Comments Off on The promise of engaging the academic diaspora

The promise of engaging the academic diaspora

The promise of engaging the academic diaspora

The promise of engaging the academic diaspora


Ayenachew A Woldegiyorgis  01 March 2019

PHOTODespite the absence of precise data, there is a general consensus that Ethiopia has a massive intellectual resource in its diaspora. In the United States, for instance, where 32% of those aged 25 or older have at least a bachelor degree, the Ethiopian diaspora is estimated to have educational qualifications that exceed the national average.

Moreover, in 2012 the United Nations reported that according to a conservative estimate, there were about 1,600 individuals of Ethiopian origin in the US and Canada alone who have a PhD; and there is ample reason to expect that this number has considerably increased since.

Although the numbers in other popular destinations for the Ethiopian diaspora such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and Australia may not be as large as for the US and Canada, it is likely they have a similar educational profile.

Nonetheless, the contribution of the Ethiopian diaspora to areas of knowledge and higher education in Ethiopia has not met expectations or fulfilled its potential.

In the past, two main factors are likely to have been responsible for this.

On the one hand, the bitter political relationship between the Ethiopian government and most members of the diaspora has prevented any engagement with Ethiopian higher education institutions or any public institutions for that matter.

On the other hand, the absence of a well-articulated diaspora engagement strategy that emphasises knowledge and technology has made the engagement of those who overcame hostile relations informal and fragmented.

Recent momentum

The coming to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018 changed the dynamics of the relationship between the government and the diaspora.

The new prime minister not only openly called for an end to the hostile relationship with an invitation to everyone to come back home, including individuals and organisations who were formerly declared terrorists, but he also travelled to several countries, met with members of the diaspora and held discussions with community representatives and organisations.

Subsequent reforms have also created more space for the diaspora and one of the primary messages of the prime minister since taking office was a specific call to the knowledge diaspora to join forces in building the country.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. A substantial majority of the diaspora community have openly expressed their support for the measures taken by the new administration. A number of prominent individuals in the diaspora are also actively engaged in various ways in supporting government initiatives, including the flagship Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund.

The following three recent developments illustrate the new momentum in the engagement of the Ethiopian knowledge diaspora.

In December, Vision Ethiopia, a diaspora organisation founded and led by prominent intellectuals based in the United States, held its seventh conference, for the first time in Addis Ababa.

This is symbolic of the new spirit in the diaspora-government relationship in Ethiopia for at least two reasons.

First, the leadership of Vision Ethiopia has been among the top critics of the Ethiopian government. In past years it was inconceivable to imagine it holding conferences in Ethiopia. Most of the organisers and presenters at the last conference have returned to Ethiopia after years in exile.

Second, as the organisers later revealed, Vision Ethiopia has received an encouraging level of support from the government, so much so that two ministers (the ministers of science and higher education and of culture and tourism) spoke at the conference.

In the past few months a number of representatives of diaspora organisations and networks have visited Ethiopia and held discussions with government officials and representatives of academic institutions. Several of these organisations and networks have also signed memoranda of understanding with the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, in an effort to chart a path for the engagement of their members with Ethiopian higher education.

This development has also been matched by positive steps on the government’s side. The newly founded Ministry of Science and Higher Education has established an advisory council and representatives from the diaspora form a significant number of its members. In addition, one of the sub-groups within the advisory council is concerned with issues of diaspora engagement in science and higher education.


These promising developments are not without challenges. In order to be able to tap into the momentum, pertinent concerns need to be identified and addressed promptly.

One such issue is the imbalance in the disciplinary distribution of academics who support these initiatives. While there have been noteworthy initiatives by groups like the New York-based STEM Education Network, engagement in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is very limited when set against the needs of Ethiopian universities.

Relatively more support is apparent in the fields of social sciences and humanities. It is imperative to devise mechanisms to encourage more members of the diaspora in the STEM fields to engage with Ethiopian institutions.

Lack of coordinating mechanisms

The lack of clear institutional and coordinating mechanisms is another challenge. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has traditionally been in charge of all matters related to the diaspora. In a recent restructure, an autonomous agency exclusively responsible for diaspora issues has been set up.

However, the agency is in the early stages of human resources and organisational preparations. Therefore, it may not be ready fast enough to tap into the current momentum by effectively coordinating activities across various institutions and stakeholders.

This problem is compounded by the fact that universities, for the most part, do not have articulated and streamlined approaches to diaspora engagement. Most initiatives come from the diaspora side and take place in a fragmented case-by-case manner, largely dependent on personal connections rather than institutional systems.

Therefore, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education should take responsibility for coordinating engagement and, in partnership with universities, establish the necessary policy and institutional framework for effective diaspora engagement in the knowledge sector.

It is important to acknowledge that a lack of stability and security, particularly in public institutions, is a serious impediment to progress. Not only does this inhibit the diaspora from engaging, it also means the ministry is preoccupied with crisis management mode at the expense of focusing on its strategic priorities.

Questions of citizenship

Another layer of challenge, especially for those who have acquired citizenship of other countries, is whether they should be treated as Ethiopians or foreigners.

This is a particular issue in cases of longer-term engagement, involving remuneration and other benefits. Indeed, Proclamation 270/2002 provides the legal framework for Ethiopian-born foreigners to be considered as Ethiopians through an Ethiopian-born certificate. Under the framework, the requirement for visa and work permits for diaspora academics is eliminated.

However, acquiring the certificate raises questions about whether an individual should be compensated as an Ethiopian or as a foreigner, in foreign currency or Ethiopian birr. Foreigners in Ethiopian higher education are paid at least five times as much as Ethiopian academics and receive their salaries in foreign currency. The absence of clarity on this issue has caused controversies.

In sum, growing momentum and the recent series of reforms create an environment that is conducive to significantly scaling up diaspora engagement in the knowledge sector. However, we need swift, strategic measures in order to tap into the huge potential that this offers.

Ayenachew A Woldegiyorgis is a research assistant and doctoral student at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.


Filed in: News Tags: 

Share This Post

© 2019 Ye Dallas Radio! – የዳላስ ራዲዮ!. All rights reserved.
Site designed by YeDallas Radio!.