wonder how policies are formulated in Ethiopia.
Theoretically, different policy options are identified,
ranked on their net benefit, and finally a specific policy
would be picked based on its conformity with the overall
objective of the country. In this process, more often than
not, politicians tend to twist policies to support their
objective even when doing so is at the expense of the
welfare of the society.
early 1930s the role of politicians was not an important
agenda even in academia. For instance, the famous British
economist, John Maynard Keynes, assumed that economic policy
should be formulated and implemented by enlightened people
drawn from an intellectual aristocracy; hence he believed
that policies would always be enacted in the public
economists such as Michal Kalecki, Akerman and Schumpeter
rejected Keynes’ naïve assumption and elaborated how
politicians influence policy decisions and outcomes. The
most notable influence of politicians is what is referred to
as ‘the political business cycle’ where elected politicians
are engaged in economic manipulation for political profit.
Thus, politicians prefer non-optimal policies to cut the
unemployment rate and offer short-term benefits to voters so
that they can get re-elected.
We have observed this type of behaviour in Ethiopia during
the 2005 election where EPRDF was promising to revoke all
traffic violation tickets for taxi drivers, for instance.
By and large, I do not believe that our politicians operate
in the way the political business cycle theory predicts.
Ruling out this motive of politicians would leave us with
Keynes’ believe that policies would be enacted in the public
interest so long as the politicians are maximizing the
public welfare. Sadly, in the case of Ethiopia, we observe
many policies that rather dwarf the public welfare. That is
why I wonder how the final policy decisions are made. Either
the politicians do not have good advisors who provide them
with viable policy options or the politicians make bad
judgments consistently. Alternatively, the politicians are
not willing to listen to experts’ opinion and hence dictate
their policies regardless of the experts’ advice.
Another grim scenario is a case where experts are reluctant
to speak their mind for fear of confronting the politicians.
My working hypothesis encompasses all of these possibilities
though I would not go into details to show which one is the
most reasonable. Rather, I want to share my frustration by
way of example.
observation stems from the alarming op-ed note of this
newspaper headlined, “Poor Quality is Too High ‘Collateral
Damage’ for Ethiopia” [Volume 9 Number 455, January 18,
2009], hence my focus on the government’s education policy.
government’s expansionary policy on education is perfectly
in line with maximizing social welfare. Theories from
political economy predict that governments do not educate
their people when their interest is to consolidate power. As
our government is trying its best in educating as many
Ethiopians as possible, I have no doubt on the good faith of
the current expansionary plan is at best described as a
disaster. I would limit myself to the higher educational
aspect of the expansion plan to show the downsides of the
past years, 13 new universities were opened and for the near
future 10 additional universities are planned. The existing
higher learning institutions are also required to open new
streams and expand their intakes. Annual enrollment in
higher education has increased substantially. Focusing on
the quantity indicators, the government has done a good job
but, for the educational sector quantity can neither be the
sole nor the best indicator. Probably, the best indicator is
the quality of the graduates coming out of the higher
book titled, “The Elusive Quest for Growth”, William
Easterly has elaborated that evaluation of the expansionary
educational policies shows that poor quality is the main
reason, among others, for the failure of the policies in
bringing about their desired objective of high economic
growth. Unfortunately, it seems that our educational
policies disregard the quality aspect of evaluating the
success of our educational expansion plan.
staffing the 13 new universities is one of the most
difficult challenges that the government faces. These
universities are either understaffed or staffed with
semi-qualified instructors. It is not unusual to witness a
fresh graduate with a first degree teaching senior courses
that should be taught by experienced instructors with post
graduate degrees or doctoral qualifications. The fresh
graduates-cum-instructors are open in telling of their
experiences, confessing that they had difficult times
teaching some of the senior courses that they themselves
barely comprehend. To make things worse, some of these
instructors were taught by poorly trained staff mainly
coming from India.
the newly opened universities are perpetuating mediocrity
rather than academic excellence.
positive move to address this concern, there is a new
initiative to recruit privately-funded postgraduate
students. This initiative implicitly assumes that these
graduates are well qualified.
assumption justified? I am afraid that the answer is a big
‘no’. In the last few years the government was pushing hard
to increase the number of postgraduates. That resulted in
the opening of many graduate programmes in many of the
existing higher learning institutions, in addition to
scaling up enrollment in the existing graduate programmes.
In cases where enrollments were scaled up, the quality of
the programmes went down for shortage of qualified
professors. Consider that the maximum class size for a
professor to closely follow and assess students is 30
students per class. For this class size, the professor can
grade the required number of assignments, papers and lab
work that guarantee an acceptable level of qualification.
Now let’s double the class size to 60 and assign the same
professor to manage it. It is physically impossible for a
single professor to manage this class size without
compromising the quality of his teaching.
That is, if four sets of assignments is the minimum
requirement for a certain level of qualification, now that
the class size has doubled, the number of assignments will
be cut to two, which is below the minimum acceptable
standard. Evaluation of the doubling-up scheme in terms of
quantity tells a successful story. However, in terms of the
quality indicators, it gives a gloomy picture. Rather than
producing 30 qualified graduates, the scheme produces 60
graduates who lack the minimum required level of training to
do their jobs efficiently.
The above illustration assumes that the professor has the
appropriate qualifications and dedication to teach in the
graduate programmes. However, due to the low salaries of
professors in public higher institutions, many qualified
professors are not attracted to teach in these institutions.
Many of the professors who are courageous to teach at the
low salary are busy chasing consultancy and research
projects even to meet their basic subsistence. It is a
common phenomenon to witness countless ‘make-up’ graduate
classes at the end of the semester as many of the professors
are busy to meet their formal schedule due to their other
engagements. I am in no position to blame these professors
as working for such low salaries is enough sacrifice by
itself. The situation in the newly introduced graduate
programmes is even more daunting as no qualified professor
would be willing to go out of Addis to teach for such low
remuneration. As such, the existing graduate programmes are
not producing quality students.
Recruiting the privately-sponsored postgraduates cannot be
a panacea for filling the staff requirement of the new
universities. It is naïve to expect the production of
qualified graduates without qualified instructors.
important determinant of quality is adequate supply of
educational requirements such as books, computers and
laboratory equipment. These are undersupplied in many of the
public higher learning institutions. Queue for books and
internet services in many of the public university libraries
are not unusual scenes. This problem is exacerbated by the
advent of the scaling-up of enrollment in the existing
higher learning institutions.
instance, the case of the technology faculty at the Addis
Abeba University (AAU). It is currently contemplating, with
the Ministry of Education (MoE), to increase its intake
significantly in exchange for securing its independence from
the AAU. Accordingly, it is preparing to enroll 3,000
students of which the civil engineering stream is supposed
to absorb 1,000.
engineering laboratory can only accommodate 20 students at a
time; thus a single laboratory exercise will require 50
sessions. This is almost impossible to handle without
significant scaling down of the number of laboratory
exercises given the existing physical and human resources.
It is not hard to imagine the product of such training.
A few weeks ago, frustrating news of increasing enrollment
in the medical faculties to 4,000 in three years, came from
the Ministry of Health (MoH). For me, this is a public
health disaster. Given that the country does not have the
capacity to produce such a massive number of qualified
medical doctors, in few years we will end up with thousands
of mediocre medical doctors and thousands of disastrous
cases arising from the responsibility they will assume with
their poor training.
Why are the politicians obsessed with the number of
graduates rather than their quality? Is that because they do
not care about quality?
Our politicians are aware of the importance of quality. A
very good example is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s speech as
reported by this newspaper some time ago. It reads:
“Increasing quality and assuring quality of graduates at the
same time would not be so difficult a job, but only if
teaching methods at higher education institutes were
radically changed. He (Meles) advised that enhanced
curriculum development techniques and the use of information
communication technology could help ensure the desired
One conjecture can be that expanding quantity is easier
than guaranteeing quality. It seems that the politicians are
capitalizing on their success in increasing enrollment to
get more foreign financing. Given that foreign funding is a
critical component in the Ethiopian economy as net aid
accounted 12.8pc of GDP in 2006, it is difficult to rule out
politician’s incentive to come up with promising enrollment
indicators even at the cost of quality deterioration.
Another possible explanation is in line with the theory of
corruption and public spending. Corrupted politicians tend
to prefer capital expenditure (as opposed to recurrent
expenditure) for its ease of being misappropriated.
“Corrupted government officials would rebuff all efforts by
the public sector workforce to secure wage increases and
allied benefits due to parochially partisan vampiristic
interests which would not wish to see the relatively large
windfall rent compromised or sacrificed,” Khalil Timamy
says, in the Review of African Political Economy
journal, published in 2005. “Acquiescence to wage increases
would run contrary to the dynamic logic of vampirism. If
these increases in public sector wages are conceded, then
the vampiristic leaders could perhaps still capture the
large extractive rents if they agree to allocate a
proportion of the budgeted development expenditure to meet
the wage demands. But, to do so would be tantamount to
losing extractive rents from ‘real’ planned development
investments (‘real’ being a notional and often excessive
value) expected to be drawn by the elites’ front companies.
(Corrupted) leaders would not be willing to ‘make such
financial sacrifices’ in this zero-sum game. They would
rather line their pockets from budgetary resources earmarked
for development investments in road, bridges, and other
Can this be a valid explanation in the case of Ethiopia
where the public sector is characterized by low wages and
high capital expenditure?
I am afraid that this trend will continue in the future
unless our politicians come to their senses and put the
public welfare first. Otherwise, the country will end up
with massive debt - both internal and external in financing
the huge expansion plan - and unproductive investment. With
‘business as usual’, we are only perpetuating our poverty
and underdevelopment. As citizens of this country, we should
say, “Enough!” when the government is busy engaged in the