by Charlie Teller, Bixby visiting scholar
Teaching an entire semester’s graduate course in three weeks at the end of the academic year seemed a dubious task under normal conditions. But teaching it at the end of Ethiopia’s long dry season with shortages of electricity and water, not to mention scarcity of recent publications and slow internet speed in the mountainous capital city of Addis Ababa, made it even more challenging.
I had taught at the Flagship University of Addis Ababa’s Institute of Population Studies for four years in the mid-to-late 1990s, and served as external thesis examiner off and on since then, but now the government really needed more Ph.D demographers as it greatly increased its student intake in higher education, even pushing to start a Ph.D program on top of an already overstretched masters degree program.
In one of the poorest countries in the world, with 13 million food insecure, the second largest population in Africa (nearly 80 million), and an annual population growth rate around 2.6 percent, we discussed theories of population and development and debated models of the demographic transition. In a secret ballot early on in the course, I was not surprised to find out most of the 22 mature graduate students were Malthusian pessimists or even alarmists.
The job of a good professor is to challenge his students into reconsidering their cynicism and, in this constrained setting, provide rays of hope that things might get better. In the past few years, my Ethiopian colleagues and I had published evidence that the country was unexpectedly progressing better along the demographic transition than most of its neighbors, and that it was surprisingly on track to meet many of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially in education and health.
In just a few weeks, in spite of the lack of computers, electricity, and inability to download publications from the internet, the students were able to work in teams of two to three to read recent literature and access demographic and development data through sharing CDs, photocopies, and handouts. They closely assessed the quality of differing estimates of progress since 1990 on the MDGs: the 1993 National Population Policy and its ICPD+15 (2008) goals, and the 2005-08 Poverty Reduction Strategy.
Ethiopian population graduate students prepare outside on campus at dark when electricity went out. (Photo by Charlie Teller)
In their final exam, I asked if any had changed their minds away from pessimism, and why. To my pleasant surprise, some had after seeing progress on the some of the MDGs and social change in their own younger generation, calling themselves revisionists, neutralists,or cautious optimists. They became convinced of the importance of using rigorous research methods and reliable indicators to closely monitor and evaluate the pace of the demographic transition and socioeconomic and gender inequities, as well as capacity building in research and training.
If these keen students in such a resource-constrained environment can learn so quickly, can’t a country under population pressure use its resilient and adaptive skills to begin to believe in their capacity to accelerate the demographic transition? ?