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Ethiopia Was Feted For Expanding Education Rights For Refugees, Then Politics Got In The Way

The Oasis Reporters

April 16, 2023








Learners in a school for about 5,000 children in Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp in Ethiopia’s Gambela region in 2019.
Peter Kneffel/picture alliance via Getty Images

Shelby Carvalho, Harvard University and Alebachew Kemisso Haybano, Addis Ababa University

Ethiopia is one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the world. It hosts more than 800,000 refugees and asylum seekers. For decades, refugees were sheltered primarily in 26 camps managed by a domestic agency, the Refugee and Returnee Service. Most still are.


In early 2019, however, the Ethiopian government won global praise for enacting a law that gave close to a million refugees the right to work and live outside camps. It was hailed as “one of the most progressive” refugee laws in Africa. For individual refugees and families, it promised better economic opportunities and the potential to become citizens.


Close to 60% of the refugees are children under 18. As part of these government reforms, more than 400,000 school-age children in camps were to be integrated into the national education system. Refugee education at the primary level was previously organised separately from the national education system. Such schools have historically relied on unpredictable humanitarian resources, are often overcrowded and are more likely to be staffed by unqualified teachers.


The goal of integration, outlined in Ethiopia’s National Comprehensive Refugee Response Strategy, was to improve and sustain the quality of education for refugees in hosting areas. Refugee camp schools would get the same government grants as national schools and have more qualified teachers. Integration would also bring additional development assistance into Ethiopia’s education sector from the World Bank’s special financing window for host communities and refugees.


The new system was expected to improve teaching, learning and financial support for refugee schools. It would also bring them into the Ethiopian national system.


In our research, from late 2018 through early 2022, we examined the role of domestic governance and interests in shaping the refugee education reforms. We reviewed archival and emerging policy documents to understand the background and to track progress. We also conducted more than 40 interviews with government officials from the refugee agency, education officials at the regional and national level, and the finance ministry. Additionally, we interviewed representatives of humanitarian and development organisations involved in the design or implementation of the reforms.


We found that the implementation had become mired in turf wars between the national refugee agency and the education ministry. The expected benefits were largely unrealised, most certainly for the school-going refugee children.


The policy lesson here is that bureaucratic structures and interests can make or break well-meaning reforms. The actors involved may enable reforms when they stand to benefit directly. But they can also stand in the way when they feel threatened.


What we found


We conducted most our interviews in 2019, which was the most active period of reform development. COVID-19 and the conflict in Tigray slowed progress towards refugee integration. But the overall goals had already been narrowed.


The education ministry was going to assume full responsibility for refugee education. Instead, it was left to manage only certain academic components. Its role was limited to periodic school inspection (sometimes barred by the refugee agency), supply of textbooks and teacher guides, administering national examinations, and publishing statistics.


The refugee agency kept control over the management and financing of refugee education. It controlled the education funds from humanitarian partners, the management of teachers, access to schools in the camps and oversight of education in camps.


The refugee agency has historically provided refugee services in a camp-based system under different names since the 1960s. As a semi-autonomous entity since 1988, it managed funding from humanitarian actors without oversight from the central government.


In our interviews, officials from the refugee agency described the additional funding available through the World Bank as an opportunity to grow the agency’s own resource base and to reduce its reliance on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It expected to get greater power and jurisdiction from integration. This vision was at odds with how donor partners and national government actors saw integrated service provision.


The central government decided to shift responsibility for refugee education to the ministry of education. This included the large budget item of the salaries of teachers working in schools in refugee camps. Resources that previously flowed through the agency were to be managed by the finance ministry.


Territorial battles ensued. The refugee agency refused to allow camp schools to establish national bank accounts to receive the same per pupil grants as national schools. That step would have given camp schools more to spend on teaching, learning and the needs of students. But it would shift resources away from the refugee agency. The agency’s resources would be monitored by the finance ministry for the first time.


A loss of autonomy and resources challenged the interests of an agency fighting to hold on to power.


The compromise


In interviews, education officials and donor partners described efforts to come to an agreement with the refugee agency over roles and responsibilities. But the agency repeatedly stalled negotiations. We established through interviews and observation that refugee agency actors resisted change by barring some government officials and donor partners from accessing refugee camps, avoiding central government forums, and blocking camp-based schools from opening bank accounts to receive school grants.


A final memorandum was signed in April 2019. In this document, earlier proposals to integrate the camp-based primary education system were replaced with a vague promise to “harmonise” it with the national system. The choice to use the term “harmonise” instead of “integrate” allows separate systems to continue and allows the refugee agency to hold on to much of its power.


The agency maintained jurisdiction over many aspects of refugee education and continued to run education programmes in camps. Refugee children largely remained in overcrowded primary schools. Such institutions are poorly provided with textbooks, libraries, science laboratories and sanitary facilities, and they keep refugees in separate parallel systems.


The refugee agency succeeded in narrowing the scope of integration goals largely because the central government didn’t have hierarchical authority to force it to comply with reforms. Changing this formal governance arrangement would be costly, and the central government has limited interest in doing it to achieve refugee integration.


It’s been four years since the memorandum was signed. Progress towards integration at the primary level remains slow. The parallel system remains largely intact.The Conversation


Shelby Carvalho, Doctoral Candidate; Faculty Instructor, Harvard University and Alebachew Kemisso Haybano, Assistant Professor and a faculty in the Center for Comparative Education and Policy Studies, Addis Ababa University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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