Netsanet Demewoz, Country Director of the British Council
Netsanet Demewoz is the first Ethiopian Country Director of the British Council in Ethiopia. Prior to that, he was the Director of Education for Sub-Saharan Africa at the British Council, responsible for leading and oversight of the organization’s work in education in more than 20 Sub-Saharan African countries. Between 2014 and 2018, he led the UK government’s education technical assistance program for Ethiopia. Netsanet is educated in Ethiopia and the UK, and is an educator by profession and has taught in schools and colleges before joining the British Council.
Sisay Sahlu of The Reporter sat with Netsanet to discuss issues regarding the role of the British Council in Ethiopia for the past 75 years. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are the first Ethiopian country director of the British council. Can you tell me about yourself?
Netsanet Demewoz: Yeah, I am currently the Country Director of the British Council in Ethiopia. You are right that I am the first Ethiopian Country Director.
The British Council is a cultural relations organization and we do connect people in the UK with people in other countries. We are a diverse and truly international organization. In the case of Ethiopia, we have got a very multinational and dynamic team. We have got British citizens as well as Ethiopians, Kenyans and Zambians as part of our team.
We allow staff to move around to take on different positions and the country director is no different. Perhaps what makes my appointment slightly different is, this position has never been occupied by a non-British person so far. Otherwise, we value people as an organization and we endeavor to place them where they can make the most difference. I believe that is exactly what happened with my appointment. I have been in the role for just over a year now and I love it. I’m also very grateful for the opportunity.
What are the key organizational roles of the Council?
The Council is the UK’s international agency for cultural relations and education. Our basic mission is to try and connect the people of the UK with people in other countries. So, we create connections and we enable exchanges. We believe, through that we can create understanding and that understanding will eventually lead to trust. That is what the British council does and we call these cultural relations.
Which segments of culture does the British Council weigh more?
As you know culture is a broad concept. But, the British council focuses on three areas. The first pillar is the English language. We believe that the English language is no longer the sole property of the UK. It has become a global asset and it is such a useful tool for international exchange. So, we, for example, work with governments in different countries to improve the quality of English language teaching and learning in schools and universities.
Then there is also the work that we do with individuals who want to improve their English. For example, in Ethiopia, we have got a vibrant teaching center, where individuals such as staff working in different companies, University students, and anyone who wants to improve their English, can come and do their English language courses.
We believe by offering the opportunity to study English with us, we are helping people realize their full potential whilst also setting a standard for high quality English language teaching.
We also provide English language tests and examination services. We administer IELTS, the world’s most popular English language proficiency test, in Ethiopia. This test allows people to travel abroad and attend international universities. Once again, by offering the opportunity to do the exam, we are supporting young Ethiopians to realize their international ambitions. But, I have to underscore the point that we are not in the business of pushing the English language.
At the core of our English language work is multilingualism. For example, if you look at the work that we do with the government of Ethiopia at the moment, it is to enable teachers to teach English better. But, it is also about how we teach English alongside other languages because English thrives alongside other languages. We celebrate and support multilingualism.
The second pillar is education. We work with schools, universities and also in the non-formal education sector, providing various skills training to young people. For example, you know that education systems vary from country to country. But there is quite a lot that is common to all education systems. By linking Ethiopian schools with their counterparts in the UK and other African countries, we support them to explore common areas of interest and advance global citizenship.
You might have seen an art exhibition we recently had at the Entoto Park. The art exhibition was the culmination of a three-year partnership between six schools in Ethiopia and six schools in the UK around Liverpool. The common theme of that partnership was rivers and pollution. There is a big river in Liverpool. So, students in those schools in the UK were studying the pollution rate in their local river, what can be done, what their contribution should be etc. Our schools here, we had few in Addis, Bishoftu and Bahir Dar, where they explored the rivers around their localities, and shared information.
As they explored the theme further, they exchanged notes and learnt about each other’s culture. With the support of their teachers, they captured what they learnt, their aspirations and messages in a creative way through different art forms. It was a fantastic collection of art work that resulted from an international collaboration among primary school students. It is unbelievable what children can do if their talent is nurtured properly.
Similarly, we link up Ethiopian universities with their UK counterparts to work on staff development, joint projects, collaborative researches, etc. We also work quite extensively on building the skills of young people who might not necessarily be in schools or universities. For example, a few months ago, we partnered with the Ministry of Peace to train 10,000 young volunteers.
The third strand of our work is arts and culture. As you know arts and culture is a big component of culture and we have been supporting, for example, the creative industry in Ethiopia for a few years now. Young people, who are creative, have great ideas, but who do not know how to develop these ideas into proper, sustainable businesses were supported through our various art projects.
The support could be in the form of coaching and mentoring, providing work spaces, stable free internet, access to information and markets and most importantly, connection with similar artists outside of Ethiopia.
Our arts and culture work also covers the heritage sector. It is very unfortunate that one of our heritage projects, which try to benefit the local community around the Geralta Mountains in Tigray, didn’t go as planned because of the conflict.
Speaking about the English language, the quality of English language teaching does not seem to be up to par. How do you see the contribution of the British Council in teaching the language in Ethiopia?
I mean I do share your concern that the quality of English language teaching has not been up to standard, and in fact, many people would argue that the quality has gone down over the years.
There is truth in this statement. But, I believe what we see in English is the reflection of the overall challenge we have around the quality of education in the country. The problem may be more pronounced in English, but I believe there are fundamental issues with the quality of education at all levels in Ethiopia. But, focusing on English in particular, I think it is a sum total of several issues; the quality of teaching; availability of resources, exposure to the language, etc.
Now, in terms of whether or not we have done enough, maybe we have not done enough. As you know, Ethiopia is a huge and diverse country and the education sector itself is so massive. Trying to ensure quality across 45,000 + schools is a tough job. We have got around 700,000 teachers and making sure the quality of all these teachers is up to standard, is a very tough job. The sheer size of what needs to be done in itself is a challenge.
But, I can mention three things we are doing to contribute to improving the quality of English language teaching.
One is our teaching center. I know it is not a big teaching center and people have to pay for the services. So, it is not for everyone. But, the whole point of having the teaching center is to provide an alternative, high quality English language learning experience and in the process, showcase how English can be taught communicatively.
Secondly, we offer free language learning resources in our websites for both teachers and learners. If you are looking for high quality English language learning materials, you can go to our website, https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org. If you go in there, you will find rich resources for kids, teenagers, adults, and professionals. All that is required from you is to have access to good quality internet.
Having a good internet connection is a challenge. One thing we are trying to do is come up with a platform that will still need some internet but is not that data-heavy. That work is going on at the moment and will enhance accessibility for language learners where connectivity is an issue.
We are also working with the Addis Ababa English Language Teachers Association. Through that association, we are providing support for English language teachers and we are trying to provide development opportunities for them.
The third and most notable contribution we have is the work that we have been doing with the Ministry of Education. We work closely with them to improve the quality of language learning resources, the quality of teacher training, etc. We believe it is this piece of work which has the best chance of addressing the more fundamental issues we have around quality English language teaching and learning.
As you said earlier, English is a global language. Do you think the Ethiopian government has to devise new ways of teaching English language?
That is right; a lot has to be done. I believe having a holistic approach is the way to approach the issue since quality English in the classroom will not fix the problem. Because, if you look at our English-language provision in schools for Primary School students, learning a maximum of maybe four classes a week is not going to be enough.
So, there is a lot more that needs to be done even outside of schools and outside of the English language classroom itself to be able to expose students to high-quality English language. That’s why, for example, when Covid-19 struck, we worked with ‘yeEthiopia Lijoch television’ to put out, high-quality English language resources for children. We hope to be able to continue that work as we have now finalized the production of a 20-episode animation of Ethiopian folktales from different parts of the country.
So, trying to give children exposure to English as much as possible along with good quality English language, and teaching inside the classroom, could be the solution going forward.
Nowadays some people are shifting their focus from English to learn the Chinese language. Do you think it is a threat to the English language?
It’s interesting. I say interesting because, there is work that we are doing in Africa at the moment and Ethiopia will be represented in that work. So, just to take you back to 2000, the British Council commissioned a global research to see the future of English. That was a time when the Chinese language, Mandarin, was really becoming strong and some people felt that it was a threat to English.
The research report was very revealing in many ways. A few years later, the same study was repeated. The report came out in a form of a book titled ‘the future of English’ by David Graddol. It is a very interesting read and I recommend it. What it concludes is basically that Mandarin is not a threat to English. The world is becoming a lot more multilingual than before. So, let alone for Mandarin and English, the report concluded that there is even a space for other languages.
But that was back in 2005 and 2010 and now we are in 2021. So, the British Council has decided to do the study again and see how the landscape may have changed particularly in Africa. To this end, we have invited policy makers, prominent thinkers and academia to a series of consultations and roundtables. Ethiopia will be represented and we look forward to publishing the report before the end of the year. But I bet the main conclusions will be the same as the David Graddol report. Multilingualism will feature prominently.
A few years back, there was a famous British Council Library in Addis Ababa. What happened to the library?
So, we no longer run the library. About 10 years ago, we took the decision to decommission the library and give the books to the National Archives Library Agency of Ethiopia (NALA). There were several reasons for the decision.
We knew the library was popular. We knew people really loved it. It was more than a library for many people, but strategically, we had to make a decision because even in its peak period, the library used to have a maximum of about 10,000 members. So, the challenge for the British council was not that we doubted the importance of the library for Ethiopians. But, our challenge was serving only about 10,000 Ethiopians was not good enough.
As you know the Ethiopian population is now over 110 million. We can’t be satisfied with serving 10,000 people and we had to find other ways of extending those services and function to millions. So the decision was taken to transfer all our knowledge and skills and all our collections to the NALA, which is a government agency that is mandated to run libraries. So, we trained them and gave them the collection. Then we worked with them for five years, to make sure that it is a smooth transition of skills as well as knowledge; not just books.
And we embarked on various programs, which enabled us to engage with millions of young Ethiopians. For example, last year, we had an engagement with over two million young people, compared to the 10,000.
Even though we don’t run a library, last year alone, we, for example, trained close to 10,000 teachers in English, skills training, and digital training, adding to the work we did with the Ministry of Peace to reach 10,000 young people. We run probably the biggest civil society support work in Ethiopia. We work with 150 Civil Society organizations in Ethiopia.
So, we have gone bigger. But, because the library was iconic in so many ways, people may feel that, with the library gone, not much is left of the British council. But, I tell you that we have gone bigger and became a lot more accessible.
How is the Council closely working with the government of Ethiopia?
So, in terms of our status, we are a registered charity in the UK. We are called an arms-length organization. We are not part of the UK government, but we work very closely with the government.
Now in Ethiopia, we operate through a bilateral agreement signed between the government of Ethiopia and the government of the UK. Our bilateral agreement allows us to work with the government of Ethiopia and most importantly the people of Ethiopia.
As I said at the beginning, our main mission is to enhance the people-to-people relationships of the two countries. Yes, the government is a very important stakeholder for us, but our primary stakeholders are the people of Ethiopia and the UK. However, we don’t change when, for example, governments change. We don’t necessarily shift our priorities when government priorities shift from time to time. Mind you, we have been in existence nearly 85 years globally and close to 80 years in Ethiopia and as you can imagine there has been so much change during this period. But, our core mission of facilitating friendly relations between the people of the UK and the people of Ethiopia has remained throughout.
Can you tell me some of the success stories of the British Council in Ethiopia?
I can give you several examples of some of the work we have done over the years. I can start with the General Wingate School. Upon the request of the Emperor, we helped set up the school and run it for several years.
A number of postgraduate programs, and definitely the English language program at the Addis Ababa University, were opened with the support of UK institutions, facilitated by the British Council. If you look at some of the big movers and shakers in Ethiopia, be it in politics, in business, in Civil Society, in arts and etc. quite a number of them benefited from the British Council managed scholarships. These vary from heads of state to party leaders, to big business leaders and the like. They did their Masters and PhD in the UK through British Council facilitated scholarships.
I can also mention another pioneer work we have done in Ethiopia. I want to argue that the first internet cafe was set up by the British Council, when the internet was such a rare thing. We set up mini Libraries in Lalibela, Gondar and Aksum as information centers to help provide information to tourists and the local community.
More recently, we worked with the Ethiopian military to enhance the interoperability of Ethiopian troops on UN and AU peace keeping missions. We set up peace keeping English language centers at various locations, built-up training capacity and equipped the centers with rich learning resources. The impact of that work over a period of a decade is that repatriation of Ethiopian troops reduced significantly and Ethiopia became one of the largest troop contributors to the UN and AU peace keeping missions.
In terms of school education, we work with the Ministry of Education and Regional Education Bureaus to support the various education reform works. A few years back, we supported the ten years Education Road Map. It involved a whole system diagnosis of the sector. That was followed by a rigorous target setting exercise. Finally, key strategies were developed to guide implementation of the various reforms that were necessary to achieve the targets. We provided both technical and financial support to that initiative and we are proud that the Road Map is serving as a comprehensive guiding document, ensuring consistency and interconnectedness among the various reform initiatives.
Another program worthy of mention is the Civil Society Support Program, which is mainly funded by the governments of the UK, Norway, Sweden and Ireland. This program builds the capacity of civil society organizations, so that they are able to play their part in the democratization process of the country and also in creating open societies.
And I think it has been one of the largest civil society support programs in the country and we are very proud of being the lead organization running that program alongside our consortium partners.
I think I can go on mentioning many more examples. But, increasingly our focus now is on young people, because we believe the potential of young people.
Recently, the Council announced seven young Ethiopian candidates to speak at the upcoming climate summit in the UK. Tell me about this project.
So, at the moment, our focus is on young people because we believe that opportunities are really important as people’s futures are defined by the kind and quality of opportunities they get.
We believe that, as the British council, we can do our share by creating opportunities for young people to unlock their potential and realize their dreams, through creating that opportunity for them and also through building their capacities and amplifying their voices.
As you know, the UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow from October 31–November12, 2021, and there will be 30,000 representatives in Glasgow in that week. Often times, in these big events, the chances of young people and ordinary people getting their voices heard is very limited, So, what we have been trying to do was basically try to run a number of programs, where we encourage young people to engage in climate change discussions and share their concerns, views, and experiences of what they are trying to do at their own local levels. We will then endeavor to make sure that these views of young people are reflected in the Glasgow conference, we call that creating opportunities.
Those selected seven people, who spoke in that online seminar in the previous week, have got big ideas, and they are really active in that space. We really wanted to connect them with the UK Prime Minister’s high-level climate action Champion and the UN high-level climate champion. These champions will certainly be in Glasgow and will speak. By linking them up with these active young people in Ethiopia, we are asking them to reflect their ideas, concerns and ambitions on their behalf.
Can you imagine what it means to a young Ethiopian to have audience with a global champion for an hour? It’s incredible. And we are proud we made it possible together with our partners.
What are the Future plans of the British council?
We are in the core business of creating connections and our main task is to create many opportunities to many young Ethiopians in the coming years. We want to create these opportunities for young people across the country and not only in big cities. We also want to create diverse opportunities in the three focus areas of our work – English, education and arts and culture.
We will look to partner with government, organizations and individuals who can work with us to realize this ambition.
So, for example, this month we will be signing a memorandum of understanding with five universities to make our IELTS examination accessible in the regions. Similarly, we are partnering with government and private media companies to broadcast some of our English language resources. We will continue to do so.