On the saf(v)e side: informal economic associations and future aspirations in the Ethiopian diaspora

Social and Cultural Dimensions of Resources Hardenberg kleinPhoto: Sophia ThubauvilleFunding: German Research Foundation (DFG)

Project duration: April 2021 – March 2024

Directed by: Dr. Sophia Thubauville (Frankfurt am Main), Dr. Elias Alemu (Hawassa)

Project collaborators: Dr. des. Kim Glück (Frankfurt am Main), Dr. Worku Nida (University of California at Riverside, Los Angeles), Dr. Sebhatleab Tewolde Kelati (Frankfurt University of Applied Aciences), Debela Gindola (Hawassa), Marius Heimer (student assistant, Frankfurt am Main)

Several social anthropologists have recently suggested that anthropology could make an enormous contribution to the exploration of the future. Others have called for more studies on the ‘good’, as opposed to those that focus on what Ortner (2016) calls ‘dark anthropology’. The project aims to gain new insights into these important and novel areas of anthropological research by investigating how people work towards a ‘good life’ and a ‘good future’ through informal savings and insurance practices.

A worldwide phenomenon, informal savings and insurance associations are also an important part of life in Ethiopia. In parts of the country, almost 80 per cent of married adults are members of such associations. Members belong to all levels of society, and range from shoe shiners to successful businessmen. The introduction of formal alternatives has not damaged the popularity of these associations. Moreover, the same informal savings and insurance associations are found in the Ethiopian diaspora in countries with diversified formal financial institutions as are found in Ethiopia.

The research project is divided into four sub-projects that cover Ethiopia and its largest diaspora populations (USA, Israel and South Africa). While in Ethiopia the focus of research is on how informal savings and insurance associations facilitate emigration, the projects in the Ethiopian diaspora focus on the changes and continuities of the informal savings and insurance associations outside of Ethiopia. The USA, Israel and South Africa were selected not only for the size of their diaspora communities, but also because the communities and their experiences differ in many respects and thus providing fertile ground for comparative research.

Migration practices as well as saving and insuring are closely linked to personal and collective visions of the future and a ‘good life’. In Ethiopia, many young people imagine a ‘good life’ and a better future outside their own country, and invest in informal savings groups set up to help them save the money needed to emigrate. Ethiopians living in the diaspora, however, have different ideas about a ‘good life’ and the future; ideas shaped by their homeland, their experiences of migration, and the norms of their host country. Savings and insurance groups in the diaspora seem to create a space in which a common identity can be preserved, and links to the home country maintained. Last, but not least, they also provide a place for money put aside for a ‘good life’ and a ‘good future’.

The research project has several aims: 1) to document the differences and parallels between informal savings and insurance associations in the communities studied; 2) to understand the different aspirations and ideas of a future behind the practices of saving and insurance in such associations; and 3) to contribute to the anthropology of ‘good life’ and the future in the context of migration and transnationalism.