8 Ethiopia Facts: Poverty, Progress, and What You Should Know

Ethiopia is making significant progress out of poverty. The people of Ethiopia are becoming more productive, healthy, and educated as the government, local organizations, international nonprofits, and the communities themselves join hands to lift the nation from its status as a developing country.

Although the east African country has seen impressive growth in recent years, there is still much to be done.

Learn eight Ethiopia facts on poverty and progress in 2019.

Ethiopia Fact 1: 2nd Largest Population in Africa

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is a landlocked country on what’s called “the horn” of Africa. Green hills and mountains surround the mostly rural, agricultural communities, and Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, the “source of the Blue Nile,” has a rich history in Christian tradition.

With 105 million people in 2017 and an estimated 109 million in 2019, Ethiopia is also one of the most highly populated countries in Africa, second behind Nigeria.

In the western world, Ethiopia is often viewed as emblematic of poverty. A history of colonization, political unrest, and a refugee crisis brought on by war-torn countries surrounding Ethiopia have contributed to the country’s poor economic status and global perception.

Despite their challenges, data is showing Ethiopians are working towards a better future.

Ethiopia Fact 2: A Third of the Population is Without Safe Water

Ethiopia Facts
Gete, an Ethiopian woman, used to walk 20 minutes to fill her container with contaminated water. Today, her community has safe water. She said, “We thought sickness was normal… I have seen a great change in my village.”

The Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), a global database for all things water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and the leading source on WASH data, reports that tens of millions of people in the Ethiopia are still relying on contaminated drinking water.

In total, 31.1 percent (a third of the population), rely on unprotected water for their daily needs.

Of that 31 percent, 8.6 percent of the population is drinking water from rivers, lakes, ponds, and other sources that the JMP deems “surface water.” The remaining 22.5 percent are drinking unsafe water from hand-dug wells and natural springs.

The country is experiencing a water crisis, and everyone from the national government to small charities and communities themselves are working to solve it. As a result, Ethiopia has made substantial progress in water access.

In the year 2000, 75 percent of the population relied on unsafe drinking water. That percentage has been cut in half in just 15 years and continues to fall. Today, more Ethiopians drinks safe water than ever before.


Ethiopia Fact 3: Nearly a Quarter are Without a Toilet

The JMP reports that 22.35 percent of people are practicing what’s called “open defecation” (OD), the act of using the bathroom in fields, forests, or along the countryside.

In these communities, human feces are washed by the rain into rivers, springs, ponds, and swamps—places where many people are gathering their drinking water.

Families that drink this contaminated water experience waterborne diseases and pay expensive fees for treatment at local clinics and hospitals.

Open Defecation is a marker of extreme poverty. As OD decreases in developing countries, so do waterborne diseases, and so does poverty.


In the year 2000, nearly 80 percent of Ethiopia was using the restroom outside and in the open. Fifteen years later, that number dropped to 22.35 percent.

To accomplish this, most people built what’s called a “pit latrine,” a structure like an outhouse with walls, a roof, and a door to keep flies out. It’s a simple solution to a large problem, and these structures help keep disease from spreading.

Ethiopia Fact 4: Almost Half Have No Handwashing Facility

Ethiopia Facts
A young Ethiopian girl uses a “tippy tap,” a homemade hand washing device that’s becoming increasingly popular in the country.

In all communities (but especially close-knit, rural communities with young children) hand washing is vital in preventing the spread of disease.

JMP regards “basic” hygiene access as the “availability of a handwashing facility on premises with soap and water.”

In Ethiopia, 40.55 percent of households have no handwashing facility at all. Most people, 51.49 percent, have a handwashing facility but no reliable source of water or soap, and the remaining 7.96 percent have “basic” access, meaning they have access to a facility like a sink with soap and safe water.

This makes maintaining healthy hygiene and sanitation extremely difficult for most communities in Ethiopia. With simple, home-made structures called “tippy taps,” more Ethiopians are getting access to hand washing.


Ethiopia Fact 5: The Fertility Rate is Declining

Ethiopia Facts
Tibka of Dodola, Ethiopia, is studying to become a veterinarian. “See, I am making these things to pay for this room and college. I am fortunate to have learned an income-producing trade from my mother,” Tibka said.

The “fertility rate” is the average number of children per woman in a given country, and it is directly connected to economic growth or decline.

This is because families with fewer children have fewer costs, resulting in increased resources for every child. On average, children receive better education and better medical care. With fewer children, labor force participation increases, especially for women.

In the year 2000, the average number of children to each woman in Ethiopia was between six and seven. In 2017, there were four children to every woman.

Decreases in fertility are often the result of a modernizing society. The healthier and wealthier a community becomes, the fewer children women bear on average. Similarly, the argument could be made that the fewer children women have on average, the wealthier communities become.

Ethiopia Fact 6: The Average Person Lives to the Age of 65

Ethiopia Facts
A grandmother in Ethiopia stifles a laugh.

Life expectancy at birth is an important measure of the overall health of a country. It’s influenced by the following and more:

  • Employment rates
  • Quality of education
  • Access to health care
  • Water access, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

In 2000, a person born in Ethiopia could expect to live 50 years. Today, a person born in Ethiopia can expect to live 65 years—15 additional years. In comparison, the United States grew just over one life expectancy year in that time frame, and the United Kingdom just over two years.

What researchers are finding is that the burden of disease in Ethiopia—an illness measurement—is on a steady decline. Ethiopians are less sick than they were nearly two decades ago, and they are living longer because of it.

This growth in life expectancy demonstrates that development strategies for reducing poverty are seeing success.

Ethiopia Fact 7: 1 in 17 Children Die Before Turning 5 Years Old

Closely related to life expectancy is the under-five mortality ratio, which is also an indicator of a country’s overall health.

The most up-to-date information reports that for every 1,000 children born in Ethiopia, 58 die before their fifth birthday. That’s one in every 17 children.

Most under-five deaths are caused by preventable diseases like malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia. While malaria is caused by infected mosquitoes, diarrhea and pneumonia are connected closely with the following:

  • Malnutrition
  • Contaminated water
  • Poor sanitation and hygiene

Right now, five countries account for half of all the newborn (<1) deaths in the world. Ethiopia is one of them, along with India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

What researchers are finding is that the burden of disease in Ethiopia—an illness measurement—is on a steady decline.

The prevention of childhood illness and death is perhaps the globe’s most united and urgent mission. Research shows that each one of the top five countries are seeing progress. For Ethiopia, under-five mortality improved from 203 deaths in 1,000 in 1990 (1 in 5 children) to 1 in 17 in 2016.

In the West Arsi zone of Ethiopia, communities who adopted five health and sanitation practices and received safe water successfully decreased instances of childhood diarrheal disease by 98 percent. That’s a virtual elimination of diarrheal disease, the second leading cause of death in children worldwide.


Ethiopia Fact 8: Poverty is Declining

Ethiopia Facts
A young girl stands outside her home in a rural village in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is making strides in poverty alleviation efforts. When compared to other African countries, only Uganda has seen higher poverty reduction between 2000 and 2011.

According to the World Bank, agricultural growth has been the biggest driver in reducing poverty in Ethiopia. In 2007, 85 percent of Ethiopia’s population was involved in the agricultural sector. Knowing this, country leaders drove initiatives to support agriculture.

The National Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), was created in 2010 for the purpose of identifying factors that limit agricultural growth and developing solutions and systems to support development projects. The ATA has done just that, and agriculture has improved.

Another contributor to poverty reduction in Ethiopia is the vast provision of safe water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) access in the country.

In 2000, the United Nations called for safe water access in their Millennium Development Goals (SDG’s), a global agreement to meet the needs of the world’s poorest communities. In 2015, their call went further, demanding safe water access for all by 2030 in Sustainable Development Goal #6.

WASH provides organic economic growth in countries. It does the following:

  • Frees families from costly waterborne disease
  • Saves people time traveling for water
  • Keep children healthy and in school

In Ethiopia, governmental and nongovernmental organizations worked in concert to train communities in simple but life-saving health practices like handwashing, and safe water sources were constructed across the country. Communities did the difficult work of adopting these health practices and helping to maintain their water source.

As a result of poverty alleviation efforts of all types, the poverty rate has continued to fall. In 1999, 44.2 percent of Ethiopians were living on less than $1.90 a day. By 2010, that number was at 29.6 percent, and in 2015, it fell further to 23.5 percent.

Families in Ethiopia are working to improve their lives. With greater access to education, safe water, food security, and sanitation and hygiene practices, the population still living in poverty can make their way into the middle class.


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