Streetlife, marginality and development in urban Ethiopia

Marco Di Nunzio

Grounded in eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork and archival research in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, this project has documented economic growth through the eyes of men and women involved in low-wage labour and the informal and illegal street economy.

Economic growth has delivered visions of urban abundance, embodied by high-rise glass-and-steel architecture, yet failed to serve the aspirations of continuous improvement of those making do at the bottom of urban society. This research shows that this unfulfilled promise of development is due not only to the unequal distribution of the benefits of economic growth but results from how policies targeting the urban poor and revolving around employment, entrepreneurship, and participation have made pervasive forms of political control and economic oppression the terms of poor people’s integration into wider society. Marginality is best understood as internal and relational: the ways poor people are integrated into wider society define the forms and experiences of their marginality.

Marco’s first book, The Act of Living, expands on this relational understanding of marginality and is concerned with exploring what is to live, act and hope in face of failing promises of economic growth and development. With a focus on the lives of hustlers in the streets of inner city Addis Ababa, the book shows how getting by and surviving are not mere experiences of letting oneself live and breathe. They are what ultimately enables the actualisation of existence as a site of possibility and reversibility. By narrating marginality through acts of living, the book documents how action and living are made of attempts to be something other than one’s constraints, while remaining firmly embedded within experiences of subjugation and exclusion. This is a tension that remains fundamentally unresolved. Yet, as it endures unresolved, this tension is a fertile terrain for the elaboration of existential and moral concerns about open-endedness, respect, chance, the self, and the future. The Act of Living embarks on this journey by telling the stories of two men as they seek to navigate their condition of marginality in a time of promise and economic growth. By documenting how these two life trajectories intertwine with other urban lives, as well as with the unfolding of Ethiopia’s history, the book explores why development continues to fail the poor, how marginality is understood and acted upon in a time of promise, and why poor people’s claims for open-endedness can constitute the grounds on which to imagine better and more just alternative futures. 

Research for this project was funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, the Institute of Social & Cultural Anthropology, Wolfson College and All Souls’ College at the University of Oxford.


  • Di Nunzio, M. 2019 ‘The Act of Living. Street life, Marginality and Development in urban Ethiopia’. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Di Nunzio, M. 2019. Hustling at "the end of history". Development and inequality in inner city Addis. Ethiopia Insight, November 14, 2019. 
  • Di Nunzio, M. 2017. ‘Marginality as a Politics of Limited Entitlements. Street life and the Dilemma of Inclusion in Urban Ethiopia, American Ethnologist, 44 (1): 91 - 103
  • Di Nunzio, M. 2015. ‘Embracing Uncertainty. Young people on the move in Addis Ababa’s inner city’, in Cooper L., Pratten D. (eds) Ethnographies of Uncertainty in Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 149 – 172
  • Di Nunzio, M. 2015. ‘What is the alternative?: Youth, Entrepreneurship and the Developmental State in Urban Ethiopia’, Development & Change 6 (4) : 1179-1200
  • Di Nunzio, M. 2014. ‘Do Not Cross the Red line: the 2010 General Election, Dissent and Political Mobilization in Urban Ethiopia’, African Affairs 113 (452): 409 - 430
  • Di Nunzio, M. 2014. ‘Thugs, Spies and Vigilantes: Community policing and street politics in inner city Addis Ababa’, Africa 84 (3): 444 - 465
  • 2015. ‘Back to the Present: Economic Growth, Youth and Development’,  Democracy in Africa, 29 January, 2015
  • Di Nunzio, M. 2012. ‘ “We are good at surviving”. Street hustling in Addis Ababa’s inner city’, Urban Forum 23(4): 433 - 447

Public lectures

  • “A talk on Arada”, with Semeneh Ayalew. The Urban Center (Addis Ababa, February 12)
  •  “The Act of Living. Development and street life in Addis Ababa”, Addis Ababa Rotary Club Public Lectures (Addis Ababa, February 6)
  • “Street Life in Urban Ethiopia”. Ethiopian Community in Britain. (London, 16 December 2019) 

Recorded Talks on The Act of Living


  • “Interview: The Act of Living”. Capital Ethiopia, February 16, 2020, pp.20 – 21
  • Radio Interview on “The Act of Living”. Hypnotized Show, 105.3 Afro FM, 14 February, 2020