The World Bank Prescription for Ethiopian Higher Education:

The Missing Antidote in “Pursuing the Vision”


Damtew Teferra, Ph. D.*


This article is to express my professional opinion on the recent publication of a Sector Study on Ethiopian higher education by the World Bank entitled Higher Education Development for Ethiopia: Pursuing the Vision. The major purpose of this paper is to offer, based on this document, unsolicited commentary on the need to reorient our priorities to foster national development and enhance our global competitiveness--to effectively serve our national interest.


That we live in the knowledge era has now turned into a cliché. The knowledge era is driven and catalyzed by the increasing capability of knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination. The institutions that create, package, and disseminate knowledge, information, and data lie at the center of the knowledge market. Universities, especially those in Africa, are core institutions that link nations to the emerging global forces of the knowledge domain. Simply put, universities are supreme institutions of national treasure that shape competitiveness and interaction with increasingly competitive global world. With this blurb as a background, I wish to delve into the main thrust of this opinion piece.


I had a good opportunity of reading, with great interest and close scrutiny, this Sector Study published in April 2004. The document focuses on seven areas of Ethiopian higher education: the cost and financing of higher education, the proposed new funding formula, strategies for improving management capacities, academic staff production, implementation of an effective quality assurance capability, development of information and communications technologies, and efficient planning and use of physical infrastructure on campuses.


While the document states that focus is limited to the seven areas so identified, the fact that the title is overarching prompts me to consider the document as comprehensive of great consequence that may affect tremendously the development of higher education in the country in all its forms and shapes. My main focus, however, is directed toward only one major area that is poorly represented in this document, and I argue for the need to emphasize end enhance it.


First of all, I must say that much of the spirit of the document and its recommendations for the development of higher education in Ethiopia are commendable, even though some of the provisions may remain controversial or may even be impracticable, at least in the near future. It should be also noted that the document is rich with good intentions which one only hopes for its successful implementation as stipulated by the Bank. While at it, I just felt the need to express my frustrations that the World Bank continues to shape our higher education policy and direction--no matter how good its intentions are and sound the recommendations may be--in the presence of able, competent, and highly qualified Ethiopian higher education experts locally and abroad.


The document reiterates, to the Bank’s credit, that Ethiopia has to strengthen its research capability on higher education--to shape and inform national higher education policy. It should be quickly noted that, in cases where good research capacity and resources exist locally, the government as well as international organizations, including the Bank, should be advised to actively engage them for their professional opinion and critical input. It won’t do any good--in fact it could be too demoralizing--to have to bring external expertise when competent ones exist at home. I would like to take a little detour once again to share my other concern--I dear say disappointment--before I return to the main focus of this paper.


I was stunned by the list of the Ethiopian delegate counterparts that met the experts of the World Bank team--a number of whom I have the pleasure of knowing and interacting with. The report indicates that three lecturers from Ambo College, Bahir Dar and Debub Universities, a coordinator of a program from Debub University, one person from educational bureau in Tigray, and two people from finance and budget and planning from Jimma University constituted the Ethiopian delegation. It is possible that my radar screen is weak and may even have failed to pick the signal from home--but for sure these are not the individuals known to me for their research, analysis and opinion on any aspect of higher education development. With due respect to the Ethiopian team, I have never seen any reputable or visible work or paper they presented or published on higher education issues either locally, regionally or internationally. It is possible that these individuals may be competent personalities or even leading experts in the country on their respective fields unbeknown to me; but for sure they are part of the community who live at, what the leading international higher education expert and my mentor and now close colleague Professor Philip G. Altbach calls, the “periphery” of the higher education knowledge terrain. With greatest respect to the Ethiopian delegates and their respective institutions they represent, Ethiopia is endowed with and capable of mobilizing a much more experienced, highly competent, and highly informed professionals to face the seasoned and high powered World Bank delegates--in writing the blue print for Ethiopian higher education. This is simply a serious national affair in which the government and the nation must stand tall in engaging and accommodating competent and qualified professionals--that may be controversial and excessively critical, even at times arrogant  and obnoxious--and their institutions, in such important and far reaching issue of great significance--and consequence. The genius of a nation takes pride in its capacity to nurture tolerance, descent, and criticism.


What a shock it was for me to realize the complete absence of highly respected and greatly acclaimed professionals and experts in the Ethiopian delegates who have an extensive knowledge and experience in higher education policy and development. What is equally shocking to me was the complete marginalization of the old and seasoned institutions including, of course, Addis Ababa University--the very institution the Bank considers it to be the flagship institution of the nation.


It is simply ironic--and even self defeating--on the part of the nation and the government to commit, to its credit, massive resources for the development of higher education in the country and yet isolate and disengage its high-level experts at home in shaping the development of the nation’s higher education.


In fact, the World Bank itself cannot be spared the criticism for not engaging comparable heavyweight counterparts. The Bank team should itself have at least requested, if not demanded, a competent counterpart for the sake of meaningful and constructive two-way interaction. If they have known and recommended AAU as a flagship institution, how did they not ask for representatives from that institution--which has a fairly well developed Faculty of Education, Institute of Educational Research, and now a national higher education research center? I guess by condoning such actions, the Bank is gambling on its credibility, recommendation and policy space. I wish to believe that this is an aberrant operation practice on the part of the Bank that needs rectifying. But then what is interesting is that the Bank attempts to cleanse itself with a long disclaimer at the opening pages by stating that the “… findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this report … should not be attributed … to the World Bank….” In vain, though without much consequence.


I have no qualms on the professionalism and competency of the World Bank delegates though this could have been immensely enhanced by engaging competent national counterparts. By the same token, I have also no illusions that the allegiance and commitment of this delegate are situated within the confines of the institutions their represent and work for--but not with the nations they advise.


I am in no way advocating for the curtailment of external input and advice on national policy development. Far from it. In fact, cross-fertilization of ideas is very healthy and greatly constructive, and must be highly encouraged. But ultimately a country has to make an informed decision as to where it wishes to go. And this should remain an exclusive prerogative of the nation and its informed nationals. This is where we desperately need our own and actively engage them.


To its credit, the Bank recognizes one major graduate based university and names Addis Ababa University as the flagship research institution in the country around which other institutions should revolve. One of my major worries of the report which prompted me to write this piece is the limited focus and emphasis on research in the country. While the two paragraphs that narrate on research are commendable, the fact that they were squeezed into two short paragraphs--in a comprehensive document (of 109 pages long)--does not appear to convince me, or even others, the seriousness of the tone on the part of the Bank for the development of research in the country. This I think is a great anomaly in the context of the world we live in and a major “missing antidote” if Ethiopia is to become part of the global knowledge community. On this account, I urge the World Bank itself to reiterate strongly and loudly the need to establish a strong research base in as many universities as we may have--for sure, and realistically, in up to three major flagship institutions, including Addis Ababa University, of course. In fact, doing so is in line with what is recommended by the Bank itself and emboldens the Bank’s recommendation. As public funding for higher education reaches its climax (within the context of what the country is currently capable of generating in terms of revenue) increasingly competing with other social sectors, the financial and technical challenges of building many flagship institutions is nearly impossible. For sure, the great need to establish solid and prominent institutions cannot be overemphasized. It should be taken as a serious national matter--as serious as national security.


The World Bank report, as comprehensive and substantial as it may be, it simply lacks the drive to enunciate Ethiopia’s vision--and its aspirations--in building competent and solid national research institutions that can catalyze the socioeconomic progress of the country and its competitiveness. As a higher education researcher--and as an Ethiopian--who wishes all good fortunes for my country and its people--I find the report and its recommendations on research development rather weak and feeble, consequently forfeiting our destiny, our aspirations, and our future--literally.


The major World Bank report Constructing Knowledge Societies (2002) warns that countries with limited or virtually no meaningful knowledge-creating capacities will be marginalized even further in the increasingly globalized knowledge market unless they revitalize and overhaul their knowledge institutions--universities. I simply failed to see the spirit, the fervor, and the thrust of this highly visible document of the Bank in developing the framework of the Ethiopian higher education system. If it did, I simply did not grasp it. Universities, as the sole research and knowledge hub in much of Africa, and Ethiopia is no exception, the sector report is short in underscoring the very position it took when it published the seminal document.


If I understood the sector study well, it assumes that the development of higher education in Ethiopia as stipulated by the Bank may ultimately bring about a sound research environment in the country. [I feel appropriate to point out that a good number of the recommendations proposed in the study have been already reiterated by the higher education community in the country though their voice has not been as loud and as far reaching as the Bank.] The point is that the nation should not only focus on expanding access to higher education institutions, but also develop a clear policy and serious commitment in revitalizing research in select institutions--for sure, at least in one flagship university, i.e. Addis Ababa University. In my paper “Re-Engineering Ethiopia's Knowledge Centers” published on Medrek (2003), the organ of the Forum for Social Science (an Ethiopian based social science think tank), I advocated for the establishment of an autonomous and independent Ministry of Higher Education and Science and Technology to strengthen, streamline, and catalyze research with special emphasis on science and technology. I have yet to see this growing global trend, and Africa in particular, further pondered or considered.


I am aware that research is a very expensive exercise and I have no illusions that a poor country like Ethiopia can afford to support many research based universities. But with clear policy, attractive incentives, and great determination, the country has to make a painful short-term decision for the sake of long-term national interest. As a developing country confronting multiple challenges, we have no option but to build solid institutions not only to address the day-to-day challenges but emerge as a competitive nation. We simply cannot afford to ignore the power and impact of research and the institutions that nurture it for the sake of our future wellbeing.


Last, but not least, our national vision--and our aspirations--should not necessarily be compatible with the World Bank nor should they be expected to be so, for the Bank is and will remain an external and multinational institution for which Ethiopia’s national interest and its priorities do not keep this powerful global institution up all night. It is naïve to expect the Bank, or any external organization for that matter, to act on our behalf with the same interest, zeal and devotion. As an Ethiopian adage goes “yemogn zemed keljih ekul adrgegn yilal” which translates roughly to “An unwitting relative foolishly expects treatment and care on a par with ones own siblings.”  Unlike the unwitting relative, we need to wisely establish what, when, where, and how much to expect from our “adoptive family” in collectively shaping our lives and determining our national interest.



Dr. Damtew Teferra is research assistant professor and founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. His recent major publications include African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook (Indiana University Press, 2003) and Scientific Communication in African Universities: External Assistance and National Needs (RoutledgeFalmer, 2003). Professional comments and criticisms on this piece may be sent to