In Ethiopia, there are large numbers of children and young people who do not receive an education due to having a disability or other special needs. However, a joint project by Finnish and Ethiopian universities resulted in an updated inclusive curriculum and new courses while also improving attitudes. The high-quality cooperation also deepened trust and friendship between the project parties.

High-quality development cooperation is built upon many things. Among the most important of these is the trust that builds up over the course of long-standing cooperation, says teacher Maija Mäkinen from the Jyväskylä School of Professional Teacher Education.

Mäkinen has many years of experience working with Ethiopia and Ethiopians, which was a great help when, at the request of Ethiopian networks, the Jyväskylä School of Professional Teacher Education started to plan a development project for inclusive teacher education and training with the local Federal Technical Vocational Education and Training Institute, which trains teachers. Also involved in the project were the University of Jyväskylä and Addis Ababa University.

It is important to demonstrate through your own behaviour that you understand the country, Mäkinen says.

By this, she means not only manners and the right kinds of greetings, but also being able to demonstrate that you understand local societal structures and ways of doing things.

- That is how you build a feeling of cooperation, which in turn builds trust and respect.

Another cornerstone of high-quality development cooperation is ensuring that projects stem from genuine needs and that their ownership remains in the south. Assistant Professor Yekunoamlak Alemu, PhD, from Addis Ababa University, who was one of the participants of the project, underlines the critical importance of ownership.

- All projects should be based on genuine needs, and not headed by financiers.

Alemu recalls saying this to officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland during a trip to Helsinki as well.

- I told them very clearly that this was not a project that was handed to us by our Finnish friends, but rather a project of our own and something that we genuinely needed, he says.

Many people with disabilities, few go to school

The aforementioned need was the need to increase inclusive education, meaning education that takes special needs groups into account. This need stemmed from the fact that there are 2.4–4.8 million children with disabilities in Ethiopia, of whom only 3% get to go to school. People with disabilities face discrimination and a variety of physical, psychological and structural obstacles.

While there had been attempts to improve the access of children with disabilities to education in the past, the majority of these measures had focused on basic education, whereas inclusivity in teacher education had received little attention.

The three-year project ended up accomplishing a great deal in Ethiopia’s higher education sector, according to Mäkinen.

These accomplishments included the creation of a comprehensive inclusive teaching module for the training of technical vocational education and training (TVET) teachers.

- It includes a plan for inclusive pedagogy, which become a mandatory part of TVET teacher studies, says Mäkinen.

The project provided 15 teacher trainers with special training on inclusive technical and vocational education and training. These trainers went on to teach the modules on inclusivity in TVET teacher training. Additionally, the project partners created training plans with regional TVET managers for five regions and trained government officials and other key persons on inclusivity in different parts of the country. The five workshops held during the project reached nearly a hundred decision-makers.

The project ended up creating a ‘snowball effect’ in teacher training, as the 200 teachers trained in the context of the project went on to train approximately 2,000 teachers in different parts of the country.

Changing attitudes

In 2019, Maija Mäkinen, Yekunoamlak Alemu and Head of TVET Azmera Kebede Abebe from the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia published a scientific article on the project’s accomplishments in the Journal of Professional and Vocational Education.

According to the article, there was initially an attitude problem among some TVET teachers regarding students with disabilities. Despite parts of local communities also being against training people with disabilities, some educational institutions were able to train hearing impaired individuals and build ramps for students with impaired mobility.

- As a result of these interventions, the trainees became successful and started to earn a decent living by getting rid of their previous hand-to-mouth way of living, the article states.

A clear change in attitude was also observed among the teachers. At the start of the project, many teachers regarded the obstacles that young people with disabilities face as being insurmountable. However, at the end of the project, these obstacles were regarded as merely challenging, and none of the teachers were opposed to tackling them.

While the project was still in progress, Ethiopia ended up taking a more favourable stance on inclusive education, making inclusive practices mandatory in teacher education and training.

- Thanks to the project, our partners had a handle on them already, Mäkinen says.

Building friendships and understanding as well

When cooperation works well, the experience becomes deeper for both parties and leaves them with something more than concrete curricula, courses and ramps.

Senior Lecturer Raija Pirttimaa from the University of Jyväskylä wrote in the journal of special pedagogy e-Erika in 2018 that cooperation is based on personal connections, which are established and deepened by working together.

- Amid all the budgeting, planning, material collections and training, a parallel programme is spontaneously created: The world ‘out there, somewhere’ comes to you.

Distances shorten and horizons broaden, Pirttimaa described.

- Friendships are established and you end up sharing experiences and memories, discussing family life, future plans and topical societal issues. You end up learning about each other’s cultures.

According to Yekunoamlak Alemu, the sharing of experiences and cultural exchange have only become more important in today’s information economy. He looks back on mutual visits as important learning experiences.

- The international exchange of experiences and learning is very important.

Flexibility is key

Both Mäkinen and Alemu praise the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and the Finnish National Agency for Education for their flexibility as project partners and for being understanding of the changes that had to be made during the project.

- It always takes some time for funding to actually start after project plans have been prepared, so it was great that the HEI ICI programme made it possible for us to update our plans in response to changing circumstances, Mäkinen says.

Looking back now, Mäkinen says that they should have perhaps reserved some more time for training the project team. Mäkinen herself was surprised at how little autonomy Ethiopian teachers have compared to Finnish ones. The bureaucracy was heavier, and having to wait for letters of permission from higher-ups was a common occurrence.

In many countries, it is not uncommon for people to take on development projects while still having to take care of all their regular work tasks as well. This can lead to scheduling challenges with cooperation partners, especially when in Finland it is customary to allocate time for project work from your regular work schedule.

- You have to proceed on the local administration’s terms. We cannot start re-defining their terms and conditions of employment, says Mäkinen.

Need for follow-up research

Just over two years after the conclusion of the project, Yekunoamlak Alemu says that he feels that there are now more students with disabilities around. He cannot say for sure, however.

- You would have to conduct an impact assessment. Before the project, very few people with disabilities participated in education, and now there may be more of them. We already have some good baseline data, so this would be a good opportunity for a follow-up study, he says.

At present, Alemu is already working on another project with Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. It involves developing e-learning in teacher education and training with the aim of ensuring that those wanting to become teachers have equal opportunities to receive high-quality education and training throughout Ethiopia. 


Text: Esa Salminen


Teacher Educators in Higher Education as Catalysts for Inclusive Practices in Technical and Vocational Education (TECIP)

Project Budget: €480 418 with MFA funding (total budget €600 522)
Project Duration: 1.3.2017-30.3.2020
Coordinating Institution: JAMK University of Applied Sciences
Partners: Federal TVET Institute, Ethiopia; Addis Abeba University (AAU), Ethiopia; University of Jyväskylä, Finland