Dr Sarah Howard

Dr Sarah Howard

Department of African Studies and Anthropology
Research Fellow

Contact details

I am a social anthropologist who has carried out long-term ethnographic research in Ethiopia on public service, labour, development and the everyday state.


  • PhD in Social Anthropology, Goldsmiths College, University of London
  • MA in Rights and Development, Goldsmiths College
  • BA in History and English, Goldsmiths College


I joined DASA in October 2020, as an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, after successfully defending my thesis in March 2020. During my PhD I was based in the Anthropology Department at Goldsmiths College, and was affiliated with the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. I was also a Visiting Scholar in Stockholm University’s Department of Anthropology in 2017.


My doctoral research explores the functioning of the Ethiopian state through the lives of rural public servants in a peripheral area of Amhara Region, challenging narratives about the strong, authoritarian and innately hierarchical nature of the developmental state. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork, the thesis provides an account of the lowest level of the state through close attention to the social worlds and professional responsibilities of teachers, extension workers and administrators. I show the physical, affective, emotional and relational consequences of state work on state employees themselves, as well as looking at the role played by substances - including breastmilk, excrement and coffee - in the continual construction of the state through everyday practices and performances.

Despite their success in education and achievement of stable, formal work in a context where such jobs are scarce, public servants feel marginalised and socially isolated, and are materially dependent on local people. Furthermore, the prospect offered by government work is slow, unheralded and stretches into a rural future. Government workers bounce between villages in a quest to achieve their urban ideal, or exit from state employment for the 'struggle economy' of petty trade or the siren lure of illegal migration. Their precarious mobility stands in contrast to assumptions that formal employment - and education itself - are an aspirational means of social and economic progress. 

I am currently developing a new research project on the growth of private day-care centres in urban and peri-urban areas of Ethiopia, and their displacing of previous domestic forms of childcare by young women often linked to households through kinship. Domestic workers are incorporated into households as junior dependents, subject to gendered and racialised hierarchies but also embedded within the ambiguous intimacy of family life. Private provision, combined with government plans to expand public pre-school settings across the country by 2030, will create a vast new sector of formally employed, professional and autonomous, yet extremely low-paid young female workers. This shift in childcare provision illustrates the growing importance of formalised childcare in the global South, and raises important questions the implications of this process for the young women whose caring labour is so under-valued.

Other activities

  • Honorary Fellowship History Department, UCL, 2020-21
  • ESRC Studentship and Difficult Languages Training Grant, through the London Social Science Doctoral Training Centre
  • Research grants from the British Institute for East Africa and George Thomas Blunden Award
  • Peer reviewer for Forum for Development Studies journal


Peer Reviewed Article:

  • ‘Coffee and the State in Rural Ethiopia.’ Anthropology Matters 18/ 1 (2018)
    Winner of the 2017 Christine Wilson Award by the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, presented at the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference.

Book Reviews

  • Marco Di Nunzio, The Act of Living: Street Life, Marginality, and Development in Urban Ethiopia. Africa 91/1 (2021) [in press].
  • Melaku Geboye Desta, Dereje Feyissa Dori and Mamo Esmelealem Mihretu (eds.), Ethiopia in the Wake of Political Reform. Aethiopica [in prepararation, forthcoming 2021].