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“Ethiopians can expect to live longer than the average citizen in Sub-Saharan Africa”

“Ethiopians can expect to live longer than the average citizen in Sub-Saharan Africa”

Alisa Kaps

Alisa Kaps, a researcher at the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, was in Ethiopia last week, releasing a timely report titled: “From Land of Famine to Land of Hope” Will Ethiopia Become a Model for an African Upswing.  Here she reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on the highlights of the report, on the recent reforms that are taking place within the nation, on its progress and on the era of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). Excerpts:

The Reporter: On Thursday, you helped present a study in Addis Ababa. Share with me the highlights of the report? 

Alisa Kaps: In a nutshell the study shows that Ethiopia has made some good progress in three main development areas, which are health, education and jobs or rather income generation. Of course, all these improvements happened from a low base of development but they have an important effect: they triggered a very fast decline in fertility rates. While in the 1990s a woman in Ethiopia had on average seven children, today they only have about 4.

This is still a high level, but it gives hope that fertility rates will further decline in the future. If that happens Ethiopia will not only experience a slowdown in population growth in the long run but – and that is more important within a shorter time frame – it will also experience a change in the age structure of its population. While until today a small working age population has to provide for a high number of children, in the future the picture will look differently because of the fertility decline. While todays big youth cohorts will grow into working age, the number of children they need to provide for will become smaller.

We call this age structure a demographic bonus. In other world regions – especially in Asia – this bonus has set the stage for strong socioeconomic development. Countries there reaped the so-called demographic dividend. Assuming fertility rates further decline and pre-conditions such as good education and availability of jobs are met, Ethiopia has the chance to reap this dividend in the future as well.

The report is described as "a framework of fostering knowledge sharing and strengthening evidence-based information for advocacy and policy dialogue on population and development matters in the country". Tell me about that?

Population growth is probably one of the most important challenges that Africa faces in the future.  So, it is important to exchange knowledge about measures and reforms that can help to overcome this challenge. On the one hand Ethiopia can learn from international research that has been conducted on population development in other world regions such as e.g. Asia, Latin America and North Africa, which are ahead of Ethiopia in its demographic development. At the same time the experiences in Ethiopia could be helpful for other Sub-Saharan African countries in finding tools to cope with high population growth. For helping African countries to prepare for this challenge it is important to expand policy dialogue on this issue in general.

The report highlights how Ethiopia is one of the world’s least developed nations but, in the last two decades, it has made “extraordinary” progress. What do you think are some of these progresses?

Progress has been made in several areas such as the health and the education sector and the economy as a whole. That is because there have been targeted measures in these areas aiming for an improvement of people’s livelihood. Ethiopia’s Health Extension Program for example improved access to health services and family planning all over the country which was important to reduce child and maternal mortality and for containing infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV. One proof that the health strategy had a positive impact is the increase in life expectancy in Ethiopia: Since the turn of the millennium life expectancy has increased by almost one year annually to a total of 64 years today. So Ethiopians can expect to live longer than the average citizen in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the education sector there have been improvements as well. Back in 1990 Ethiopia had one of the lowest levels of primary enrolment worldwide. But since there have been strong investments in education, enrolment levels have increased four-fold since then to more than 80 percent. Especially access for girls has improved. While in 2000, seven out of ten girls between the ages of nine and twelve had never set foot in a school, by 2016 that number had decreased to two.

Last but not least Ethiopia has achieved strong economic growth during the last two decades with annual growth rates of more than 10 percent between 2004 and 2016. This is among several factors also due to considerable achievements in agriculture, which has always been the backbone of Ethiopia’s economy and also its development strategy.

By improving access to fertilizer and improved seeds, by training farmers how to use them and by setting up the network of development agents, agricultural productivity has increased in Ethiopia. Grain yields have more than doubled since the 1990s for example. Today Ethiopian farmers have the highest yields for cereals and pulses in the whole of East Africa. In 2016 their production per capita was actually twice as high as in neighboring Kenya. Of course, there are still a lot of challenges in all these sectors, but overall Ethiopia has been doing very well compared to other African countries.

In terms of the recent reforms taking hold in Ethiopia under the era of Abiy Ahmed, what has given you hope that Ethiopia is ready and willing to turn the tide of a slew of challenges that has defined it for generations?

The appointment of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister has revived hope that Ethiopia will be able to continue on its positive development path. I would say the prime minister’s first acts so far inspire confidence that he will introduce necessary reforms, especially in the economic sector. These are urgent in order to speed up job creation, because at the moment the number of people of working age is growing faster than jobs can be created for them. This leaves Ethiopia’s youth, which is becoming more and more educated and which has high aspirations, with a lack of future prospects.

Making peace with Ethiopia’s long-time enemy Eritrea was of course another factor to raise hope, because this is an important step to improve political stability within the Horn of Africa and beyond. By this Ethiopia’s role as a stabilizer in the region is strengthened. But for long-term stability intra-Ethiopian conflicts need to be resolved as well which a challenge remains until today.

Another smart choice the Prime Minister has made in my opinion is appointing more women in his new cabinet. By this he rewards women’s contributions to national development and gives hope that remaining challenges in relation to gender can be overcome in the future. Furthermore, it is also a strong sign for all girls and young women in Ethiopia for whom the new ministers as well as president Sahle-Work Zewde can be important role models. Empowering girls is important to sustain Ethiopia’s fertility decline and thereby for the countries development as a whole.

This is a partnership of Berlin Institute of Populations and Development, with financial contributions of the development aid of Germany and Austria. Tell me about that? 

The study was funded by the Austrian Development Cooperation with funds from the Austrian Development Cooperation. In addition, the German Investment and Development Cooperation (DEG) and GfK Verein provided financial support as well. The launch on Thursday however was made possible by a cooperation of the German Embassy, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Embassy of Austria. I’m really grateful for their efforts and I was also really happy to get the change to come back to Ethiopia for this event – thanks to financial support from ifa (InstitutfürAuslandsbeziehungen).

It was really overwhelming to see how many people took an interest in the outcomes of the study and showed up for the event. Even Minister of Plan and Development Commission Fitsum Assefa (PhD) was there to discuss the topic. Overall, I think it was a good opportunity to stress the importance of population development for Ethiopia’s future development and for talking about measures and reforms that are urgent to sustain Ethiopia’s progress.