Survival International was a prominent critic of the dual policies of resettlement and villagisation undertaken by the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia (commonly referred to as the 'Dergue') during the 1980s. Survival published three critical investigative reports on the policies between 1986-1991 researched and authored by the anthropologist Dr. Virginia Luling (b.1939 - d.2013), volunteer (1969-1989) and Africa Case Officer (1989-2004) at Survival.
The polices of resettlement and villagisation were officially part of the ruling military junta's national program to combat the drought and famine in the region, through increased agricultural productivity and promoting 'socialist' transformation of agriculture in Ethiopia. The resettlement programme was initiated in 1984, and aimed to relocate over 1.5 million people in response to the famine and drought in northern parts of the country. Between 1984 and 1988 an estimated 600'000 people were internally relocated within the country, largely from the northern to the south-west provinces. Those relocated where either integrated by the Ethiopian government into existing communities and peasant associations or installed into newly planned and collectivised villages in allegedly unused land.
The policy of 'villagisation' comprised the grouping of the Ethiopian rural population previously predominantly living in separate homesteads into centralised planned settlements began in 1985. The stated long-term goal of the policy was the movement of around 33 million rural peoples into villagized settlements by 1994, officially, to improve agricultural production through mechanisation and planning and facilitate the delivery of social services to rural populations. Villagisation conducted under the direction of the National Villagization Coordinating Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, beginning on a large scale in 1985. The policy became a nationwide campaign in 1987 which lasted until it was revoked following the introduction of a more liberal economic policy in 1990. By late 1989 about 13 million peasants had been villagised.
In 1986, Survival published 'Ethiopia's Bitter Medicine: Settling for Disaster'' edited by Marcus Colchester and Virginia Luling - a critical assessment of the resettlement policy, which claimed that some groups were being forcibly relocated against their will, families were being forcibly separated, and an estimated tens of thousands of individuals had died due to the conditions of the journey and in new villages. In particular, Survival highlighted the experience of the existing local peoples in regions selected for resettlement, whose land and way of life were threatened by resettlement. Survival also questioned the official aims of the policies, arguing that resettlement sought to undermine support from rebel movements by relocating populations.
Virginia Luling, anthropologist and Survival volunteer conducted field work in East Africa in early 1988, visiting Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Nairobi, Kenya and the Haregisa-Dawacley refugee camp in Northern Somalia housing Oromo refugees from Ethiopia. In 1988, Survival published 'For Their Own Good...Ethiopia's Villagisation Programme', authored by Luling (but published anonymously) based upon this field work. This second report focused on the policy of villagisation and claimed that one of its central aims was to extend government control over the rural population, in particular in border zones such as Oromo where villigisation formed part of wider counter-insurgency policy and involved widespread human rights abuses. In government controlled areas, Survival claimed that villigisation formed a prelude to the forced collectivisation of farming. Survival concluded that villigisation was being imposed without regard to the political, social, and cultural rights of the rural population and was leading to the destruction of traditional cultures and social systems, in particular those of Ethiopia's minority peoples in the South West provinces.
In 1991, Survival produced 'Ethiopia: More Light on Resettlement' authored anonymously by Luling. The report was an update to 'Ethiopia's Bitter Medicine' and repeated the view that resettlement had had a negative impact on the lives of indigenous peoples in areas chosen for settlement.