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Past Editorial : July 2018

July 2018


Unleashing the Forces of the Ethiopian Intellectual Diaspora

Damtew Teferra is Professor of Higher Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and Founding Director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is Founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA). He may be reached at teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu


The Ethiopian political landscape is unraveling with breath-taking speed. To mention a few recent developments: Bitter rivals of the government have declared a cessation of hostilities, and some have moved back home. Thousands of political prisoners, and key political leaders, have been released. The infamous state of emergency has been lifted. Banned media houses based overseas have moved to the country. Critical internet-based news media and blogs were unblocked. The rapprochement with rival Eritrea has started. New economic policies have been unveiled. Prominent academics that were imprisoned and dismissed have been reinstated to their universities – in just three months!

Human Capital

According to the BBC, Ethiopia’s global diaspora is estimated to number two million, with the largest number in the United States, totaling anything from 250,000 to about a million. Some even put this figure as high as three million.

A large proportion of the Ethiopian Diaspora resides in the US, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, with the most influential – and vocal – located on the East and West coasts of the US and Canada. The United Kingdom and Germany also host a sizeable Ethiopian community as do South Africa, Kenya and the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE. Israel is home to hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian Jews known as bete-Israel (House of Israel), or in Ethiopia as felashas.

The Golden Goose

The Ethiopian diaspora is the golden goose of the country’s economy. According to a study on “Scaling up Formal Remittances to Ethiopia” (2017), remittances to the country amounted to a quarter of its foreign exchange earnings in 2016. Indeed, over ten months of 2016, remittances exceeded overall export earnings and total remittances for that year were estimated between USD 3.7 and 4 billion.

However, the study found that, in the Middle East and South Africa, undocumented migrants face challenges in sending money home through formal channels. Of the estimated 1.2 million migrants in the Middle East and 200,000 in South Africa, 90 percent are likely to be remitting informally to Ethiopia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that USD 590 million was remitted from Saudi Arabia alone, where some 750,000 Ethiopians are believed to live, while around USD 158 million was recorded from migrants in South Africa.

The study further indicated that as much as 78 percent of remittances are transmitted informally, considerably raising the total figure. The total amount can thus be estimated at a staggering USD 7 to 8 billion. This figure compares with what Ethiopia anticipates earning from crude oil extraction that is expected to generate USD 8 billion when it becomes fully operational in a couple of years.

To put this in perspective, according to 2013 data, it is estimated that Ethiopia received an average of $3.5 billion from international development partners in recent years, representing 50 to 60 percent of its national budget. Remittances from the diaspora are thus twice this amount, calling for a systematic approach to harness this resource.

The campaign launched by diaspora groups to stop remittances through formal and official channels in order to deprive the government of foreign currency has just been lifted. It deprived the country of billions of dollars in foreign exchange and is cited as the cause of the current major foreign currency deficit.

The Potential of the Intellectual Diaspora

In my piece on Unleashing the Forces of the Diaspora: Capitalizing on Brain Drain in the Era of Information and Communication Technologies in 2003, I noted that:

The potential of scholastic benefits from the Diaspora community can only be gauged by the staggering statistics on the size and quality of educated community members abroad many of whom pursue an academic and scholarly profession as university professors, researchers, engineers, medical doctors, and high-level technicians. For instance, in the US alone, one in two African Diaspora has a university degree. The need to mobilize this potentially powerful force goes beyond the economic benefits discussed earlier; it is important in stimulating and catalyzing home-based academic and scholarly institutions.

I went on to state that:

There are numerous ways in which this potential can and is being explored. These include joint research initiatives, exchange programs, sabbatical stays, sponsorship and mentoring of select departments, events, and students, establishing endowment, and sending to institutions published resources such as highly required journals and books. The intellectual Diaspora can serve as a powerful force in the integration of the home country institutions to the center of the knowledge capital at host country. Joint research initiatives and joint publication opportunities stimulate and inspire the academic and research community at home to undertake research and publish their work. The joint publication opportunity presents researchers at home to be more exposed to international community of researchers in the field.

Ethiopia has more than 40 public and 130 private universities and colleges as well as numerous institutions and organizations – with a long list of dire needs – where the intellectual diaspora could play a vital role in building centers of excellence.

The Reality and the Experience

According to a study on African flagship universities, Addis Ababa University has graduated more than 100,000 graduates since it was founded in the 1950s. This highlights the potential of the Ethiopian intellectual diaspora that was trained at home and abroad.

The country has been beset by massive brain drain for over 30 years. The intellectual diaspora in particular has been poorly tapped due to inauspicious socio-political circumstances. For instance, most academic staff in the mathematics and physics departments in Addis Ababa University (many of whom are its alumni) have migrated and many now hold positions in the US, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere. The same can be said of Haramaya University, one of the first generation universities.

There are, however, a few positive examples. The Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association and its medical and surgical missions have benefitted thousands of Ethiopians free of charge. Jimma University’s Alumni association has actively mobilized graduates from around the world. Ad hoc initiatives have also been reported by a few dedicated alumni of Addis Ababa University.

A systematic and well-coordinated campaign to attract and deploy this (now highly) motivated intellectual group to help build the country’s academic and research capacity could not be more timely. Relevant ministries, such as Education, Science and Technology, Foreign Affairs, embassies, universities, research entities, and others need to take a proactive role in coordinating and mobilizing this untapped resource. Existing offices and efforts, such as Alliance for Brain Gain and Innovative Development (ABIDE), and the Diaspora Affairs Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are now in a better position to ride the tide. Moreover, academic institutions need to open and consolidate alumni offices, possibly headed or governed by senior, active and esteemed alumni.

Development Partners

The new political and economic path espoused by the Ethiopian government has been widely lauded by many, including major regional and international development partners. It is imperative that the country capitalize on this upbeat ambience at a time when it needs all the support it can garner to advance socio-economic development.

Major efforts to harness the intellectual diaspora include the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP), funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York that offers opportunities to African-born academics in the US and Canada to undertake research collaboration, graduate student teaching/mentoring and curriculum co-development in six English-speaking Universities in Africa.

A visit by a high-level Ethiopian delegation to such foundations is one approach, not only to lobby for increased resources for the initiative but also to draw lessons from current practices that these organizations support. The role of the Ethiopian diaspora who work in such institutions to initiate, support and steer the initiative is paramount.

The Tension

Mobilizing the academic diaspora need to take cognizance of the emotive dimension of those who decided to stay in the country. In my article cited above, I noted that mobilizing the academic diaspora is fraught with envy, jealousy, rivalry, suspicion, animosity, and competition with fellow home-bound academics. Observers attribute these challenges to the marginalization of these academics from key national development dialogues while the diaspora appear to have been given more prominence.

Resentment of the perceived and real privileges of the diaspora remains a sore public relations issue in a number of countries, and Ethiopia is no exception. This calls for meticulous planning and heightened public relations engagements to ensure the success of the initiative. Deployment of the intellectual diaspora needs to be couched as a national duty rather than an avenue of privilege.

While a fairly large number of the intellectual diaspora, mainly of retirement age, have returned to Ethiopia, they have yet to be visible in their engagement. Alongside home-bound academics and professionals – both active and retired – they could be a formidable force in advancing the country’s academic, social, economic, cultural and political development. This is also an opportune time to bring on board those who have been aggrieved, self-excluded, and purged to fully deploy their expertise, experience, resources and networking skills.


At this auspicious point in its history, Ethiopia has a glorious opportunity to deploy its intellectuals, academics and scholars both at home and abroad and it is anticipated that current developments will rekindle the spirit and vigor of the academic, intellectual and all creative institutions in the country.

This unprecedented opportunity needs to be urgently capitalized via effective and prudent deployment of the intellectual diaspora as well as those that were marginalized at home.

In the same way that the government is endeavoring to harness its natural resources, it is time to strategically deploy its enormous untapped human capital. Indeed, these endeavors are inextricably intertwined.


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