Quality is the issue

Kebour Ghenna is the founder and director of Initiative Africa, a non-governmental organization which strives to promote qualitative education in Ethiopia. Renowned for coining the slogan “Yichalal” meaning “Yes we can”, Kebour was also one of the few celebrated presidents of both the Addis Ababa and the Ethiopia Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Associations. An ardent believer in the private sector, Kebour has been serving as the executive director of the Pan- African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PACCI) since 2011. Before retreating back to leading his own creation—Initiative Africa—Kebour’s role in the chamber leadership has been credited for being transformational. In the past, he also served as vice-president of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and as an expat and consultant for international organizations such as UNECA, UNDP, IDRC and others. Additionally, he is said to have played a key role in the establishment of the school of information science. Furthermore, Kebour is also active in the print media industry writing well-liked opinion pieces in The Capital news paper, a weekly newspaper he helped found in 1996 and in which he still holds a stake. Recently, especially, under the auspices of Addis Film Festival, Kebour and his Initiative Africa has been involved in the domestic film screening scene focusing mainly on the independent and educational foreign films. In his modest office that he shares with other colleagues, Kebour sat down with Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter to talk about the gap in the quality of education and other related subjects. Excerpts:

The Reporter: How was Initiative Africa established?

Kebour Ghenna: When Initiative Africa was established in 2004, our main focus was creating an impact by doing advocacy work on good governance and human rights issues in Ethiopia. With the introduction of the CSO proclamation in 2009 that limited the activities of foreign- funded organizations in Ethiopia (the law prevents organizations that receive more than 10% of their funding from abroad from involvement in political activities and rights advocacy), Initiative Africa had to rethink some of its advocacy work since the organization gets the lion’s share of its funding from donors abroad. So, we had to slightly modify ourselves into promoting the quality of education in Ethiopia. We are not far from our previous line of work per se since that too was about education and especially the quality of education. More specifically, we work to foster technical education, mainly on the subjects of Mathematics, Science and environmental science.

Why did you choose education? Is there a specific gap that you want to address?

There is always a gap when it comes to education. It is one of the challenging sectors since there are many stakeholders involved at various levels such as students, instructors, school officials and the government. In order to bring a substantial transformation in the education sectors, these stakeholders should be able to collaborate and strategize for a better destiny. This is one of the loopholes in the education sector which is hindering its forward movement. On the other hand, the Ethiopian education system relays mainly on outdated, low quality and less appropriate teaching materials; overall an immobile school system. With the current pace of sophistication in technology, the Ethiopian education system is clearly lagging behind. Let’s take an example of a child who enrolled in a school at the age of four. After completion of his regular schooling years, passing through the system for about 15 years, this student should be able to catch up with the constantly changing technological advancement. Hence, the question that we should be asking is whether we were able to provide or enable this student to be competitive, or fit to interface with the futuristic innovative and advanced technological era. It is clearly that the country is taking initiatives to enhance access to education, but to bring about tremendous change there is still a long way to go. So, we chose this field (education) to facilitate these intended changes in quality; but one thing that is very clear is that it is not easy.

What kind of programs did you design?

Like any NGO that is working on the area of development, we receive our funding from donors. And, we should not forget that donors have an agenda of their own. So, what we do is to find a common ground to work; finding if our interest and demand actually meet. The first thing that we do is work out a consensus regarding the type of interventions that we (donors and Initiative Africa) want to do. Since we are a small organization, our focus is restricted to designing new teaching methodologies to promote excellence in instruction, research and supply teaching materials such as books and computers. We cannot design and implement programs by ourselves. With NGOs, there is no capacity that would enable them to change the whole situation radically; rather creating a platform for change is the main focus. We are also an experimental entity in that we try to accumulate knowledge by pursuing a sheer trial-and-error-process. So, if our projects are successful, various stakeholders can replicate the process to the benefit of the society; if not, they at least learn not to repeat the same mistake. Looking at the national examination results, girls usually score lower than boys. There are many reasons for this. For one, many of these girls face hurdles such as abuse, early marriage, burden of house chores, school violence, shortage of finance and early pregnancy while at school. So, we designed a program that tried to create a nurturing space that is suitable for girls. It is an ongoing program; we also offer teachers’ trainings on the subject of the environment  so that students can learn about environmental protection. Additionally, we have projects such as “all children reading”, “education for all”, “Addis International Film Festival” and others. We mainly work with 180 schools and more than 200,000 students all over the country. Looking at this number, and from the point of view of the overall country, it might not look significant. However, our job is to assist in creating a model that can be replicated by others.

What do you say is the organization’s biggest contribution to the quality of education thus far?

One cannot measure the quality of education once and be done with it; rather it is continuous; it is a progress. What we define as qualitative today should be able to progress to an advanced stage tomorrow. Since our projects are also aimed at a smaller number of students, it is strongly associated with improving the environment and the quality of education. The quality aimed for could be achieved through the introduction of technological education and sophisticated method of teaching with the support of internet, up-to-date books, and computers. We won an international competition with a methodology that we devised which enables teachers to measure children’s development in reading skills and their understanding. There were no measurements in the past in this regard; so we designed a project for 60 schools, most of them which located outside of Addis Ababa, targeting students ranging from grade one to four. This mechanism will help teachers to assess their students in the future.

In spite of massive expansion in terms of reach, the Ethiopian schooling system is severely criticized for compromising quality of education. This is true especially in terms of the provision of adequate teaching materials, professional competence and the like. What should be done to redress this imbalance?

In relation to the massive population size, primary goal of  the Ethiopian government is expanding the reach and affording access to education. So, following that strategy, the larger population is getting equipped with basic education such as reading and writing skills. This is definitely not enough. The rest of the world is far ahead of us with regard to science, technology and innovation. To equip the students with a higher standard of knowledge, innovative skills and generally to bring the country’s human resource capacity to a certain level, the level that the rest of the world is operating, it requires a huge financial outlay. Without adequate finance, a choice should be made; a choice that involves access and quality. The country chooses whether to focus on expanding basic access to education or limit the reach in favor of quality. This is a decision left to the politicians. One thing that is clear is that what the students are acquiring in terms of quality of  education should see a drastic change. This raises the question of how: How should it change? Strengthening the financial capability is necessary but, adapting advanced technological capability is also critical. This meant accepting technological inputs which are employed by the advanced countries. Knowledge and capacity should be built so that a larger community can access these technological goods. Can we bring in these technologies? And how can we enhance our education system? How can we do that? These two questions are big challenges for the country. This is not unique to Ethiopia; however, many developing countries are struggling with this dilemma. Our students are not competent enough; but the scary part is how the gap between us and the advanced countries is widening. One thing that should be clear to us is that the students we are preparing now are not being groomed only for now but rather for the future which might be alien to us. Many job titles that are unheard of are being created through the years. For example, Social Network Coordinator was a very strange field some ten years ago. Mobile phones did not exist twenty years ago so one can see how the world is evolving.  We should be able to create an education system that can be applicable for the futuristic technological products. If we cannot create that, this is tantamount to not being able to prepare our students well for future challenges.

What is education? Shouldn’t it be contextual to the country’s reality, culture and applicable to the existing objective reality?

Keeping that thought in mind, in this period of time, the world we live in is becoming one village. International integration in terms of economy, politics and ideas and views is making the world a smaller place. So, we are in a situation that forces that either to keep widening the technological advancement or slowly close the gap and reach where they are. Ethiopia’s reality is poverty, famine and limited growth. In my belief, we should not continue with this reality. On the other hand, other advanced countries’ realities are punctuated with the advancement of technology, innovation, discoveries and engaging in production. These are the situations that made them develop further and also to positively impact the lives of their population. If we do not start to close that gap and approach where they are in terms of standards, we cannot achieve the good living standards that we aspire for to our people. We have to follow their way and be able to reach their level in a short period of time; this is imperative.

How do we do that?

This is always the challenging part in education policymaking. At the academic level, various studies have been conducted and various alternatives have been proposed; but a single consensus is yet to come. But while considering bringing about the intended change, we should be able to consider the cultural applicability as well.

Even when we talk of reach, we see a lot of gaps like exclusion of minority groups such as people with disability and other vulnerable groups. Your organization also has a project that is focused on these groups. At this point in time, can we say that there is an equitable access to education?

For those groups who cannot function like normal individuals, there is a need to devise a different teaching material and methodology. The teaching materials are not found abundantly. Our projects are focused on supporting the visually impaired female students. Our main donation, SIDA’s grant, has been directed to this project. Our donor did not allow us to work as a separate entity, so we usually work with 19 identified partner organizations which reside in various parts of Ethiopia. One of our partners, Tsehay Foundation, came up with a proposal on how to assist those visually challenged and female students during their stay at the university. So, we give them monthly stipends in addition to assisting them with educational materials such as braille books and a number of software. We cannot fully say that we achieved a lot in this regard though; rather we tried to respond to some of issues on the ground.

The Millennium Development Goals promised that by 2015 everybody, including girls around the world, will have access to quality basic education. In that aspect, Initiative Africa has been monitoring these global debates and giving consultations. What is Ethiopia’s take of this?

Regarding access to basic education, Ethiopia has fulfilled the MDG target. One thing that should be considered here is that the MDG targets are minimum thresholds. There might be other countries which did not fulfill the MDGs but still in our case, it is not satisfactory. Our education quality should be measured and there are internationalized and standard education measurements to know where our students fare at the global level. I believe we are in the lowest standards when it comes to quality.

What is the benefit of measurement, because countries differ from one another? Applying these same standards, is it not a “one size fits all” solution?

There might be problems regarding measurements but there are basic similarities in simplistic terms such as addition and subtraction in education and they are the same everywhere in the world. Measurements are important; it can help us know where we stand compared to the rest of the world and also what it takes to catch up with them.

Initiative Africa is also engaged in offering practical recommendations to policymakers. What kind of policy do you recommend to improve quality?

The question rather is who the policymakers are in this country. It is still very difficult to answer. Is it the civil servant (laughs). Starting from the Addis Ababa Education Bureau to Zonal administrative officials, we hold discussions with different individuals at various levels. For us, the responsibility is not limited to these officials; rather teachers and parents are equal stakeholders in this sector. We have been working for a long time with teachers’ associations.

There are movements which take education as a basic right. Who is supposed to guaranty this right?

In any country the responsibility to protect rights is left to governments. But the government also is the one that violates these rights (laughs). The one who can protect these rights is the one with power; not those who are powerless. Education, housing, health and food as a right should also be the full responsibility of the government. The government should guarantee their implementation. But the government cannot do this alone; rather it should do so in collaboration with the community. In reality, what we usually see is the people leaving the lion’s share of the responsibility to government. On the other hand, there are also many challenges which prevent people from participating in protecting these rights.

What are the challenges of working in the education sector? Usually, the challenges are said to be associated with finance?

It is not only financial challenges, but the main problem is that we do not know what we want to achieve. We could not reach a consensus with our partners and various stakeholders on what to achieve. Education is not only about finance but rather on designing a good strategy.

 Initiative Africa is renowned through its arm, the Addis International Film Festival. How is this journey so far?

The Addis International Film Festival is an annual film festival whose main focus is documentary films. Through these films, we were able to raise issues such as discrimination, poverty, migration and many others. These films might be done elsewhere, but we also struggle with the same issues. These films are not merely entertainment; they are, rather, a platform to engage and discuss issues that are relevant to society.

What about collaborating with Ethiopian film makers?

We are strengthening our relationship with local filmmakers. In addition to the festival, we organize the East African Workshop for local filmmakers on areas of technical assistance and mechanisms of fund raising for film projects. Making a film demands a lot of money and for documentary filmmakers it is difficult to raise finances since their film is not commercially viable. Annually, we encourage these young filmmakers by giving them a awards. Though it was interrupted in the middle, we also have plans to continue inspiring them so that they can get involved more in documentary filmmaking. This festival has also created an opportunity for local filmmakers to network with their international counterparts.

Do you think socially relevant films are made in this country?

Most of the films revolve around our culture; most of these films are shot in remote areas of the country. If not cultural profiling, an individual is their alternative subject of interest. Though they are trying, we are still at the inception stages. Not only documentary making rather the Ethiopian film industry as a whole is also at its initial stages. The government has special programs to support the manufacturing sector by offering plot of land on lease, lending money, encouraging investors; but when it comes to the art industry these things are non-existent. The creative industry in African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and also Latin America are bringing a lot of revenue to their respective nations and hence there is organized support. The focus should not be only on the sport fields. Assistance should also be given to the creative sector. And the creative industry is easy to grow; and it does not need that much foreign currency.

With the making of all these films, can we say that they are still in their formative stages?

I don’t think the industry is in its stage of inception. It is almost non-existent. Only individual efforts are there and that is not industrially worth speaking of. The government should support the sector.