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Economic Woes Impact On Demand For Education

All Africa News Agency
January 7, 2000

Addis Ababa - In Ethiopia, as in many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the crucial challenge facing education is linked to limitation of resources.

Severe economic constraints have stalled crucial endeavours. Most African economies, fragile as they are, have failed to respond adequately to rising demands for improved social services in education and health, observes AANA's Special Correspondent.

Ten years ago, Ethiopia joined 155 countries of the world at Jomtein, Thailand and committed herself to universal access to primary education by the year 2000.

The country also undertook to eradicate adult illiteracy within the decade, expand education and training in essential skills and improve early childhood care and developmental activities. But despite Jomtein's lofty ideas, many people are still excluded at all levels of education.

And this is not because Ethiopia had not been trying. Immense progress has been made characteristically pushing literacy level from less than 35 percent in 1990 to about 65 percent.

According to World Bank education researchers, this is no mean task for a country frequently hit by famine and local armed opposition movements. Economic performance is also marred by drought and environment degradation while the current war with Eritrea has not been conducive to Ethiopia's attempts to attain Education For All.

Characteristically in Ethiopia, and indeed many other countries in Sub- Saharan Africa, the crucial challenge facing education is linked to limitation of resources. Severe economic constraints have prevented most African countries to respond adequately to rising demands for improved social services in education and health.

"For decades now there has been a scramble for meagre financial resources in Ethiopia among contending social sectors," says Ingemar Gustafsson, Director of Education of the Swedish International Aid Agency. Throughout the 1990s the ominous choice has been whether teaching the alphabet should take precedence over planting trees or providing basic health services to children and expectant mothers threatened by high morbidity and mortality.

Even under those harsh choices Ethiopia is spending four percent of its Gross National Product GNP on education. Enrolment particularly at the primary level has shot up with 55 percent of enrolled pupils from each cohort attaining five years of education.

Whereas for decades education suffered from internal weaknesses, the government has moved to eradicate disparities and unevenness existing between genders, rural and urban areas. The number of girls enrolled in primary has risen to 40 percent in 1997 from 30 percent in1990.

The number of girls enrolled in secondary has steadily risen to 43 percent in 1997 as compared to less than 30 percent ten years ago. Statistics from the Ministry of Education indicate that transition rates from primary level to secondary among girls has considerably improved.

However, the government with assistance from the World Bank has embarked on a massive project worth US $ 100 million towards erasing the existing gaps in enrolment and achievement between boys and girls. "Investment in girls' education in Ethiopia as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to increase women's labour force participation rates and earnings," says Dr Ruth Kagia, Manager at World Bank's Human Development Unit.

Consequently, girls' education would eventually result to women having fewer children, lower infant, child and maternal mortality rates create inter- generational educational gains and yield significant environment benefits. It would also lead to reduction in health costs and eventually improve living standards and quality of lives among Ethiopian communities.

Towards improvement of girls' education, the government will spend project resources in providing incentives for gender attendance. "Scholarships, textbooks, school meals and basic health care will be provided as well as improving the quality of schools' infrastructure and relevance of education," says Dr Kagia.

The government is also sensitising parents and communities on importance of girls' education by accommodating salient socio-cultural values. Supportive national policies that target girls' education have been put in place, as well as eradicating gender biases in labour market.

Equally important, the curriculum has been reformed with each of 14 provinces allowed to chose the language of instruction in schools. In accordance with the new changes, several local languages have been introduced to replace Amharic as language of instruction in primary schools where Amharic is not the mother tongue.

So far, Oromigna, Tigrina, Welaitigna and Sidamigna have been adapted as medium of instruction in various provinces for grades 1-6. Similarly Arabic is being used as the language of communication in schools in Benishangul province, where it is widely used. For the first time in the history of Ethiopia, several local languages apart from Amharic are being used as medium of instruction in schools. They are also examinable subjects of the curriculum.

Undoubtedly Ethiopia's education programme has been under intense pressure to produce teachers capable of teaching regional and national languages. So far English has replaced Amharic as lingua franca and as medium of instruction in secondary schools.

Moving towards a multi-lingual education system has not been so easy for Ethiopia. Teachers and supervisory staff had to be trained or transferred to their own regions or areas where they can teach in the national languages. Rapid expansion of education has marked an increase in average class sizes.

Even so, disparities are severe between urban and rural schools and different grades. Ostensibly urban schools are under great pressure and class sizes in the lower grades can well be over 70 pupils. "Lowest grades are the most crowded and significantly contribute to the high rate of attrition in grades 1-3 both in rural and urban schools," say education officials.

Whereas the government continues to build more learning facilities in commitment to Education For All, the supply has failed to match the demand for schools. An inevitable outcome is that quality of education is drastically compromised in favour of equity by bringing as many pupils as possible into the education programme.

However, in this dilemma, Ethiopia is not alone since many countries in Sub- Saharan Africa are faced by the task of improving the quality while addressing the issue of equity. The emerging scenario is that the government has taken remedies towards improving quality of education.

Self-reliant communities are being involved in supporting programmes through contributions in labour, cash and kind. This phenomenon has proved to be encouraging especially at the non-formal education programmes, where the growing enrolment rate of neo-literate continues to create a bulge at elementary school level. Similar strategies are also being adapted at early childhood education and care programmes across the country.

Besides, teacher education has improved considerably with teacher-pupil ratio standing at 1:38 in primary school and 1:32 in secondary. Deficiencies in teacher education are also being addressed through teacher training and in- service training schemes.

Publication date: January 10, 2000

Copyright (c) 2000 All Africa News Agency. Distributed via Africa News Online ( For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.

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