(OPride) — The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa is facing a social media backlash for USAID’s role in the redesign of a new mother tongue reading curriculum in Ethiopia. Earlier this week Mohammed Ademo interviewed Nicholas Barnett, a spokesperson for the embassy. In part one of the interview, Mr. Barnett said USAID did not change the order of the Afaan Oromo alphabet and that there is still a room for discussion.
The embassy says while Qubee will be included in future publications of the book to avoid confusion, USAID’s understanding is that the alphabet is still being taught in schools. Mr. Barnett denied allegations of meddling in internal affairs and suggestions that the new curriculum is a “nefarious neocolonial project.” He emphasized that USAID is very proud of the project and they have a duty to correct “misinformation or misunderstood information.” Here is part two of their exchange, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Mohammed Ademo: Now let’s talk about the 2010 ERGA study. I think it forms the foundation for the READ program. Is there anything in that report where potentially redesigning the mother tongue reading curriculum using the alphabetic principle was recommended or discussed? Or were there subsequent studies that led to the curriculum change?
Nicholas Barnett: They are separate process. This process was developed specifically for this one task [to teach reading]. The USAID project [the READ program] was very narrow in scope. It was designed specifically to improve the reading curriculum for seven languages within Ethiopia. It did not extend beyond that and it doesn’t have anything to do with these other processes. So it’s very contained.
I do understand and I can see very clearly how worried people are about the idea of someone messing with their language. But I think someone who cares as much about their language as these folks clearly do, I hope that they would have an open mind and realize that giving their children the ability to read in their native language more effectively is one of the best ways to honor those languages. It’s one of the best ways to preserve them. I think your questions are helping to clarify in the sense that there’s been a lot of things said about processes that aren’t related to USAID’s work. There should be dialogue if people are concerned about whether the alphabet is being taught or not. But that’s not a question that we can answer, unfortunately. I also think, it is unfortunate, but this is a symptom of the overall frustration that people in Ethiopia are feeling with their current situation. We respect that but we do want to clarify that our project is completely unrelated with these other issues.
MA: Just to clarify, are you saying the question of whether the alphabet is being taught before the reading book is introduced is not one you can answer? All indications are that students are not being taught ABCD, and the first thing they learn in Grade 1 is LAGIM. Is this a concern for USAID? How are these children expected to learn to read without first recognizing the alphabet? Have you reached out to Oromia officials to check what the actual practice is on the ground?
NB: I don’t think the phrase “all indications” is accurate. The Oromia Regional Education Bureau has said publicly that the traditional alphabet is being taught prior to the introduction of the reading curriculum. As we have said previously, learning the alphabet is an important part of the education process. We also understand that language and the alphabet have strong cultural and historical importance in any language. If parents or others have concerns that the alphabet is not being taught—as the regional education bureau says it should be—they should inquire with a teacher, or other local or regional education officials.
MA: Again, just to be clear, are you saying that this new curriculum or the READ program is not related to the 2010 ERGA study?
NB: That program [the 2010 ERGA study] identified the issue which was low levels of literacy but it didn’t have an impact on the final formulation of this program. So the program was developed to address a need and that’s all.
MA: I’m looking at the recommendations of that study and obviously the government is holding that up as the reason why this change was made. In terms of challenges to learning and teaching in Ethiopia, the study identifies quality of teaching, availability of instructional resources, background of families, teachers and communities as well as lack of instructional support structures of classrooms. As far as I can tell, nowhere in that study does it say changing the teaching method alone would fix the literacy problem because there are these other variables like quality of instruction and lack of resources. I’m just not following the logic as to how we got to this point if indeed that study was the foundation for this change—but it doesn’t specifically mention or recommend the alphabetic principle or anything like that.
NB: That is because the purpose of that study was not to come up with the solutions. It was to identify the challenges. You’re right teaching method is only one of the challenges that education faces in Ethiopia but that’s the one that the USAID program tried to work with. So we wouldn’t expect that study to talk about alphabetic principle because it is the response to the problem of needing to improve teaching methods. Alphabetic principle is a teaching method that’s used in the United States and other places around the world. It’s been proven to be effective at helping children read. So I think it’s the idea that this should all flow together—that one study should recommend this exact course of action is not correct. It’s not a logical assumption. The study was designed to find out what are the problems, what are the challenges to early education in Ethiopia. It did that and then USAID in partnership with the Ministry of Education worked to come up with a proposed solution to one aspect of that. And that’s the aspect of teaching method which is where we brought in the idea of the alphabetic principle because again that’s what is being used in the U.S. so successfully.
MA: To follow up on that last bit, you’ve made repeated references to the alphabetic principle, particularly how it is being used “so successfully” in the United States. Is there a danger in assuming—without due considerations for the local context—that a given model or system (e.g., democracy or teaching method) will be universally applicable? Or was the alphabet principle customized to fit the Ethiopian context? Does RTI have any experience applying this system in non-western context or in countries that use Roman alphabet but where English is not official language (e.g., as in Anglophone Africa)?
NB: The underlying principles of the method—improving reading skills by introducing letter-sounds in a way that enables the students to read more words, more quickly is the common factor. But the process of determining the best method for a specific language is very local. It was not just customized to the Ethiopian context, but to each of the seven languages included in the project. RTI has experience in a variety of environments, but they were also joined by curriculum development experts and native-tongue instruction experts from regional education bureaus in each of the languages. Their proposals were further reviewed by teams of local stakeholders including elders, religious leaders, cultural officials, teachers and others before being finally accepted by the regional education bureaus.
MA: I have about two more questions then I’ll let you guys go. First, I wanted to ask you about a software called Primer Pro. I believe it is an open-source software that was developed by MIT or a similar American institution. We run a test using that software and we used some 300,000 Oromo words and phrases, and tried different approaches, it doesn’t turn up the alphabets in the same order of frequency as they are shown in the new Grade 1 books. Was the USAID involved in that experiment and how many words and terms were analyzed? And I’d appreciate it if you might be able to share the results of that experiment.
NB: Thank you for bringing that up because we’ve seen some other groups who have claimed to have run similar tests and come up with different results. It’s very hard to compare the results when we don’t know the methodology that others are using. We can send you by email some more information about how the test was conducted for this program. But it’s also important to realize that there are actually five criteria that are looked at beyond the frequency of the sound and we can provide that to you any by email as well.
I guess maybe in some ways this is our mistake because we’re trying to explain a very complex process very simply so that people will understand. But it isn’t a simple process and so in an effort to try to focus on this idea of what are called high context sounds, which is the official terminology, it’s not the same as most frequently used, but high context is not something that people will readily understand. So we’re struggling a little bit I’ll admit to explain a very complicated process in a forum like social media or in an interview but one of the other things that we’re going to try to do is maybe see if we can find someone who is an expert on this teaching method. Not someone who has anything to do with this particular program and we’ll see if we can get them involved to explain in more detail for people who want to know how the process works. But we’ll send you a follow-up message that gives a little bit more information about the process for this and the five criteria that are used which hopefully can help in your reporting.
It’s a real challenge to explain to people who aren’t familiar with the teaching methodology or the testing methodology—how it works. I know for myself, I’ve had to take a crash course just to get this much information and to be able to help explain it. But again there’s a lot of literature available for anyone who wants to do the research about the alphabetic principle and how it works.
Again, there aren’t necessarily simple answers to how the process worked in terms of coming up with the formula for the curriculum but I think what’s important given the amount of anger and concern that we’re seeing is to know that at no time has been an attempt to change the alphabet or the structure of the language and that’s the message that has to get through all of this clutter. You’re right, I think there have been mistakes in how it was presented.
MA: In some ways, I sympathize with your situation because as I said earlier the government obviously has a trust issue with the people. And Afaan Oromo is very sensitive. I hope you have read up on the historic, cultural and political background on how Qubee was chosen and adopted in 1991 and the debate and the studies that went into it. It is a very contentious issue.
For many years a segment of the Ethiopian political elite campaigned relentlessly to make sure that Qubee is abolished. Therefore, the Geez script would be used write Afaan Oromo. This is the historical backdrop which created the perception that there are some Habeshas who are sitting behind your keyboard, basically typing or telling you what to type. But I also want to emphasize that this is not going away. The government’s approach and effort at explaining is clearly backfiring. I’m interested in getting as clear a picture as I can for myself butt also hopefully help other people who are willing to take a look. This is clearly a huge investment for all of you guys.
NB: I appreciate that. I would say we are aware but I am also personally aware of the pain that has been felt in this country particularly among the Afaan Oromo speaking people but also among other ethnic groups not just over history but even more recently. I have paid close attention to what people are saying in terms of their views on the heritage of the Afaan Oromo language and we are very sensitive to that. Here at the U.S. Embassy, we have said many times before and I’ll say it again—there are a number of legitimate grievances that Ethiopian people have that still need to be addressed. We are still trying to encourage efforts to address those concerns and those needs. So I understand why there’s this lack of trust and I understand why there’s this anger and I understand why there is this willingness to believe incorrect information about this particular program. It’s all very understandable.
But I also think we have a duty when there is misinformation or misunderstood information to help try to correct it so that people can focus on the issues that are ongoing. If there was an attack on any language we would stand against it. But this is not an attack on any language—not from USAID, not through this program.
In terms of the Facebook information, I can tell you that more often than not it’s me behind the keyboard. There’s no one sitting behind me and no one tells me what to write. I find the facts and I share them as best I can because it’s important to me to have a dialogue with Ethiopian people. I want them to know that they can come to our Facebook page with their concerns, with their fears, with their anger and share it and that someone’s listening and that someone will try to respond as best we can. I won’t put information out if I’m not convinced it’s accurate. If I find out that information that I had before is not correct, I’ll change it. For example, even since yesterday, we’ve evolved in our approach to take into consideration the simple request that the full Afaan Oromo alphabet be in these books. We’re working to make that happen.
MA: On that note, there’s been a lot of accusations about U.S. meddling in Ethiopia’s internal affairs and that the U.S. Embassy is being an apologist for incompetent local officials. Why did the U.S. Embassy (not USAID Ethiopia) decide to clarify this issue? Were you asked (enlisted) by the Ethiopian government or the Ministry of Education or Oromia Education Bureau to step in and try to clarify things or calm tensions?
NB: The U.S. Embassy represents the United States Government, including USAID and all other agencies present here in Ethiopia. We have been answering questions posed to us about the USAID READ program, which is working to improve literacy for children in seven native tongue languages in Ethiopia. We were not asked by anyone else to do this. While we welcome the chance to answer honest questions, we are concerned by the efforts of some to misrepresent the goals of the program and encourage violence, which will not help anyone.
The United States cares about Ethiopia. It is in our interest for Ethiopia to succeed. We want Ethiopia to be a strong partner whether it’s in trade or in regional security. And we believe strongly that in order to achieve that goal, Ethiopia must make progress on democratization and respect for human rights. These are inextricable pillars of our policy and we don’t sacrifice one for the other and along that line we believe that education is going to be a core goal to achieving that democratic progress.
Ethiopians need to be educated they need to be able to read and write. They need to be able to think critically so that they can make well-informed decisions about their country’s future. Don’t get me wrong here, a reading program by itself isn’t going to solve everything or maybe even anything. But it’s a step in the right direction. We continue to be open to questions so that we can focus on the real impact of this program and not the misunderstandings about what it does and doesn’t do.
MA: Finally, how do you respond to charges that you are engaging in neocolonialism and that Oromo experts, parents and other stakeholders were not consulted when the curriculum was redesigned? I know you pointed to international experts from RTI but I assume they are non-Oromos. And so far all indications are that the Oromo experts involved in this effort are affiliated with the government (therefore not independent).
NB: This is simply a program to help children achieve improved literacy in their native languages. We achieve the best results when we work together; sharing what has worked elsewhere, incorporating local context and expertise, and then implementing the results. There will always be room for improvement, and our hope is that all stakeholders; parents, teachers, administrators, officials and concerned community members will continue an open discussion based on facts rather than fears. Because we all have a shared stake in achieving a better future that includes all Ethiopians and every language they speak. I really appreciate your time and your openness to hear our perspective and get the information from us. I look forward to working with you in the future.
MA: Likewise, thank you very much for making the time!