Commentary: Eritrea's 21st-century education, development challenges
Ravinder Rena
Middle East Times
July 11, 2007

MAI-NEFHI, Eritrea -- Education has been considered the most powerful instrument in modernizing a society. Having now entered the 21st century, the global economy is experiencing unprecedented changes stemming from the last three decades.

New developments in science and technology, commercial competition, media breakthroughs, and internalization are revolutionizing the education sector. We are witnessing several paradigm shifts in higher education, from "national" to "global" education; from a "state-controlled" to an "open-market" economy; from "general education" to an "educational system driven by market forces;" from a "one-time education for the privileged few" to a "life-long education for all;" from "teacher-centered" to "learner-centered" education.

These changes make new demands and pose fresh challenges to Eritrean-established education systems and practices. In Eritrea, the traditional system of education was mainly concerned with imparting knowledge. Its methods were nothing more than indoctrination. Educational institutions, therefore, emphasize assimilative facilities over critical and creative thinking to cope with the process of modernization, leading to a demand for a new pedagogical approach.

Indeed, educational investment is an engine of economic development. Such investment is one of a range of significant actions that could boost Eritrea's economy. Educational investment involves an initial sacrifice of income to secure an expected future benefit for the country. As long as capital is invested in the educational sector, wisely and efficiently, it is like saving funds while they generate profit. Over time, educational investment promotes economic growth and contributes to a nation's prosperity.

Educational investment is also related to the economic, social, and cultural prestige of a country, as well as its political stability. Indeed, many economists have discussed the crucial role that human capital plays in growth and economic development. Professor Gary Becker and T. W. Schultz emphasized human capital formation and its impact on economic development in the mid-1960s and 1970s.

The effect of the right kind of education on Eritrea's progress cannot be overemphasized. It can promote civil values, liberate people from ignorance, and empower them with knowledge, information, and skills to recognize their rights and privileges, expand their outlook, form aspirations, and prepare young citizens to take up the responsibility of shaping Eritrea's human resource development process. Indeed, education is a means of awakening the nation's consciousness against injustice, violence, and inequality.

The UN's Millennium Development Goals (MDG) report on Eritrea includes many variables like poverty, primary school enrolment, HIV/AIDS, and access to water targets. It is projected that Eritrea will achieve eight of the 10 goals prescribed by the MDGs; the two targets it will fall short of, according to the report, are primary school enrolment and poverty reduction. Besides such targets, adequate access to safe water and sanitation is of immense importance to human development.

The United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR) was launched November 22, 2006 at the Hotel Intercontinental Asmara. On that occasion, UNDP resident representative Macleod Nyirongo noted that in analyzing Eritrea's developmental progress, despite the prolonged no-peace-no-war situation, the country had moved from ranking 161st last year, to 157th this year, placing it above countries that enjoy far more natural resources.

Nonetheless, Eritrea's literacy level remains low. As much as 40 percent of Eritreans lack basic literacy. About 50 percent of Eritrean children drop out of school at the elementary level, and just 13 percent of high school students graduate. Most of the dropouts belong to the poorest segments of society, particularly those from rural Eritrea. It is clear, therefore, that there is a need to halt and, eventually, nullify the dropout rate, but to achieve this, the poor and underprivileged will need special support.

Eritrea's government began to address these issues following the country's independence in 1993, with a rise in the literacy rate from 20 percent in 1991 to 60 percent in 2006. The state continues to work for the empowerment of the poor and the deprived, to enable them to enjoy their fundamental right to education and to lives of dignity.

Amartya Sen, the 1988 Nobel laureate in Economics wrote: "When people are illiterate, their ability to understand and invoke their legal rights can be very limited, and educational neglect can also lead to other kinds of deprivation ... if we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just, but also less secure."

Education should enable everyone to secure proper employment - hence the need to expand avenues for vocational training. In this regard, efforts to develop the technical and vocational education offered in Sawa began as of March 2007, with more than 3,500 students taking up training in various professional fields. The present system creates wide equality not only among rich and poor students, but among those from urban and rural backgrounds. Nonetheless, disparities can still be noted in the education of girls, whose participation is less than 20 percent.

We live in times of dynamic globalization. The information age is impacting the lives of individuals and reshaping societies. Eritrea is striving to develop a knowledge-based economy and, thus, working hard in this direction. The country's youth are its most valuable resource when it comes to seizing the opportunities offered by globalization. There is a need to provide a better environment for young people and to cultivate their strengths via sustained nurturing of entrepreneurial talent, innovation and creativity, and research and development. Institutions of higher learning should, therefore, foster the spirit of research and inquiry to enable students to face Eritrea's youth-specific challenges.

The reality is disquieting. Only about 3 percent of the country's youth in the 17 to 23 age-group have the opportunity to receive higher education. The enrolment rates in science, medicine, engineering and technology, business and economics, and arts and social sciences vary. The enrolment in basic sciences is on the wane. The standard of research in higher-learning institutions or universities is not yet fully developed. Hence, such bodies have to act as hubs of quality education and research, and centers of academic excellence in Eritrea, so as to develop quality human resources. For example, in a bid to develop human resources in the country, the Eritrean Center for Organizational Excellence (ECOE) provided training for 40 officials February 2007.

The Center was established in October 2006 with the following objectives: to offer a range of administrative training; to guide institutions toward performing more efficient services for their clients; to introduce necessary techniques to increase production.

Other of the ECOE's important goals are: to provide the necessary infrastructure and continuous effort to make the Center effective; to give high priority to the establishment of units by Center partners and clients, devoted to encouraging institutional competence and productivity; to prepare informational guidelines to accelerate training for institutional management and productivity; to conduct studies in collaboration with Center clients to make available training and up-grading related to the current situation; to publish a magazine to boost interested nationals' administrative skill knowledge-base; to create a Web site in whose development interested nationals can participate.

Despite such efforts, however, Eritrea is still grappling with poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, and disease. Although many diseases are under considerable control, Malaria, Tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS have emerged as serious public health problems.

In addition, about 66 percent of Eritreans live below the poverty line. Rural incomes have dwindled; farm households have become more prone to stress and insecurity. Farmers' low productivity and incomes call for rejuvenating agriculture, revamping cooperative institutions, and adopting programs for integrated rural development in the country.

Thus, Eritrea needs a process of development that promotes growth, not merely in terms of percentage increase in its Gross Domestic Product, but also brings about inclusive development - growth that uplifts the underprivileged and deprived - and alleviates poverty, bridging the gap between rich and poor. Eritrea also needs development to eradicate illiteracy and provide each individual with access to basic education, healthcare, and shelter.

The task is not easy. The supply of many goods in Eritrea has declined, whereas the demand has increased. The growing need to meet basic necessities with limited resources adds to the complexity of the challenge. But in the meantime, Eritrea is finding success in educating its people and sensitizing them as to the necessity of infrastructural development and the reconstruction process of the economy, under the umbrella of the Warsay Yikiallow Development Campaign.

Ultimately, programs of development should begin by addressing the needs of the poor. This approach, in which the most deprived receive foremost attention, should become integral to all programs of development and growth. There is also a need to improve the efficiency and management of the delivery of public goods and services in welfare programs.

Despite the seemingly endless challenges, Eritrea is working hard to realize its destiny of one day being a prosperous, strong, and developed nation.

Ravinder Rena is an Associate Professor of Economics at the Eritrea Institute of Technology. His two most recent books published by New Africa Press in December 2006 are: A Handbook on the Eritrean Economy: Problems and Prospects for Development, and, Financial Institutions in Eritrea. He may be contacted at:

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