11 November 2012

Ethiopia: Smoothing Out the Divergence Between Education Policy and Its Outcome


In Part 1 of this article (Published on November 4, 2012, Viewpoint page), we developed a somewhat comprehensive historical perspective to show with some clarity the role of education in the transformation process of a given society.

Education, as we had seen, is beneficial to nation and citizen if and when it responds affirmatively to three basic issues, namely, personal development, employment and political participation. These three issues appear to be reinforcing each other either positively or negatively. Education, properly implemented, has a way to ensure the overall development of the individual citizen--mentally and physically--an outcome that is essential to the individual's motivation and readiness to invest, whenever he or she so choses, built-up capabilities for personal use as well as for societal advantages. Individual skills and capabilities gained from education--and/or training--allow a person to be competitive either in the jobs market or when the individual finds it possible to start own business. Being successful in either case enhances the value of even such things normally taken for granted as going to school or getting trained on some specific skill not just in the eyes of those people who have done so. It is also true for others who might have been deprived of the enjoyment of these opportunities and curtailed from the potential benefits for some reason or other. In addition, well-educated and well-paid, employed or self-employed people have the propensity to play an active role in the political affairs of their nations and in their improvement, pushing for more political space, for better governance, and for greater democracy.

In developed countries such as those in western Europe, North America, and the Far East, where these situations have become more a norm than an exception, there has arisen a strong middle class whose members stand guard to sustain the social and political systems that have made education possible, universal and gainful. The dividend from this tendency is far-reaching. Not only have their societies maintained their prosperity and development, but they have ensured relative peace, stability and security, as well. This should not be confused with current violent engagement of some of these countries in various combat theatres across the globe. On the one hand, while it is essential in terms of our context to denounce all kinds of violence, it is plain enough to observe that these countries that are engaged in some kind of war somewhere have made it certain that the operations happen far from their immediate territorial limits, at best, on the grounds of the enemy. On the other hand, there are nations which, by the very fact that they have been able to achieve a very high level of personal and national development, have managed to create--many of them, out of chaos paralleling probably the worst in the modern world--a social, political, economic and cultural environment that allows anything but discord. In such an environment, values such as inclusiveness, tolerance, equity, justice, accountability, rule of law, and so on are in greater availability that friction and tension leading to war and violence not only among individual citizens but also with neighbouring nations is easily defused.

Much more could be said in this general fashion along the entire length of the article. Nevertheless, at the end of Part 1, the writer had deliberately set the mood of the present discussion to be not just one of specificity but also of regional importance so that we, Ethiopians, might as well begin to think in geopolitically broader terms than has so far been the case. It is not hard to establish the wisdom of this new but already emergent perspective, especially at this very moment of increased globalization. As we know, globalization is holding each of us by the scruff of our necks, urging us to choose a difficult, but not impossible, choice between drowning in its vast ocean for not knowing how to swim or try to hang on with the rest in the game by learning how to do so from them.

And yet, there is another more serious and urgent reason to start thinking outside of the usual national box, outside of the old Ethiopia-specific context. This reason draws its immediacy from dangerous events that have been going on for some time within the sub-region we share with our neighbours. Climate change, poverty, terrorism and a host of other negative events appear to converge on us, the peoples of the Horn of Africa, in such a manner that their resolution can be possible only if we, the concerned, are able to react against them in concert. Integration of the various nations of the sub-region at both relevant policy and implementation levels has proven to be a matter of necessity rather than choice. Unlike some other regions and sub-regions within the African continent, the history of the Horn of Africa in the past two decades has been one of ups and downs in terms of the collective fortunes of the various nations. Indifferent to national boundaries, and insensitive to politically sacred ideals such as sovereignty, problems that originated in one country found their way into the other neighbouring countries with the speed and severity any single country can hardly control in isolation. Thus, the success or failure of mitigating cross-border problems has followed rhythmically depending on the degree to which the individual countries were united and coherent with respect to recognizing the collective nature of the threat and to responding against this threat. It has been shown recently how relatively easily they could defeat a common enemy, the Al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia, when they agreed on their shared goals, identified common priorities, and coordinated their capabilities and resources.

One may ask: What has this got to do with the subject at hand, i.e., the education of citizens? How do we associate education or the lack of it with the violence and instability issues in the Horn of Africa? Is there any way for the countries in the sub-region to cooperate on educational matters so that there will be a better chance for peace and security to reign among us anytime soon? Many people might assume that regional and sub-regional cooperation, coordination and integration activities among countries focus solely on political issues, resolving of which is accomplished through the application of political instruments. Education, being generally one of the social services, might easily be relegated to the background as an instrument of secondary or tertiary choice to solve a problem of political or military nature in an emergency situation. However, as we see in utter clarity in post-conflict societies, the best chance for any intervention to make sustainable positive impact lies in getting the people, especially the young, preoccupied with education and training activities. The more fruitful these activities are by way of providing a healthier and more profitable way of earning a living, the more solid and permanent peace and stability tend to become.

The last few weeks have shown that Somalia is finally showing signs of recuperation as a nation. After two decades of turmoil, winds of security are beginning to blow for the people, encouraging them to remove the wreckage, sweep the dust and give the nation some semblance of health. The new government is working hard to seize the opportunity and speed up the transition of Somalia from a war-torn country propped up militarily by its neighbours to one that can stand on its own as a strong, vibrant nation. The road ahead is challenging but, with the cooperation and collaboration that, we hope, will continue to come from regional and international partners in the future, can be managed.

The most serious challenge facing Somalia--and, therefore, its Horn of Africa neighbours--is the possibility of the return of Al- Shabaab or its replacement by another extremist group as a destabilizing factor. To avoid this impending return in any form, one immediate measure that needs to be taken is to deny any further recruitment of people through expansion of education and vocational training facilities for young people. Access to the education and training programmes should be open to former combatants who have now denounced their previous affiliation to the terrorist group and chosen to pursue a peaceful life, ready to earn their living by their labour rather than by the intimidating power of their guns. Various studies and testimonials demonstrate that too many of Al-Shabaab adherents and foot soldiers fell into its laps due to social, political and economic grievances, some of which could have been prevented. Unless swift measures are taken by way of defusing similar grievances and diverting attention to positive alternatives, there is a pool of young people in Somalia in particular and in the sub-region in general who, for lack of training, can hardly put themselves in some productive use. This lack of employment could easily be worsened unless peaceful political participation is made possible through the widening of political space to the people in general and to the educated in particular, including those in the diaspora.

Neighbouring countries have been actively involved in the long and tardy process of dislodging a series of extremist and destabilizing groups in Somalia, of which Al-Shabaab was just one and the last. In this long struggle, hundreds of thousands have bled and sacrificed their lives, multinational military personnel included. It will not take that much sacrifice if we remain committed as before to assist in building the productive capabilities of the young in Somalia. In addition to giving them a better option to succeed in life and to saving them from being accessories of destruction, we leave behind a legacy that will soon become a foundation for a tighter relation in the future. As we said early in our discussion, education elevates a human being by directly affecting the best of his or her inner capabilities that will in the end become useful not only to the individual but to society, as well. In a much broader context, we all are a part of that society.

The inadequacy of education, key as this social service is for the development of a nation, is not unique to Somalia. In fact, it is endemic in any given developing country, including Somalia's neighbours. Thus, one may regard any assistance in this respect on the part of neighbouring countries as unrealistic. And yet, countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, two of the countries that have been taking an active part in the fight against terrorism, have developed relative capabilities. Ethiopia's experience in recognizing the need to strategically address the social, economic and political needs of the majority young through a much more focused approach is by all means exemplary. The one and only way to persuade people against taking extreme measures is to give them appropriate and adequate skills so that they will know how to make their daily bread out of them. The hundreds and thousands of young people who have taken their lessons seriously and become experts of one or another trade through the new education policy in Ethiopia have now become an asset rather than a liability. In the absence of positive alternatives like these, two kinds of extreme measures are resorted to by young people in the Horn of Africa sub-region: illegal migration and seeking spiritual and bodily comfort, as an alternative, even in the bosom of Islamic extremism. Only sharks in the Gulf of Aden and the terrorist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia have been the sole beneficiaries in this respect.

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