Re-Engineering Ethiopia’s Knowledge Centers

Damtew Teferra (Ph. D.)*


·        Introduction

·        Building the Rationale

·        The Need to Shift Gear

·        Learning from Others

·        Re-Engineering the Knowledge System

·        The Need to Integrate the Two Institutions

·        Mandate and Governance

·        Leadership

·        The Formation of National Research Council

·        Office of International Relations and Diaspora Affairs (OIRDA)

·        Endowment Office

·        Conclusion

·        Sources





We live in a world driven by information and knowledge made predominantly possible by breakthroughs in science and technology. The crucial role of knowledge and information has received, more than ever before, increasing emphasis and recognition all over the world, particularly in the developed world where much of the impact of discoveries has been felt. As a consequence, the level and extent of scientific and technological discoveries have become a measuring index upon which the social, economic, and political vigor of a particular country or region is gauged (Teferra, 2003).


Higher education institutions in developing countries occupy a unique position as the most dominant institutions of knowledge and information brokerage.  They are the leading agents of knowledge creation, access, and dissemination despite the pervasive challenges they constantly face.


It is the premise of this paper that the first major step forward in overhauling the Ethiopian knowledge system is to re-affirm that high-level education and science and technology are critical components of national development. I argue that building strong higher centers of knowledge is not simply a matter of national development, but rather a matter of national security.


Building the Rationale

The knowledge economy depends on the production of a critical mass of capable and competent high-level engineers, medical professionals, computer and information technologists, scientists and social scientists not only to produce knowledge but also to acquire, develop, package, adapt and adopt knowledge that is produced elsewhere. It is possible to import highly sophisticated and expensive instruments for the purposes of education, research, development, security, and defense. The country however needs not only those capable of operating the sophisticated instruments and machines but also experts with sound knowledge on what to acquire, emulate, order, and adapt—and equally importantly—those who can configure the wide ranging ramifications of these decisions. This can only be achieved if a country is endowed with high-level and competent workforce and strong academic institutions and research centers that produce them in good numbers. In the knowledge-based economy driven by information and communication technologies (ICT), maintaining high-level institutions should be equated as an important national duty as maintaining a national army and security forces.


I would like to draw on the following home-based and regional examples to solidify my argument. As an agrarian economy hard pressed to address the chronic problem of food security, Ethiopia needs to build a solid weather and climatic forecasting system by harnessing the massive information available. It is important to underscore that even if a country can be provided with up-to-the minute information, without an institution and appropriate system that have the capability to process and digest it, it can do little to effectively utilize it. One excellent, but poignant example illustrates this with remarkable thrust. Six months before the catastrophic floods in Mozambique in December 2000, British meteorologists had issued warnings about the danger, but there was no in-country capacity to analyze the scientific data, draw concrete conclusions, and recommend preventive measures that could have saved thousand of lives (World Bank, 2002, p. 13). That is what I mean by national security.


My experience illustrates that libraries in Ethiopia and for that matter many other developing countries often recruit librarians and information service providers from less qualified cohorts, often from the existing pool of administrative employees (usually as a means of promoting them). Present day libraries however require highly trained experts in the field of information and communication technologies that are competent in locating, organizing, packaging, integrating, and delivering information, data, and resources (increasingly) from the Internet and online databases. This trend has special meaning to those countries that are at the periphery of the knowledge market (which Ethiopia is), and therefore Ethiopia needs to place highly skilled and competent professionals that can effectively and efficiently browse the global knowledge market.


One more example from the field of biotechnology and genetic resource development and I will bring my examples to a conclusion. Ethiopia is known for its rich flora and fauna. Ethiopian botanists reckon that one in ten plants is endemic (unique) to the country. This rich heritage can only translate into national wealth if these resources are tapped consciously and wisely. The exploitation of natural resources will remain illusive unless we identify, organize, and develop our resources. Doing so has become all the more important national duty as the multinationals, drug companies and other prospecting institutions are currently scrambling to identify patentable components from as many species of flora and fauna as is available. There is a great need to be conscious of potential global and regional threats and address them on timely fashion without imposing unduly restrictive and ineffective regulatory regimes to catalyze the development of our national resources.  The recent story that tefEthiopia's staple grain—was under the threat of patenting is a grim reality that hit not close to home, but home itself. That is what I mean by national security.


The knowledge economy necessitates that for sustained socio-economic progress to be maintained a country needs to be endowed with a large group of highly trained individuals, stable government, and cheap labor. As transnational corporations emerge as vital source of foreign direct investment, countries are under increasing pressure to reposition themselves to get access to this massive and growing resource of economic development. Being part of the globalized world, whether by coercion or consent, the country must provide these ingredients—without, of course, loosing sight of our long-term national interest. Building and maintaining active and productive centers of knowledge—to enable the country to capitalize on and also actively participate in the emerging knowledge-led global economy—should be our top national priority.


The Need to Shift Gear

The Ethiopian government has opted for a national economic policy guided by "Agricultural-Development-Led-Industrialization". This position makes sense for a rural agrarian country like Ethiopia. The development of agriculture not just for self-sustenance but also industrialization is a well-intentioned policy. This policy however needs to be moderated in order to take stock of the emerging global knowledge-based economy.


Relying on agriculture alone to bring about industrialization and consequently achieve national development is now considered far-fetched and we need to redefine and reposition our national policy within the context of the emerging global trend. The recent bold decision by Vietnam, the world's second-largest coffee exporter, to destroy one-fifth of its coffee plantations is indicative of the direction the world is moving and we have to be conscience and vigilant of such changes. As a country, which is predominantly dependent on coffee production, this is a vital cue for Ethiopia.


World Development Report affirms that "the need for developing countries to increase their capacity to use knowledge cannot be overstated" (World Bank 1999: 16). Another major report also warns that:

Lagging countries [which Ethiopia is a front runner,] will miss out on opportunities to improve their economies through, for example, more efficient agriculture production and distribution systems—which would increase yields and lower the proportion of food wasted due to poor distribution—or by making exports more competitive through better meteorology, standards, and quality testing.

It goes on to reiterate that:

Countries without a minimum scientific communication and technological capacity will also lag in realizing social and human benefits such as rising life expectancy, lower infant mortality, and improved health, nutrition, and sanitation. Such countries will be increasingly vulnerable to emerging threats.


Except for countries endowed with massive natural resources of high current demand (and limited supply), such as oil and precious metals (diamond, gold, etc), the existence of natural resources in a nation is no more a guarantee for sustained economic progress. While there should be greater emphasis to feed ourselves—and therefore an urgent need to build sound national agricultural system—achieving visible, tangible and sustainable development based on agricultural-led industrialization alone appears to me somewhat remote. A caveat emptor: I am not an economist by profession and cannot provide a complex economic analysis of development but for sure understand the trend and direction of development in the world; and Ethiopia, like others, need to take into account these global trends to achieve economic development. Ethiopia, therefore, needs to review its current policy by taking into consideration knowledge-based developments around the world.


Learning from Others

This recommendation is based on the observation and experience of many African and other developing countries that are gearing up to do the same. Later on, I mention some of these countries that are re-emphasizing science and technology and revitalizing higher education. But for now let me take a brief detour to explore what others are doing in areas of ICT that we should definitely pursue.


In a number of African countries conscious policies have enabled home-grown initiatives and industries to operate and compete globally using ICT. The traffic citations that are served on the streets of New York are not processed in the US anymore. Ghanaian computer operators in computer centers in Accra, punch those citations twenty-four hours a day zooming them back to the US virtually.


Even more so, the Ghanaians are now gearing up to capture the outsourcing business of telemarketing dominated by Asia—particularly Bangalore in India. In Ghana, the sales agent of Rising Data dials up over the Internet, and tries to sell a mobile phone plan for a German mobile operator, T-Mobile, to people in the US. While it is legal for US citizens to call Ghana over the Internet, it is illegal for people or Internet cafes to offer that same service in reverse. The threat of losing business to India (unless the telecommunications industry and the government gave them permission to operate as such) worked, and Rising Data was eventually granted its license to use voice-over-internet technology via satellite rescuing the business venture.


Mauritius has embarked on a process of reform with a view to liberalizing the ICT sector and accelerating the transformation of the country into a knowledge-based economy. One of the ministries is in fact appropriately named as the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which clearly indicates where the country plans to head. In its aim to play a key role in the development of Mauritius as a knowledge-based society and a regional IT hub in the Indian Ocean, the government established the University of Technology in 2000.


The Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya is another example from next-door. Another example from West Africa is Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. The Government of Uganda not so long ago announced the founding of two more publicly funded universities: one of which, Kyambogo University, will focus on technology. One of the two public universities in Uganda, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, entirely focuses on science and technology.


With this background, I would like to turn to the main thrust of this paper. If a country fully recognizes that promoting higher education, science and technology is in its national interest, it must make a commitment to create a visible national body for that purpose equivalent to a Ministry and accountable to the Council of Ministers. I will try to make a strong case below for the need to do so.


Re-Engineering the Knowledge System

The development of high-level expertise to create, access, consume, and disseminate knowledge has become too critical for national development. Integrating science, technology and higher education in a national development strategy has become mandatory to make meaningful social and economic progress. Pertinent institutions, departments, and expertise need to be reorganized and streamlined to capitalize on these emerging developments; the repositioning and reconstitution of ministries and organizations are therefore major steps in realizing this.


About two decades have elapsed since the Commission for Higher Education got disbanded; and the current organization of the higher education system in Ethiopia is also more than a decade old. There is thus a great need to overhaul our organizational system of higher education and knowledge institutions in keeping with global changes and challenges. We must be conscious of the changes that are shaping around the world, or else it will be even more difficult to keep pace. The world has changed dramatically over the last two decades—riding fast on the information highway. Countries all over the world are clamoring to overhaul their high-level knowledge institutions to tap them as an engine of development and we should do the same. We need not initiate change just for the sake of it; but the changes we do must be governed by long-term vision, genuine commitment, and above all national interest.


I am thus proposing the establishment of a new independent and autonomous institution that governs higher education, science and technology in the country. The Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology (MHESAT) will thus govern these domains in a more integrated manner with special focus on building national competitiveness. It is my premise that this institution will live up to the expectations and aspirations of the nation and its people.


The Need to Integrate the Two Institutions

What is the rationale for integrating these domains? Higher education and science and technology are two sides of a coin and constituting them to operate under one ministry immensely maximizes their impact and influence. The mission and objectives of the two entities are inextricably linked and organizing them around one ministry will help effectively optimize and reinforce the objectives and missions of the two entities in catalyzing national development.


Higher education and science and technology operate effectively under one roof of an organization. Moreover, the input and the modus operandi of the two entities are interrelated in nature. They are inherently interlinked and intertwined and bringing the two entities under one ministry is simple common sense. As the following example shows many African countries have already done so.


Table 1: Selected African Countries with Ministries of Science/Technology


Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research


Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur et la Recherche Scientifique


Ministère de l'Enseignement Supérieur


Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur de la Recherche Scientifique et de la formation professionnelle

Cote d'Ivoire

Ministère de l'Enseignement supérieur


Ministry of State for Scientific Research


Ministère de l'Enseignement Supérieur de la recherche et de l'innovation technologique


Ministry of Education and Scientific Research


Ministère de l'Enseignement Supérieur


Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology (2000)


Ministry of Higher Education, Training and Employment Creation


Ministère des Enseignements secondaire et Supérieur


Federal Ministry of Science and Technology


Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research


Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education


Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education

Source: Teferra and Altbach, 2003; and others


Mandate and Governance

What will be the mandate and governance structure of MHESAT? MHESAT will govern both public and private higher education institutions in Ethiopia. And all higher education institutionsprivate and publicwill be accountable to MHESAT. Simply put, MHESAT will be an organizational body that will rein on all matters pertaining to tertiary education, science and technology. MHESAT will also play a leading role in the development of ICT in the country in close collaboration with the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunication and probably also with the Ministry of Capacity Building.


How do I envisage MHESAT to be different from existing (or even past) organizations whose mandates have been to run and manage higher education, science and technology in Ethiopia?


From the outset, it should be noted that the success of MHESAT depends on the generosity of the government in funding and autonomy. First and foremost, MHESAT needs to be an autonomous institution free from much of the constraints of cumbersome guidelines and provisions governing Ethiopian ministries.


Most African higher education institutions face challenges pertaining to governance, leadership, and management. In many countries, there is a growing shift to provide those institutions more freedom and more autonomy in running their own affairs, including exemption from immobilizing civil service regulations.


The need to furnish higher education institutions more autonomy and flexibility is not simply to extricate them from the debilitating bureaucracy. The exemption of these institutions creates a whole different perspective and operating capacity and vibrant culture in the institutions. This can only be achieved if MHESAT is organized as an autonomous body, unconstrained by guidelines of the civil service. MHESAT needs to be governed by a different set of rules and guidelines that strike a balance between accountability and autonomy.


A body that manages the knowledge capital of a nation needs to be led, without any doubt, by competent, prominent and highly revered experts. If a nation is making a conscious decision to make knowledge a powerful tool to extricate itself from pervasive social and economic deprivations, and a force to capitalize on existing resources to become competitive in the global market place, it has to ensure that the knowledge institutions operate at their highest capacities, unconstrained by restrictive regulatory regimes that often suffocate bright ideas and initiatives.


The development of the country, its national security, and its sovereignty and its future rest on how we, as a nation, organize, manage, and run our industries of knowledge creation, access, and distribution. At the heart of the knowledge system are the academics and more favorable and healthy policies need to be drawn to effectively utilize and mobilize them. The knowledge industries are critical catalysts of national development and national security. These industries of national significance should therefore be granted not just more funding but more autonomy, operating space, and more visibility.


The Ministry will be led by a minister and two vice-ministers. The ministry will have two departments each headed by a vice-minister. The two main departments will be higher education and science and technology. Each department will have several divisions that work very closely.



The Ministry will be governed or advised by a board drawn from experts in higher education institutions (both from public and private), research institutions, and representatives from ministries of agriculture, education, energy, finance, health, industry, transport and communication and defense. There has to be a conscious effort to include those leaders in private businesses, particularly in ICT and agro-industry. Furthermore, the presence of a representative from the highest executive branch of the government (in this case the prime minister's office) will help enhance the activity of this body.


It is my professional opinion that the Ministry needs to be established by merging the existing Department of Higher Education (under the Ministry of Education) and the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission (ESTC). While my information on the new Ministry of Capacity Building is limited, it is my perception that the two may have many common grounds that can also be integrated.


The Department of Higher Education will have a number of divisions, units and offices that will incorporate existing departments and the envisaged entities in the Education Sector Development Program (ESDP II)—such as the Higher Education Strategy Institute and the Higher Education Quality Assurance Agency which is otherwise known as accreditation agency.


The program of action planned under ESDP II which is reported to be based on diverse technical studies—such as higher education administration and management, financing and cost sharing, strategic planning, cost effectiveness and efficiency, and capacity building and future directions—will be, I believe, implemented  better with such reorganization.


The six departments of ESTC can be effectively reorganized with a sharp focus on enhancing the country's economic and social development and improving its competitiveness in the global marketplace. One recommendation is to create and nurture the "Office of the Information and Communication Technology" with a wide array of mandates to push the country forward to become an important player in the sphere of ICT in the 21st century.


The Formation of National Research Council

The most visible outcome of this reorganization, I envisage, will be the formation of a vibrant and high-powered research council. The Ministry will have a high-level research council that will direct, supervise, and fund research on higher education, science and technology with special emphasis to long-term national interest. The council will be run by outstanding and highly motivated board members made up of prominent Ethiopians (both in the country and the Diaspora) and expatriates. The board membership should be drawn from broad walks of life—in government, business, academia, think-tanks, and NGOs—to bring together leaders in research, business, teaching, economics and politics.


The Minister of MHESAT will preside over the Office of the Research Council. The board may, as need be, create several councils presided over by board members of the Office of the Research Council. The Council may also co-opt individuals for expert views on an ad hoc basis.


Office of International Relations and Diaspora Affairs (OIRDA)


The Ministry will have, among other things, a division that actively engages and cooperates with Ethiopian Diaspora communities who are especially involved in research and teaching. It will solicit and recruit highly visible Ethiopians abroad to team up with those at home to launch joint operations through this office. It will proactively mobilize the Diaspora to engage in high-level national issues through embassies, NGOs, and the Ethiopian Expatriates Affairs General Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry will address pervasive and chronic impediments that constrain the involvement of Ethiopians abroad in the development of higher education, science and technology.


Some of the Diaspora communities that can be tapped include Consensus Forum for Ethiopians in the Diaspora (CFED), Society of Ethiopians Established in Diaspora (SEED), Association for Higher Education and Development (AHEAD) based in Canada, Addis Ababa University Alumni International Network (AAUAINet), Jimma University Alumni Network (JUANet), Ethiopian Knowledge & Technology Transfer Society (EKTTS), and many overseas-based scholarly associations. Some of these have already expressed their interest and determination to network with government and non-government institutions, the public sector, private businesses and civil society organizations on various areas.


The power of the Diaspora is immense—quantifiable and many not so quantifiable. The estimated three million Ghanaian Diaspora/immigrants, of whom 300,000 professionals, send remittances that approach US$400 million a year. This source has become the third largest foreign exchange earner for the country exceeding receipts from the sale of timber and timber products. As Ghanaian president Kufour acknowledges, the Ghanaian Diaspora is "the single most important development partner of the nation". Echoing on similar lines, his cabinet minister reiterates that there would be no need for the country to depend on international loans if Ghanaian Diaspora are effectively mobilized.


According to Global Development Finance-2003 (2003), workers' remittances reached US$80 billion in 2002, up from US$60 billion in 1998. The report points out that workers remittances in Sub-Saharan Africa doubled from US$2 billion in 2000 to US$4 billion in 2002—the highest level over the last six years. In 2001, remittances to the continent were US$2.4 billion. And yet two major sources of external financing for Sub-Saharan Africa are bilateral grants (US$10.4 billion in 2002) and FDI (US$7 billion in 2002). Unlike foreign direct investment, remittances are a more stable source of external finance than debt. Indeed, remittances tend to be counter-cyclical, buffering other shocks, since economic downturns encourage additional workers to migrate abroad and those already abroad to increase the amount of money they send to families left behind. For most of the 1990s, remittances have exceeded official development assistance. Over one million Ethiopian immigrants/Diaspora reside around the world of whom there are 300,000 in the US and 20,000 in Canada (Luxner, n.d.). More than an estimated 5,000 Ethiopians migrate to the US every year; and while figures for those who decide to change their status in a host country are not available, it is estimated to be very high. These are great economic and technical potentials that need harnessing.


As I noted earlier, Ethiopia now has the highest migration/brain drain in Africa. While it is nearly impossible to stop the movement of people, especially highly trained personnel without draconian measures whose effect has not been productive, the country has to position itself to tap from its loss.


Recognizing the Diaspora as a potent force of national development is a growing and emerging development. In recognition of this potential and to enhance its input, foreign affairs ministers from more than 50 African countries convened on 21 May 2003. The ultimate mission of the meeting was to hammer out ways to mobilize Africans in both developed countries and developing nations to play a role in the continent's new socio-economic plan, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).


We need to take the Diaspora rather seriously and OIRDA should play a visible role in boosting their contributions toward the country's development. It is my knowledge that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established an office for Diaspora and immigrant affairs to do a somewhat related task. This office in MHESAT will need to work closely with this office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to enhance the engagement of the Diaspora community for the development of the nation.


Endowment Office

Endowment is the least exploited means of generating resources for universities in the continent. And yet, the overwhelming majority of US universities and colleges generate billions of dollars through endowment. A few countries in Europe, notably Britain, and Africa are pushing to capitalize on that front.


With over a million immigrant and Diaspora community, Ethiopia has a good potential to capitalize on this untapped resource.  The Ministry, through this office, should foster the establishment of Alumni Relations Office in respective universities to help generate resources from alumni, generous citizens, philanthropic organizations, and the Diaspora community. One means to achieve this is to embark on an endowment drive.


Other relevant institutions/bodies to address issues such as accreditation, quality control, distance/virtual education need to be established as necessary. In fact the Education Sector Development Program (ESDP II) envisages the establishment of Higher Education Strategy Institute and the Higher Education Quality Assurance Agency.



Before I conclude this proposal, I would like to quote a poem by a dejected Ethiopian solider some generations ago as the Ethiopian army got beaten in the hands of the invading Italian army that had total air control and supremacy on the battle field in the 1930s…in case more evidence was needed to underscore my argument.


BeMaychewm bekul mech yimeTa neber

BeMeqelleam bekul mech yimeTa neber

Besemay lay meTa bemanawqew hager

                                                                        (Tekletsadiq, ???)

The translation of the poem in English goes somewhat like this:


Marching on Maychew could not have been possible

Marching on Meqelle could not have been possible

Had we known the new frontier of warfare—the sky


Note: This paper was published in 2003 by Forum for Social Science on its bulletin: Medrek: Bulletin of the Forum for Social Studies, 1(2), 7-14.





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