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3. How big is the ‘justice market’ for village elders?

Informal Justice in Ethiopia / 3. How big is the ‘justice market’ for village elders?

Photo by Lesly Derksen on Unsplash

How big is the ‘justice market’ for village elders?

How big is the “justice market” for village elders in Ethiopia? In order to answer this question we use a series of generalizations based on the fact that the sample in the JNS survey was randomly selected and represents the broader population of people living in Ethiopia. It should be noted that the generalization or the application of knowledge from smaller groups towards larger groups has its limits. The numbers reported below need to be considered carefully.

First, based on the adult population of Ethiopia and the estimated proportion of the individuals who encounter one or more problems, we estimate how many legal problems occur every 4 years. We calculate this at the level of the categories of legal problems. This model predicts that every 4 years one can expect around 8.5 million land disputes, 5.8 million crimes, 3.3 million disputes between neighbours etc. Next, we consider the knowledge that 20% of the problems are “lumped” – people do nothing about such problems. At the next step, we estimate the proportion of legal problems that have been referred for resolution to village elders. At this step, we estimate how many legal problems have been directed to village elders every 4 years. In the end, we transform the numbers towards a period of one year [1].

The table below shows the results of the estimation at the level of the categories of legal problems. Our assessment is that every year there are around 3 million legal issues resolved at the level of village elders. Most likely this is a conservative estimation and the actual number is higher. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of the market for the justice services of the village elders is massive.

Category of legal problem
Estimated number (rounded) of problems dealt with by village elders every year
Domestic violence
Problems with police
Other problems
Consumer problems
Social welfare
Obtaining IDs

The village elders have a larger social function than reconciliation and adjudication of problems. They advise, decide and steer certain aspects of communal life. In that sense, the resolution of 3 million problems every year is only part of their activities and the value that they deliver to the communities and society.

What do village elders do to resolve justice problems?

Ways of resolution

Deciding or informal adjudication is the most frequently used mode of resolving problems in Ethiopia. It should be warned not to interpret deciding as pure adjudication comparable with what courts and tribunals do to solve disputes. Below we see strong hints that deciding can also take the form of reconciliation of the parties. This corresponds with one of the key findings in the literature review that village elders resolve disputes mostly through reconciling the parties in an attempt to ensure community harmony and avoid vengeance.

Village elders use deciding at almost the same rate as other providers of dispute resolution – in about 2/3rd of the disputes. There is a notable difference in using agreement between the parties as a mode to resolve the issue. Village elders more often resolve disputes through reaching an agreement. Significantly less often the issue resolves itself when village elders are involved. Most likely, this is explained by the lower proportion of unresolved or ongoing disputes dealt with by village elders.


Which are the interventions that local elders employ to resolve problems? We asked people whether each of the providers of dispute resolution did any of the following activities:

On average, village elders used 1.47 interventions per case which is close to the mean of 1.5 for all providers. To simplify the visualization we compare local elders to the other 5 most frequently used providers of dispute resolution.

The difference in the interventions of the village elders from the other frequently used providers is evident from the chart below. More than half of the interventions of the local elders are about active mediation. We can also frame it as reconciliation. None of the other providers comes even close to such a high rate of using active mediation. What is also apparent is that village elders very rarely refer the party to other means of dispute resolution. Nor do they remain passive in the process of dispute resolution — only 4% of their engagements are perceived as “do nothing”. Clearly, the village elders actively engage in disputes, try to reconcile the parties, sometimes decide the matter or provide advice but very rarely leave the dispute unattended.