Politics by numbers: poverty reduction discourse, contestations and regime legitimacy in Ethiopia


There are contradictory statistics about the number of poor people and changes in number of poor people in Ethiopia with statistics ranging from 26 to 86% of the total population in 2013. This paper analyzed how such contradictory statistics feed into national politics focusing on who uses which statistics and based on what justifications of authoritativeness. Drawing from data collected from print newspapers, blogs, websites, published articles, party publications, and interviews with four key informants and combining an actor’s centered discourse analysis (ACDA) with Van Dick’s (1997) approach of identifying and analyzing political discourses, the paper deconstructed the poverty statistics debate in Ethiopia to understand the basic contestations. Synthesis of the data shows that poverty numbers are being used as tools for, and manifestations of, ongoing power struggles in Ethiopia whereby different actors selectively use poverty statistics that promote their political agenda. While doing so, the underlying rationale of actors for choosing one statistics over another was not based on the merit of their preferred set of statistics over the others but on the suitability of the data for their political purpose. As such, the government disregards statistics except its own which portray rapid poverty decline in the country while opposition groups actively use and promote statistics coming from international organizations that depict increasing poverty or a slow rate of reduction of poverty. The paper argues that the underlying cause of such politicization of numbers is linked with the developmental statism ideology of the ruling party in Ethiopia and how it tries to justify its rule in Ethiopia – claiming that it is reducing poverty and bringing development in Ethiopia and therefore should be allowed to continue in power. Therefore, in debating poverty numbers what is being debated is not just the statistics but the legitimacy of the government, hence politics by numbers.
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