Iquib and Idir: Socio-Economic Traditions of the Ethiopians
by Ayele Bekerie, PhD (Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University)

Among the most enduring, universal, effective, and relevant socio-economic informal institutions Ethiopians have created are Iquib and Idir. Iquib is an association established by a small group of people in order to provide substantial rotating funding for members in order to improve their lives and living conditions, while Idir is an association established among neighbors or workers to raise funds that will be used during emergencies, such as death within these groups and their families. Iquib and Idir can be characterized as traditional financial associations. While Idir is a longterm association, Iquib can be temporary or permanent, depending on the needs of the members.

These two socio-economic traditions are informal, bottom-up, and widely practiced among Ethiopians. It can also be argued that they are national phenomena that are embraced by Ethiopians across linguistic, religious, or ethnic backgrounds. Idir, in fact, is becoming a critical source of social stability at a time when deaths from HIV/AIDS or other illnesses are increasing at an alarming rate. Thanks to Idir, the victims of HIV/AIDS are at least guaranteed respectful burial and their loved ones are given moral and some material support to overcome their loss. These dynamic, people-oriented associations are often either ignored or not given proper attention by the state or the educated elite with regard to social or economic development. In fact, it is because of such traditional associations that our society remains stable and cohesive. Iquib and Idir serve the needs of the society in a sustainable way and they are based on available human or material resources.

For instance, Iquib enables a family, particularly a poor family, to obtain the necessary funding for activities such as weddings, building a house, or starting a micro-business. As Mamo Tirfe puts it, the rotating fund is a means, particularly for poor people, to make investments that they would normally never consider making due to lack of money. Iquib is more flexible and accessible than banks and requires minimal paper work. As a result, people without formal education are not discouraged to join. Moreover, for a small payment each week or month, members of Iquib can keep a steady influx of money to help any member of the group on a rotational basis.

Idir, which Mamo characterizes as group life insurance, usually has a large membership and the weekly or monthly membership is minimal and affordable by all. Idir guarantees grieving families, for instance, the complete assistance (financial or otherwise) they seek in times of emergency. Idir members are required to attend funerals and must always be ready to help. Idir can be established by a community or village, at the work place, or among friends and family.

These remarkable associations are based on local knowledge and practices and ought to be taken into consideration by Ethiopia-centered development plans or activities. One of the steps in an authentic approach to development, if I may use Messay Kebede’s phrase, is to recognize the work people have already performed in their own name, using indigenous knowledge and traditional practices, such as Iquib and Idir. According to Mamo Tirfe, these associations are based on participatory principles; as a result they tend to “promote accountability, transparency, tolerance and dialogue.” In addition, they tend to foster friendship among members. The strong ties established among Iquib members also discourage defaults.

While these two community-based funding efforts are popular in Ethiopia, in Philadelphia, the Ethiopians, given their numbers and the trans-cultural realities, modified them into Iquib and Idir combined into one, which I like to call IquibinaIdir. The functions of the institutions are lumped together to create a new system. I am sure that we find similar associations in communities throughout the Ethiopian Diaspora. I have looked at three cases from Philadelphia, where I worked with the Greater Philadelphia Ethiopian Community.

In the first case, 10 males and females formed IquibinaIdir in Philadelphia by contributing $200 towards Iquib and $35 towards Idir per month. While the Iquib money circulates among members monthly, the Idir money is used only during emergencies. Within a 10-month period, each member will collect $2,000. In the second case, 12 males and females call their IqubinaIdir “100 Club.” These club members make a contribution of $100 for Iquib and $10 for Idir. Each member will collect $1200 by taking turns within a 1-year period. The Idir contribution is much smaller than in the first case, but its purpose is the same. In the third case, 11 women formed an IqubinaIdir group by contributing $55 monthly. Here the $50 is for Iquib and $5 goes to Idir. It is interesting that the amount collected among the women is much less than in the first two cases, where the groups were made up of both men and women.

These informal associations guarantee that everyone is taken care of in times of need through participatory and enabling means. In times of death, the community is kept intact and the grieving family instantly gets financial and social support. Iquib and Idir are remarkable examples to show that poverty does not define a person or a society. Economically disadvantaged societies are able to use traditional practices and knowledge to sustain themselves.

Imagine if the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Ethiopian Diaspora form Idir or Iquib. It would then be possible to fulfill the wishes of those who want to be buried at home by readily covering all the necessary expenses. It also frees the loved ones from huge financial burdens they may incur as a result of such an emergency. Idir and Iquib are remarkable legacies from our ancestors and we should learn and benefit from them.

(For an excellent treatment of Idir and Iquib or other Ethiopian traditional practices, please see Mamo Tirfe’s (1999) The Paradox of Africa’s Poverty: The Role of Indigenous Knowledge, Traditional Practices and Local Institutions. Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press.)