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Completing a four-year assignment, Ken Ohashi, country director of Ethiopia for the World Bank, has his last words here on the state of affairs in Ethiopia. In this last of a three - series reflections, he focuses on what he believes may be the most important issue for Ethiopia in the long term: Citizens’ ability to engage in the market of ideas which he said ought to start at elementary school level.

National Ideologies, National Blinders

Many nations have a “national ideology” of one kind or another, though it may not be always very explicit. It helps achieve a collective focus on some national goals; it gives individual efforts a shared purpose. 

For instance, since its founding, the United States (US) has upheld the idea that it is a nation of freedom and a country of “special providence.” China today seems to be guided by the notion that it must restore its rightful place in the world as historically the most powerful nation (“Middle Kingdom,” to use the old term). 

Such national narratives are often accompanied by “blinders” of one kind or another. Just as they serve to focus a horse’s attention on the track ahead, national blinders may help achieve collective single-mindedness. By nature, however, blinders do create blind spots. For a horse, that may not be a problem. But, for a nation, that could be a serious risk.

So, what is the “national ideology” of Ethiopia? 

I am not entirely sure. Perhaps it has to do with protection of its independence and unique identity; no easy task in a historically fluid and unstable region. More recently, there emerged a narrative around building an economically prosperous and stable nation. However the Ethiopians may describe their own national ideology, it seems to have stressed, as means to achieve its ends, discipline and control. 

Perhaps these are national blinders that have driven collective efforts successfully. But, what are the possible blind spots?

The recent Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) seems to offer important insights in this regard. With funding from USAID, the EGRA for Ethiopia was conducted in 2010 as a joint effort by the Ministry of Education (MoE), RIT International, and other education related agencies and programmes. It tested about 13,000 students at the end of grades second and third, in 338 public primary schools in eight regions (including Harar and Addis Abeba). 

The results showed that their reading abilities were very low. In particular, the results of the Connected Text Reading Fluency Test were shocking. In this test, each child was given an age-appropriate text of about 60 words. (This is about what they are expected to be able to read in one minute.) About 85pc of these children were studying in their mother tongue, and the text given was in it. 

Thus for the most part, understanding the language itself was not a problem. 

After grade second, the percentage of students who were reading at or above standard was 10pc or far less, except in Addis Abeba where it was 14.5pc. At the other end of the spectrum, the percentage of children who could not read a single word correctly in one minute was about 34pc nationwide. (This figure should not be construed as the national average, for the averaging did not take into consideration population weights of regions. Still, it is likely to be a reasonable indication.) 

This is truly a shocking figure. One cannot learn much in school without being able to read. This figure does decline after grade third, but it was still 20pc. These children have little hope of completing the primary first cycle (grades one to four) with a decent basic education. They are at great risk of dropping out, and giving up on learning. 

The researchers have identified many factors that correlate with the reading results, including availability of textbooks, availability of other books, literacy of parents, and parental involvement in homework. But, when I listened to the findings of the team, one observation by a key researcher struck me as very instructive.

In the old days, when only small numbers of children went to school, they knew the basics of reading by the time they reached first grade. They had typically attended a church school or a Fidel school beforehand, where they acquired such skills. The textbooks and teaching methods from grade one on were geared toward teaching such children, and focused on the content. 

Times have changed. The net primary enrolment rate has gone up from around 25pc to over 80pc in the last 20 years. Yet the textbooks and pedagogy have not adapted to the different demography. Those children who are new to reading are not being taught the basic skills of decoding written language. 

How did this collective oversight happen?

Surely, some teachers must have recognised there was a serious disconnect. For some reason, however, the system did not allow that feedback to reach policymakers. As a result, despite the enormous amounts of financial and human resources that have been invested in improving access to primary education, it turns out that a huge percentage of children has received precious little benefit. 

This has gone on for the greater part of the last 20 years. 

Ethiopians have long been ruled by strong powers. In this tradition (in fact in whatever country), only “good news” tended to be passed on to the rulers. Contestation of ideas was often seen as a struggle for political power, rather than a healthy engagement to forge national consensus on issues of public interest or arrive at better public policies. Given this history, it would not be surprising if in government institutions there were a tendency to ‘self-censor’ bad news.

But this tendency seems to go even deeper. I posed a question to an Ethiopian colleague who is familiar with education issues. 

“Those about one-third of grade second children who are having difficulty reading, would they raise their hand in class and tell the teacher that he or she is having a problem?” 

He shook his head, and said, “No, they would not . . .”

If that is accurate, what a stunning and profoundly sad description of what goes on in those young minds! How frightened, ashamed, and confused they must feel. Still they have been already taught not to speak, even (or especially?) when there is a problem.

I believe that this lack of bottom-up feedback may be the biggest blind spot for Ethiopia. A system that is long on top-down discipline and control may be strong in the sense that it is able to impose its will and execute certain kinds of plans well. It may also be stable, for changes are not readily permitted. But it may be “brittle,” as it is short on ability to adapt; it could break down when faced with a major crisis. 

The long-run stability and resilience of any system come from continual adaptation to changing circumstances. That in turn requires the free flow of information, even when the message is not what the top leaders hoped to hear, and the space for vigorous contestation of ideas.

For Ethiopia to be a thriving nation in the globalised and fluid economic setting of today, it must become a system in which there is a profusion of new ideas, new technologies, and new products. To create such a system, Ethiopia will need more “empowered” children who would not have hesitated to say, “Teacher, we have a problem.” 

The government will also need much more feedback, from its own officials, the media, opposition parties, academics, the private sector, and citizens at large. And the country will need to expand the space in which different ideas are debated vigorously, to forge and sustain a national vision and to identify the best policies to achieve the vision. (In the diverse traditions of Ethiopia, there are ethnic groups that are far less top-down and more egalitarian, as Professor Donald Levine has shown in his works. In fact, such traditions can play a catalytic role in changing the dominant tradition of hierarchy.) 

I leave Ethiopia with a conviction that it is a country with immense potential. If it succeeds in reorienting its past approach and develops a more bottom-up and open way of achieving collective efforts, I believe that its future will be bright.

Ken Ohashi, World Bank’s Country Director for Ethiopia.