts” figure as crucial actors of agrarian development in Ethiopia. The thesis emphasises how experts were not simply instruments of political goals imposed from the top-down; to a large extent, their mindset and agency were shaped by deeply political yet deeply contingent everyday interactions with their surrounding world: Ethiopian farmers and Ethiopian agriculture. In this light, the thesis shows how agrarian experts did not – and mainly could not – impose their expertise as a hegemonic force. Ethiopian rural communities or individual farmers were often able to exercise their agency in multiple ways vis à vis the experts, sabotaging, eluding, ignoring, or seeking assistance from and collaborating with development projects.

Last but not least, the thesis brings to the fore the multiple connections and continuities that characterised the planning and above all the practice of agrarian development in Ethiopia from the Italian occupation to the post-war years. Albeit thin, and often concealed in plain sight, a “green line” of continuity run beneath and through the major political shifts, economic and social changes characterising the history of Ethiopia from the 1930s to the 1950s.

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Michele Sollai defended his PhD thesis in International History in October 2021. Professor Davide Rodogno presided the committee, which included Associate Professor Amalia Ribi Forclaz, thesis director, and Professor Corinna Unger, Department of History and Civilisation, European University Institute, Italy.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Sollai, Michele. “The Thin Green Line: Farmers, Experts, and the Practice of Agrarian Development in Ethiopia (1930s–1950s).” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2021.

To access the PhD thesis please contact Dr Sollai at
Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by justinpbrown/