Africa Hall

Africa Hall:

One of the consistent joys of working at Addis in the UNECA compound is the fact I get to work in the oldest United Nations building in Africa: Africa Hall. Some people might be upset that they have to live and operate in somewhat outdated structures, especially when across the parking lot are brand new buildings with hi-tech gadgets and marble floors. But those compounds have no historical life, and are architecturally boring. Africa Hall is different. It was built in 1961 by Emperor Haile Selassie in part to make Ethiopia the center of Africa political life and to show the world that Ethiopia and Africa in general could compete in the global economy. In 1963, the building served as the center for the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor to the African Union. Stained glass windows are seen throughout the building and in the conference hall itself. Created by Afwerke Tekle, the main work is a 150 square meter window called the “Total Liberation of Africa,” that shows African nations working together to overcome poverty (see footnote for a better/more complete explanation),[1] and depicts the UN as a knight in full armor.  The artwork is broken into three sections, which attempts to tell the story of African progress, starting with “Africa Then,” “Africa then and now,” and “Africa now and in the Future.”

Within the actual conference center there are portraits of the leaders from countries of the founding OAU delegation, with Morocco whited out as they left the delegation in 1984 due to the membership of Western Sahara. The entire hall has for the most part not been renovated since the 1960’s, still sporting its original blue carpet, wood paneling, and artistic renditions. The equipment and technology used for interpretation/translation, looks to be from the cold war or straight out of the movie Apollo 13, with levers and flashing lights that simply don’t make sense.

What has so enthralled me about the Hall is the history that has been made there. The podium is the same that has been used countless leaders and dignitaries. This preservation allows the building to almost feel like a museum, commemorating the history that was made there. Unfortunately, this history is going to be renovated. The ceiling is leaking and conference attendees tend to prefer shinier and newer décor, which has resulted in the UN trying to find donors to redo the whole building. What this actually entails, and whether the beautiful artwork will be left in tack, I don’t know. But being able to work in such a building, walk the halls, and experience the site of so much African history, has been a real joy.

[1] It is interesting to note, that the official story of the stained glass window is that it depicts Africa overcoming poverty and disease. However, most Ethiopians (every one that I have spoken to regarding this picture) have stated the pictures actually depicts Africa overcoming colonialism. In the pictures, colonialism is depicted as a dragon. In the first stained glass window, it shows Africans carrying the dragon on their shoulders with a grim-reaper like figure overlooking. In the second picture (“Africa Then and Now”) the dragon is being slaughtered with several Africans representing a variety of countries dressed in different garments watching. And in the final picture (which is the focal point of the piece) it shows Africans dressed in white bearing a torch, lighting the way for the future. The differences in analyzing the dragon (in the western perspective it symbolizing poverty and in the Ethiopian perspective colonialism) is for me extremely interesting. Maybe it can simply be both, as colonialism despite the writings of Niall Ferguson helped exacerbate poverty due in part to its exploitative practices.




My internship is coming to an end and I wanted to share some things that are a little more on the fun/light side. My final two posts will discuss two things that have been great about my stay here in Ethiopia: Ethio-Jazz and the old United Nations building: Africa Hall.

Part 1: Ethio-Jazz

Throughout Addis Ababa one can find a variety of musical influences, from reggae (particularly Bob Marley, who has a statue in the heart of the city. For example of Ethio-reggae see the popular song: “Ethiopia Never Colonized”), to its vibrant jazz scene, known as Ethiopian Jazz or Ethio-Jazz. The history of Ethio-Jazz largely centers around one man, Mulatu Astatke. Trained at the best music schools in England and the US, his music is a fusion of jazz, traditional Ethiopian folk melody, latin, and Afro-funk. His unique jazz style turned heads in New York City’s vibrant jazz scene in the 1960’s, where he played alongside other jazz greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. In 1969 Mulatu returned to Ethiopia, where his music quickly gained popularity throughout the country. Unfortunately in the early 1970’s, the emerging Derg  regime claimed Ethio-Jazz was a western import and tried to censor it. Despite its censure, Ethio-jazz has remained popular (especially gaining popularity after the fall of the Derg in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s) and Mulatu Astatke, the godfather of Ethio-Jazz, is still playing. In fact, he has opened up his own jazz club at Ghion Hotel, called The African Jazz Village. Every Thursday, this legend who plays to sell-out crowds throughout the world, plays free live shows in his small and intimate jazz club. Fortunately, the jazz club he plays at is located only a block away from my work, so I have been able to enthusiastically attend and watch this music legend frequently. Mulatu has also been willing to engage with his audience, frequently sitting down and talking with guests.

If interested in Mulatu Astatke’s music see: (note: for whatever reason this link begins in the middle of the album)

For non-Mulatu Ethio-Jazz see:

For much more insightful article of Mulatu and Ethio-Jazz see:

International Conference on Private Higher Education

Last week some colleagues and I attended the 14th International Conference on Private Higher Education in Africa. The conference, held at the African Union, brought together approximately 125 researchers, professors, development workers, and administrators from all over continental Africa. This year’s theme was “The Role of Private Higher Education Institutions (PHEI) in Sustainable Development,” though discussions and panels went far beyond this, touching on specific issues facing PHEIs in Africa, including access, quality, gender equity, and research. Participants learned about the issues facing education in general, such as how only 6% of the population is enrolled in higher education institutions compared to the global average of 26%, and the more than doubling of higher education enrollment between 2000 and 2010, from 2.3 million to 5.2 million. Participants debated why higher education in Africa was lagging behind other regions, with many pointing to the structural adjustment policies promoted by the international development sector in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Over the years, due to cuts in government budgets and funding of public universities, private universities were used to fill the gap. Today according to the World Bank over 950 private universities exist in Africa, enrolling approximately 24% of all university students, with most of these institutions being for-profit. However, despite this growth, private universities are often considered low quality, with many students attending only because they cannot gain enrollment in public universities. This disparity was a subject of concern for participants.

Personally, a few things really caught my attention. For one, what exactly is the purpose of higher education? Is it simply about receiving a piece of paper that qualifies one for employment? Or is it about learning certain skills, if not more? Also, is increasing access to higher education, without improving economic opportunities, always a good thing? Many attendees mentioned how past students were unable to find employment after completing their education. It is often assumed that education leads to better economic, social, and political outputs, therefore helping to create more peaceful states, but as Matthew Lange controversially argues, increasing education without also improving the economic situation can actually cause conflict (he specifically looks at ethnic violence).

Overall, it was interesting hearing research and debates on the state of Private Higher Education in Africa. It is clear that private higher education gets a bad rap in much of Africa and from the media (both local and international). I know I have been extremely critical of private institutions in the past (still am). However, as said by one of the keynote speakers, Private Higher Education is here to stay, we must learn how to make it work.

Testing the Social Network

This past week Ethiopia was on lock down. The lock down wasn’t due to social unrest (though this is debatable)[1] but because the nation was undergoing university entry exams known as the Ethiopian School Leaving Examination Certificate (ESLEC). These exams, which according to the National Examinations Agency are “the means by which students are selected for the various kinds of further education, training and employment,” were previously postponed due to leaks of the exam on social media back in May. The leaks were in response to the government’s refusal to heed Oromia region requests to push back the exam, due to conflict/protests that left many schools closed for a period of time. Because of these leaks, the tests were postponed until last week, during which time the government blocked all social media (facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube) and certain communications (most notably whatsapp, viber, and skype). The blocking of these outlets started on the Saturday before the test and continued for the exams entirety (ending on Wednesday though some blocking, for example of skype, inexplicably continues). According to the Daily Mail and repeated in the Atlantic, government officials blocked such sites to ensure an “orderly exam process” and to prevent students from being “distracted.”

The blocking of social media caused uproar in international and local media outlets, with numerous articles condemning the move. The media has focused mostly on the limiting of free speech, with popular blogger and editor of the Horn Affairs magazine Daniel Berhane stating that’s it’s the government’s attempt at “flexing its muscle” and “testing” the public. He goes on: “This is nothing but an unconstitutional State of Emergency. The Ethiopian government has no legal basis.” The Ethiopian government has blocked social media and the internet in the past, such as in 2006 with opposition blogs, and most recently blocking/or slowing internet access due to the travel of Benjamin Netanyahu (though this was not confirmed). This all comes a week after the UN Human Rights council passed a non-binding resolution claiming that the blocking of the internet is a human rights violation.

While the blocking of social media and the internet warrants condemnation, (just think what would happen in the US if the government implemented such a ban), somewhat lost in this controversy is the fact that the ban was due to a national exam. This fact should give everyone, but especially educators, pause. The significance of these exams to the futures of students and the nation’s economic life is so great that the government goes to extreme lengths, even risking international condemnation, just to ensure that the tests are done properly. Indeed, armed guards were deployed to schools during exam week. Beyond the legitimate concerns about civil liberties, the obvious question seems to be whether any single exam should carry such social significance. The ESLEC’s are essentially gatekeepers to Ethiopian economic life. Those who don’t pass are left with few options in terms of future education, work, and thus social mobility. The current testing regime is seen as a reliable indicator of one’s intelligence and preparedness, a way of demonstrating merit, but in reality it simply perpetuates systemic inequalities.[2]

When a single test has so much power over people’s lives, it of course becomes the primary focus of the education system. Most students are so preoccupied with these exams that actual learning becomes secondary. I saw this mindset while teaching in Malawi, which also has university exams, known as the MSCE. During lessons, it was common for students to ask me if this material would be on the national exam. If the answer was yes, students would hurriedly copy down notes. If no, they would immediately lose interest. Similarly, working with teachers in professional development, I saw many teachers look critically at any teaching method (for example activity-based learning) that didn’t directly provide students with answers to the national exam. This mindset was perhaps nowhere more evident than in literature class, where students read Shakespeare (the utility and importance of teaching Shakespeare in rural African schools is another issue). Because the university exams didn’t test students’ understanding of Shakespeare’s themes, but on very specific and somewhat irrelevant details of the story, students and teachers didn’t care about actually reading the book, but only memorizing minor details for the test. This even resulted in the creation of test guides, which were often read and studied instead of the actual book. One can see how these tests corrupted the learning process.

The national uproar in Ethiopia, the boycotting and protesting in the US and the UK, and armed soldiers guarding test sites including in Malawi, show the extent to which testing is overemphasized in education[3]. This is not to say that testing isn’t useful, as it does provide some measurement of how students, teachers, and schools are doing and can help lead to better reforms and policies. However, when testing becomes the primary purpose of education, problems emerge. As Campbell’s law states “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” While the blocking of social media is troubling, the power of a single test over people’s lives is also cause for an uproar.

[1] It is interesting to see how the blocking of social media has led to wide-spread coverage and discussion in national and international media, but that civil unrest hasn’t been covered.

[2] A quick google search yields very little information on social mobility, inequality, and demographic breakdowns of who passes the exams and enrolls in university.

[3] There have also been recent testing scandals in both Nigeria and Egypt (to name just two).

Contract Teachers Part 2

In the previous blog, I discussed a conference on contract teachers. This is part 2.

Throughout the contract teacher conference, participants and organizers consistently assumed that contract teachers were worse teachers[1] compared to traditional/regular teachers. This view was often stated as an undeniable fact. However, research is far more mixed as to their impact and whether they are actually lower performing teachers. For example, one study conducted in India found that schools that hired contract teachers for primary schools not only had better student performance compared to schools that did not hire contract teachers, but also that contract teachers were significantly less likely than regular teachers to be absent and were more likely to engage in “active teaching.” The report also found that: “contract teachers appear to be as effective as regular teachers even though they are less qualified and paid much lower salaries.” A systematic review of contract teachers conducted by DFID supported this statement, in fact it went one step further, stating that depending on context “evidence indicates that contract teachers are generally more effective in improving student outcomes than regular teachers.” This is based on cost-effectiveness analysis. Often the stated reason for this improvement is incentives.

The argument largely goes that contract teachers who do not perform or are consistently absent will not be re-hired the following school year. Thus, the teacher has an incentive to come to school and improve student performance. However, this theory has large assumptions of its own. The first assumption is that someone is actually properly monitoring and evaluating the teachers. The second assumption is that given the intense need of teachers, communities are actually willing to let contract teachers go. Yet, research would support the idea that communities holding on to even poor teachers (particularly in primary schools) would be better than not having them in school at all (again see first link).

There is definitely much to question within the research provided above and a better more intense analysis needs to be had, but the impact of contract teachers is not the same or consistent in every situation and there are definitely pros and cons to their presence. Moving forward it will be interesting to see what comes out of this conference. The conference did allow for policy makers to openly discuss the role of contract teachers in their countries and brainstorm solutions to the “problem.” Many policy makers and ministers of education were excited and optimistic about future actions, particularly with the ability to train contract teachers and better regulate them and the private schools that often employ them. Whether or not this actually happens and if this actually leads to the desired educational gains remains to be seen.

[1] It should be noted that while untrained local/community contract teachers are often assumed to be poorer teachers, foreign contract teachers, specifically those that come from the US, UK, and Japan (example: Peace Corps, VSO, and JICA), are often assumed to be better teachers. However, data on this is either non-existent or has actually proven the opposite. Some research has shown that students of foreign teachers actually perform worse on national exams. 

Contract Teachers Part 1

On June 20-22, UNESCO’s International Teachers Task Force (ITTF) hosted an international conference on the state of contract teachers in Africa. Over 125 participants from approximately 30 African countries and a dozen international organizations came together to discuss the increasing impact of contract teachers on national education systems. The conference focused on six topics, including: pre-serve and in-service teacher training; financing education; recruitment and deployment of teachers; evaluation of the performance of teachers; promoting social dialogue on teachers and teaching; and teacher motivation. The conference also saw the release of 25 research papers on the effects of contract teachers in 25 African countries.

Throughout the conference contract teachers were often viewed as a problem (for more on this see Part 2), as they are often untrained, under or unqualified, and underpaid. Many contract teachers are found within low-cost private schools or community schools that provide a lower quality education. However, many of the reports also acknowledged the fact that contract teachers fill a necessary gap, which was created by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education For All (EFA) policies. These policies generally favored increasing access over improving quality, leading to increases in student-teacher ratios and a significant shortage of teachers. In fact, at the conference Malawi stated that there are over 10,500 teacher vacancies in Primary schools in Malawi, and approximately 2,950 in secondary schools. Increasingly, these vacancies are being filled by contract teachers who lack basic training and qualifications.

Therefore, the question tackled at the conference was how to professionally develop such teachers and bring them into the national education system. The simple answer was to provide them with more professional development workshops and/or in-service training, but exactly how remained unclear. Another solution was to train more qualified teachers (pre-service), but again specifics were largely absent, as many colleges/universities are filled to their capacities.

However, two things that were not mentioned, but deserves to be, is the fact that even trained teachers arent being properly put into schools in a timely fashion, Also, in-service trainings can take away time teachers are actually spending in the classroom, leading to an increase in teacher vacancies. In Malawi, many new teachers are either not being placed in teaching positions after graduating or not being paid. Putting a thousand more contract teachers onto government rolls doesn’t seem possible, unless there is a huge increase in government or international investment, which appears unlikely. This raises further questions about the problems with contract teachers – are they significantly worse than qualified teachers? And what is their impact on the education system? These questions will be addressed in the next blog.

Data Revolution?

In 2014 the UN started a “revolution.” This revolution, promoted by Secretary General-Ban Ki-Moon, was not a political revolution, but a data revolution, with the goal of bringing accessible, transparent data to the service of “evidence-based” sustainable development. The UNDataRevolution website claims that the focus “is an acknowledgement that timely, usable data is critical to informed decision-making, monitoring of progress, and evaluation of outcomes.” The UN’s full embrace of data was praised in the media as something new and yes, “revolutionary,” with the Guardian declaring “geeks” and statisticians to be “natural revolutionaries” who will “unlock the corridors of power.”

This data revolution is built on two ideas: 1) making data accessible and 2) having data lead policy (apparently something that was not part of development in the past) (there is also the belief that data is always good and objective). For the past four weeks, it has been my job to try to find data on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Africa. ICT has often accompanied the data revolution as a way of making it easier to collect and share data. Given the emphasis placed by this “revolution” on accountability, transparency, and objectivity, I expected such data to be easy to find, at least for a person like myself who has done extensive research in the past. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Though data is all over the internet, it is not packaged and presented in a way that is easily accessible for the common policy maker, much less African teacher or headmaster. Websites may provide some basic numbers, but these are often submerged in dense 100+ page reports, or locked behind subscriptions. Also, while UNESCO has put together a center for statistics, data on many subject matters is unavailable, especially in education, with only such things as gender and student-teacher ratios accounted for. The prevalence and impact of ICT is largely unknown.

Despite the goals of the revolution, data also doesn’t appear to be guiding policy. This is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the case of ICT. ICT is often promoted as a panacea for all of our educational ills. In reality, this view appears to be based more on theoretical assumptions than hard data. The data that is available shows ICT expenditures increasing three-fold in Africa over the past 15 years, while access (measured in students out of school) and quality (student performance) have largely stagnated. Further, a 2016 report in Kenya found that ICT platforms have little to no positive effect on learning when compared with other interventions (Piper,, 2016). A meta-analysis by Glewwe, et. Al. found that computers in schools didn’t have much effect on student learning, while being extraordinarily expensive. On a more global scale, research recently published by the OECD claims that ICT (specifically computers) may actually have a negative effect or diminishing returns on student learning. Yet, these reports are largely ignored and the promotion of ICT continues unabated.

All this is not to say that data and ICT are not good. They are, but they are not without their faults, challenges, and assumptions. Data remains locked behind gatekeepers, while available data is not as neutral and apolitical as its champions claim. Data is often wrapped up or disguised as politically neutral and objective, but this is wrong and potentially dangerous. Deciding how data is collected, analyzed and shared is a political act, and should be understood as such.  Further, data is not self-evident. It needs trained eyes to see the truly revolutionary potential behind the numbers.