Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa after Nigeria with a population of 105 million. It’s also one of the least developed countries (LDCs) in the world, ranked 173rd among 189 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Like other low-income countries in Africa, Ethiopia presently faces the enormous challenge of creating a more inclusive and efficient education system amid rapid population growth. Compared with other sub-Saharan African countries, Ethiopia has been successful in slowing population growth and now has a relatively low fertility rate by African standards, but its population will nevertheless swell to an estimated 191 million people by 2050.1 More than 40 percent of the population is currently under the age of 15.
Despite Ethiopia’s booming economy, the country’s education system remains underdeveloped and plagued by low participation rates and quality problems—a situation partially owed to Ethiopia having been deprived of economic development for decades. As the World Bank has noted, Ethiopia was “one of the most educationally disadvantaged countries in the world” for much of the 20th century, because of armed conflict, famines, and humanitarian crises.
t the same time, Ethiopia fought several wars against Somalia and the annexed region of Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of warfare. By conservative estimates, between 1 million and 1.5 million Ethiopians died between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s, most of them killed in Ethiopia’s civil war.
Contemporary Ethiopia—formally called the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia—has come a long way since these dark times, even though hunger crises and separatist insurgencies continue to erupt in places like the Ogaden region, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Somalis. It’s important to understand that Ethiopia is an ethnically and regionally highly diverse country inhabited by over 80 different tribes and ethnic groups speaking more than 70 mother tongues.
Ethiopia’s adult literacy rate of 39 percent (2012), for example, is still one of the lowest in the world and far below the LDC average of 77 percent (in 2016, per UIS). Marked disparities in participation in education also persist between rural areas and urban centers, most notably Addis Ababa, as well as between low-income households and more affluent demographic groups, and between boys and girls. School drop-out rates are among the highest in the world: Just slightly more than 50 percent of enrolled children complete elementary education. Participation rates also fall off markedly at higher levels of schooling—Ethiopia’s upper-secondary NER remains fully 17 percentage points below the current LDC average (UIS).
Ethiopia still trails other LDCs in key education indicators. In fact, the rapid growth over the past decades has overburdened the system and created a slew of new problems, such as funding shortages and a deterioration of quality. Enormous progress in increasing access to education notwithstanding, some observers now consider the Ethiopian education system to be in a state of crisis, and that quantitative achievements in areas like elementary enrollments mask stagnation in terms of quality and learning outcomes.