Education in Ethiopia

by Cathy Huang:

In a study conducted four years ago, statisticians discovered that more Ethiopian doctors, schooled and trained in their home country, practice out of Chicago than in all of Ethiopia. This odd finding corroborates the concern that Ethiopia suffers from brain drain, the “large-scale emigration of individuals with technical skills or knowledge”, but also sheds light on the prevailing attitude among Ethiopians that finding stable employment is more important than enriching the lives of others through teaching or domestic development. This doesn’t mean that Ethiopian professionals have no desire to make a living in their home country. But having grown up in a country recently engaged in bloody civil war and with vestiges of corrupt, deplorable social government structures, the brightest and best-educated Ethiopians are justified in finding jobs abroad. When one looks at Ethiopia, one sees an unfortunate example of how, in times of civil strife and poverty, education becomes a last, if at all remembered, priority.

The title of “Africa’s oldest independent nation” is a misnomer for Ethiopia because its lack of colonization does not translate into nationalism and solidarity as one would expect. While it did escape the rule of European nations in the 19th and 20th centuries, Ethiopia is rifted, impoverished, and bloodied. The dysfunctional military junta was toppled nearly 20 years ago, but the current President and Prime Minister are more focused on their daily border skirmishes with Eritrea and on reducing starvation rates than they are on bettering education systems. This is reflected in Ethiopia’s shocking illiteracy rates; nearly two-thirds of individuals above the age of 15 cannot read. But after cutting aid to Somalia and announcing a five-year growth plan, Ethiopian leaders are optimistic that they can turn their country around. The government now offers free primary and secondary education in hopes that they can overcome the financial concerns of agrarian families—namely, worries that sending a kid to school is equivalent to the loss of a valuable farm hand. Education Minister Demeke Mekonnen believes that public education rooted in science and technology will make Ethiopians more “marketable”. This is logical. Farmers are no longer in demand domestically or outside the nation’s borders. However, while Mekonnen has applied the proper logic to his educational reforms, many remain skeptical of the ministry’s intentions.

This mixed-purpose school house and community center was built in Ethiopia with sponsorship from the UN and provides much-needed elementary education. (TYG, Alex Pommier)

Along with nationalizing primary and secondary education, the ministry also moved to basically ban “distance learning” in rural areas. The use of computers, televisions and off-site tutors have been popular educational tools but are now halted unless these private programs can prove that their teachers have two professional degrees, split their teaching time 70/30 with regards to hard sciences and social sciences, and adopt formal business plans, among other restrictions. In addition, private programs are now prohibited from offering teaching or law courses. This caused uproar among those who depended on distance or privatized learning. They accused the government of  “[driving] students to public institutions” and, training to think along government lines to eventually become members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It’s unclear whether these accusations should be merited, but it’s quite apparent that the government wants its own system of education to dominate despite the established success of private programs.

Fortunately, the government take-over of education means that Ethiopia, one of the poorest African nations once thought to be beyond saving, is actually on track to meet the Millenium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. But at what cost? Is the government driving out competition and sacrificing quality teaching strategies in the process? Are they really making Ethiopians more marketable by only offering them one source of education? In my opinion, the Ethiopian government is being unreasonably ambitious in a bad way. They’re placing too much confidence in their own system which is in its infant stages with no verifiable record of success in career preparation. By not allowing NGO’s and private institutions a stake in educating a largely rural population, the government is impeding progress in this crucial and historically crippled sector.

The Ethiopian government wrote its own constitution back in 1994 around the time when secular education was first introduced. In the years since, Ethiopia has fought wars against poverty, famine, widespread droughts, and its own neighbor. The government has had understandably little time to direct attention to education but now that they’ve started, they should keep their options open. In a nation that caps its public healthcare benefits to $4 per person, it’s surprising how much the government actually has done to address education gaps. That being said, now is not the time for some all-encompassing public solution. The most “marketable” Ethiopians will be, in my opinion, the ones who have opportunities to choose their desired form of learning whether it be in public schoolhouses or via computer screens. But the case study of Ethiopia raises pertinent questions: How are public and private sector educational systems so often in combat with one another if their eventual goals are the same? How realistic is a free market for education?

These are the questions I will attempt to answer in my next blog post. Stay tuned.