Good Intentions and Misunderstandings: A Response to William Saint

By Yosef Yacob

I reviewed the article by Dr. William Saint, the higher education specialist for the World Bank, published in the June 18, 2004 issue of Addis Tribune and the June 25, 2004 response by Dr. Teferra. It is obvious that recognized Ethiopian scholars and experts on higher education (such as Dr. Teferra and many others) should have been engaged by the World Bank prior to finalizing the study.

Dr. Teferra has provided substantive comments to Dr. Saint’ article “… with great care and utmost attention.” Notwithstanding, I am obliged to comment on the collateral issue of the World Bank’s failure to engage widely known, acknowledged, and published Ethiopian higher education experts on a matter on which they could make a significant contribution.

Even though my expertise is not in the field higher education administration and policy, I am aware of at least ten published Ethiopian PhDs in this field who are extremely qualified to participate in developing a national policy for Ethiopian higher education. Common sense and a sincere interest calculated to promote Ethiopia’s national interests would suggest, at the very least, an invitation to Ethiopian experts (both within and outside the country), to play a prominent role in the study. Surely, these indigenous experts could not have escaped the attention of the World Bank, or the Ethiopian government.

During the course of my 37 years in the US, I have met many Ethiopian scholars who feel ignored by the government and are consequently discounted by their western contemporaries on subject matters, which concern their areas of expertise. Many have become disillusioned, and detached and have focused their interests elsewhere and continue to make significant contributions to their host countries in the scientific, academic, and business communities as well as the institutions of government at the Federal, State and local governments in the United States.

As we have all come to know, many are graduates of Addis Ababa University and its faculties and are products of Ethiopia’s system of higher education. Ethiopian scholars who are routinely honored as revered scientists, academics, and managers, by their western peers as evidenced by the professional achievements, awards and honors, are often reported in the local and western media.

Unfortunately, The article by Dr. Saint, resonates the rampant and condescending notion that “western experts” know what is best for Africans and characteristically attempts to ignore, ridicule, intimidate, and dismiss a respected and highly qualified African scholar who risked to comment on a subject matter which dramatically affects his people.

Western “experts” have not only, much like viruses, infected our institutions and leaders with this condescending perspective, but arrogantly demand unqualified submission and the final word on our destiny and find offense in any manner of self-expression or resistance by Africans. To the thinker, it is daunting to unabashedly claim to know what is best for the millions of Ethiopians from a cubicle in the World Bank offices based upon a brief collaboration of a selected few friendly government bureaucrats to legitimize eurocentric prescriptions.

Sadly, rather than attempting to engage, learn, listen, and persuade, Dr. Saint chose to belittle comments by a respected Ethiopian scholar as though Ethiopian scholars, despite their earned western credentials and unique indigenous knowledge, are somehow less relevant or able than western consultants. This patronizing and disrespectful tone should renew the aspiration of every African who reveries the day when native sons and experts such as Dr. Teferra, rather than some eurocentric “expert” from the World Bank, are offered a prominent role in shaping policy.

Too many westerners have claimed to be experts on our history, our culture, our traditions, our religion, our language, our problems, etc. For decades, these experts variously characterized as consultants, experts, advisers, and advocates have sought to shape our destiny and our socio-political-legal-economic policies, albeit paid with the ever-burgeoning World Bank Loans. The NGO industry and western aid workers are quick to mobilize to relieve the victims of failed western policies and experiments. Increasingly, some have even sought to supplant the role of the Ethiopian government - to speak for its people and to defend its decisions.

However, the truth is, these “experts” often interfere, manipulate experiment, engage in endless consultations, conferences, and dialogue to produce or “co-author” self-serving reports and books as yet another tool for seeking world bank loans, to sustain the employment of high paid western experts. They continue to experiment and test their hypothesis at the expense of future generation of Ethiopians. Indeed, the article by Dr. Teferra was an effort to alert Ethiopians and to promote dialogue among Ethiopians, given the four decades of failed World Bank “expert” advise and experimentation, which has made Ethiopia the nation that it is today.

I must admit that I, not unlike many other natives of the Southern Hemisphere, often find myself wondering where Africa would be today “but for” western expertise and intervention? Shame on us for allowing this blight to perpetuate and be suffered upon the Ethiopian people.

The last decade is particularly replete with blunders of western expert advice in developing nations and the corresponding calamitous outcomes. As in many other developing countries, the indiscriminate imposition of western values is painfully evident in the workings of every public institution in Ethiopia. Despite the billions in loans and western assistance, are Ethiopians better off today than they were ten years ago? Ethiopians need to reflect and evaluate what the mandated (and in some instances innocent) reliance on these unbridled western experts, consultants, and institutions has achieved for the nation in the decades since Ethiopians began to look to the West for assistance. Despite the experience and lessons from the past, must we continue to obediently accept western concepts and models, without regard for Ethiopian values and capability?

Ethiopians need to begin to stop revering western experts as “gods” and look inward and begin to listen to their own native scholars, sons and daughters in defining their destiny. Defining Ethiopia’s national interest should not be the exclusive domain or purview of foreign experts. It is the birthright of every Ethiopian, scholar included, who wishes to participate in helping define the future of our people. Like his contemporaries, Dr. Saint has demonstrated a proclivity to browbeat those who seek to unmask inadequacies and foolishness of exclusivity. The fact is that a high paid position as a world bank western “higher education expert”, several field visits from quarters at the Sheraton Hotel, and consultations with a few Ethiopian bureaucrats at the Ministry of Education does not necessarily qualify one as an “expert” on Ethiopian higher education. An honest scholar would have sought (peer review) the engagement, insight, critique, review, and scrutiny of his work by Ethiopian contemporaries, before finalizing a study of this magnitude and policy implication.

Western “experts” are not all-knowing divine creatures when it concerns our national interest and the destiny of our country. It is time to entrust the further expression of Ethiopia’s higher education policy as well as policy expression in other areas to respected, highly qualified and committed Ethiopians such as Dr. Damtew Teferra, who are themselves revered by the West, as evidenced by their professional associations.

No self-respecting western consultant can be deemed qualified to effectively render services to Ethiopia without the insight gained by being born and raised as an Ethiopian. Ideally, the government should create effective conditions, which would bolster Ethiopian experts to return to their beloved homeland and contribute in their respective fields of expertise. In the interim, the government, at the very least, should demand the active participation of qualified Ethiopians at the inception of any future World Bank financed studies, since the Ethiopian people are underwriting the activities.

Summoning Ethiopian experts from within and outside the country and inviting them to engage and to collaborate in studies affecting their country, as suggested by Dr. Teferra, poses no threat or danger to the national interest. The only threat if any is the reclaiming of ownership of Africa’s destiny from the clutches of the covetous eurocentric western experts who are unenlightened of their own limitations and of the western institutions which continue to demand a prominent role, in order to safeguard western interests.

The Ethiopian people would be better served by calling upon Ethiopia’s own loyal sons, daughters, and scholars and encouraging them to speak their convictions and weighing their opinions in formulating public policy. I hope that the government will engage and embrace Ethiopian experts on the same terms and conditions as for western experts, to thoroughly analyze the methodology and review the recommendations contained in the World Bank Study. While I am not acquainted with Dr. Teferra, I have no doubt that he and the other Ethiopian higher education experts, would be privileged if called upon by the government to voice their opinions.