Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network
Peter Koehn & Phyllis Ngai

Growth with Sustainable Development?

Impressions of Addis Ababa at the Start of 2011

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Based on their experience teaching Ph.D. students in political science and education in late 2010/early 2011, the authors reflect on Ethiopia’s efforts to build human capacity at Addis Ababa University and the country’s new regional universities. They share their impressions of the economic “awakening” of the city of Addis Ababa and ask if the city’s changes constitute growth with development, or growth without development.

Addis Ababa - Amharic for “New Flower” - is awakening. “We were sleeping” Peter’s former student when he taught at the university in 1970-1972, now a successful businessman with thriving domestic and diasporic markets for his company’s beauty products, told us several times during our late 2010/early 2011 stint teaching Ph.D. students in political science and education through the partnership between The University of Montana and Addis Ababa University (AAU). We learned about the expansion of Ethiopia’s higher-education system and observed construction everywhere in the capital city. Is Addis experiencing growth without development, or is the city in the vanguard of sustainable development?

Reflections on Teaching at Addis Ababa University

During our visit, taught an intense course to nine Ph.D. students in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) and delivered two workshops to C& I master’s students and Ph.D. students from the Department of Educational Planning and Administration. In the course and the workshops, she guided students to compare U.S. and Ethiopian perspectives on educational issues such as 21st-century schools, curriculum design, active and interactive instructional strategies, technologies for education for development, language-education polices, multicultural education, and qualitative educational-research methods.

Although the students she taught were well-versed in current literature in these fields, they agreed that desired education models and strategies have not been adopted widely in schools around the country. In addressing gaps between theory and practice, research aimed at adapting international educational models and strategies to specific contexts in Ethiopia is urgently needed. For example, graduate students attending the class and the workshops embraced Phyllis’ interactive instructional approach. The challenge is how to adapt this teaching approach to classrooms with 50 to 80 students.

With regard to educational technology, some students were still debating whether the computer is good or bad rather than moving on to consider specific ways in which technology can be employed to achieve desired educational objectives. Students further indicated that the choice of language as the medium of instruction remains a hotly debated issue in Ethiopia. Currently, the languages of 26 of the 80 ethnic groups are used as the medium of instruction in primary schools located in different regions around the country.

Do the benefits of receiving basic education in one’s mother-tongue outweigh the disadvantages of losing mobility across linguistic barriers in the country? Some students further argued that English as a global language was the appropriate language of instruction at secondary and tertiary levels while others argued that a local language should fill that role.

In general, students openly and enthusiastically engaged in debates about what would be best for Ethiopia’s educational system and its diverse society.  Phyllis was impressed by their far-sighted educational visions for the country’s future and their progressive thinking concerning educational issues of global significance.

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Phyllis with Education Ph.D. students at AAU.

Peter contributed to the Political Science and International Relations (PSIR) Department’s two on-going courses for Ph.D. students (Comparative Politics and Comparative Foreign Policies). The Ph.D. program is intended to serve three objectives: (1) equip AAU’s PSIR faculty with Ph.D. training; (2) prepare faculty to teach political science at Ethiopia’s other universities; and (3) retain younger faculty within Ethiopia.

All but one of this first AAU cohort of six Ph.D. candidates already teach for PSIR. For Comparative Politics, Peter presented three seminars. His first seminar addressed two topics: (1) Trends in Comparative Political Analysis and (2) Applying the “Most-Different-Systems Approach” to China, the United States, and Ethiopia. His second seminar focused on Non-state Actors and Horizon-rising Challenges and his final Comparative Politics seminar focused on Igniting Bottom-up Sustainable-Development Transformations. For Comparative Foreign Policies, the topic of Peter’s first seminar was In Whose Interests? Transmigration, Diasporas, and Non-State Foreign-Policy making in the 21st Century.

His second session addressed Emerging Approaches to Foreign Assistance: Transnational Partnerships & Development Funds. His final Comparative Foreign Policies seminar focused on Global Climate Change Policy: Bridging South-North Gaps. Peter also delivered a public lecture sponsored by the Faculty of Social Sciences on Transnationalism and Transnational Competence. Peter found all of his students well-prepared for the seminars, enthusiastically engaged with the material presented, and willing and able to articulate and defend diverse positions. He was also impressed by their sincere commitment to remaining in Ethiopia and in university teaching.

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Peter with PSIR Ph.D. students and faculty at AAU.

The 31 universities in place across Ethiopia today or expected soon, including 13 new regional universities, are expected to help overcome development gaps in Ethiopia’s political system of ethnic federalism (Tesfaye 2010). AAU, Ethiopia’s premier higher-education institution, currently offers 215 graduate programs to more than 2000 masters and Ph.D. students (Masresha 2010).

Fully 94 per cent of AAU’s total faculty are Ethiopian, although less than 25 per cent of them hold Ph.D. degrees. There are far fewer Ethiopian Ph.D. holders at the emerging universities outside of the capital and AAU has been charged with building their human resources. To promote in-country training of Ph.D. students, AAU is linking with external partners with support from a large SIDA grant (Amanyehun 2010).

The University also is pursuing “brain circulation” and “brain return,” although Tesfaye and Elizabeth (2008) maintain that inadequate efforts have been made to harness the Ethiopian intellectual diaspora “partly because of ethnic and political divisions within the diaspora itself and partly because of the government’s lack of coordinated efforts and motivation.”Ethiopia’s long-term goal is to build a higher-education system that encompasses “globally competitive centers of excellence” and effectively addresses “the challenges of poverty” (Tesfaye & Elizabeth 2008).

The Newly Awakening Flower

Peter’s doctoral dissertation (Koehn 1973) focused on urban services in Addis Ababa, then a city with a population estimated at about one million inhabitants. At that time, only 30 per cent of the school-aged population attended primary or secondary schools and the university offered only first degrees; an estimated 200,000 residents did not have access to any toilet facility in their residential unit; to keep up with urban-rural migration and concomitant population growth, the Municipality, with assistance from Swedish and German aid, built a grand total of 111 low-income housing units to meet the projected annual need for an additional 16,000 units. Addis Ababa in the 1970s was a city mired in little economic growth and blocked development.

Fast forward to 2011. Addis, now a city of 3-plus million, is in the midst of a construction boom. An experienced Africa traveler advised us pre-arrival to expect to see as many cranes in Addis as one sees today in Dubai. That might be an exaggeration, but evidence of construction is everywhere – ring and outskirts roads (many with Chinese funding and managerial direction), office buildings, banks, hotels, private schools, and housing built with foreign and domestic capital infusions.


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Integrated beauty-products factory in Akaki, near Addis.

Housing merits special consideration. The Municipality is taking urban renewal seriously, demolishing substandard housing in the city center and providing those displaced with apartment quarters at the city’s outskirts. At the same time, at the opposite edge of the city, elite and diasporic housing complexes are springing up.

Addis Ababa’s recent expansion is impressive. Do the city’s changes constitute growth with development, or growth without development? Development requires more than economic expansion measured by increases in goods and services produced by the city’s economy. Additional indicators of development include employment opportunity, literacy, health and longevity, and movement in the direction of more equitable income distribution. Sustainable development involves resource conservation in order that the needs of future generations also are protected.

Our time for observation and investigation was too limited to draw firm conclusions. Impressionistically, we found promising and troubling signs. On the plus side of the sustainable-development ledger, are higher rates of primary, secondary, and university enrollments, increased literacy, greater media freedom, an emphasis on unity in diversity, peaceful and collaborative relations, and the welcome extended to returnees from the diaspora, to Eritreans, and to Somalis. The troubling indicators include high youth unemployment, gender disparities in access to higher education (Tesfaye 2010), an expanding gap between the rich and the desperately poor, embrace of a fossil-fuel-intensive path with its concomitant high levels of air pollution, uncontrolled natural-resource exploitation in an ecologically vulnerable country, and unwillingness to allow viable political opposition.


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Diversity in Addis Mercato on a Saturday.

Addis unquestionably has come a long way since 1973. The new flower has awakened. It seems destined to grow. What is less certain is whether Addis Ababa will develop features of radiant and lasting beauty.


Peter H. Koehn
Professor of Political Science
Department of Political Science, University of Montana, Missoula, USA
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Phyllis Ngai
Ed.D., Adjunct Assistant Professor
Department of Communication Studies, University of Montana, Missoula, USA


Amanyehun R. Sisay (2010). Synopsis of the SIDA block grant. Informer (Addis Ababa University, Research & Graduate Programs) 1(2): 3, 8−10.

Koehn, Peter H. (1973). The Municipality of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Performance, Mobilization, Integration, and Change. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Masresha Fetene (2010). Message from the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School. Informer (Addis Ababa University, Research & Graduate Programs) 1(2): 2.

Tesfaye Semela (2010). Higher education expansion and the gender question in Ethiopia. Ethiopian Herald, 30 December: 9.

Tesfaye Semela & Elizabeth Ayalew (2008). Ethiopia, in Damtew Teferra & Jane Knight (eds.): Higher Education in Africa: The International Dimension. Chestnut Hill, MA: Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, 159−203.

Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network