Insight Note

RISE in Ethiopia: Research Overview (Non-Technical)

Researchers will examine Ethiopia’s national reform package, which aims to improve learning levels for all of its diverse student population.

The RISE Country Research Team will undertake analysis of national-level reforms that are intended to help Ethiopia make a pivot toward improved learning in the wake of its recent achievements in expanding primary school enrolment. A particular focus of the research will look at the reforms’ effects on learning among marginalised students – among them, girls; those living in extreme poverty; those who are part of pastoralist (rural, nomadic herder) populations; those who speak minority languages; and those with special needs.

The five-year, £3.9 million project is intended to expand understanding about whether and how broad, national-level reforms enhance or impede education in an extremely diverse country with limited resources. The focal point of the research is the government’s flagship reform programme, the General Education Quality Improvement Package, a series of multi-faceted and evolving reforms.

Key research questions include:

  • Do reforms raise student learning outcomes? Do reforms make learning more equitable by improving outcomes for the most marginalised populations?
  • How and why do reforms work or fail? What forces facilitate or impede the success of reforms?
  • How can the successes or failures of reforms inform the development of effective educational initiatives in Ethiopia and in other countries?


Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, but it also has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The country aspires to reach ‘lower-middle-income’ status by 2025. Achieving this goal will require the transformation of an economy that has a large subsistence agriculture sector, and is dominated by low-productivity activities. One route toward making this transition is through improving education.

Primary school enrolment in Ethiopia has soared in recent years –  increasing from 25 percent in 1994, to 94 percent in 2015, according to official figures. The number of students in all grades doubled over the same period, from 10 million to 20 million students. Though the gains in enrolment have been characterised as remarkable, inequalities are evident, with urban areas better served than rural ones. Certain populations are particularly vulnerable, and disadvantages tend to compound. For example, the poorest girls living in rural areas are least likely to attend school and learn.

The government has allocated a quarter of the total national budget to education, but as enrolment has surged, learning levels have not kept pace. For example, a lower proportion of 12-year-old children were able to answer the same math questions correctly in 2013 than in 2006, according to a 2014 report by Young Lives, a long-term project investigating the changing nature of childhood poverty in four developing countries, including Ethiopia.

A likely reason for this is that many children now attending school are first-generation learners from diverse backgrounds. Literacy and education levels among the adult population are very low, a legacy of the lack of widespread, inclusive education for previous generations. As a result, the Young Lives report concluded, ‘Many gaps remain to be closed through equitable and inclusive educational policies.

Two charts showing the cohort changes in math test scores from 2006-2013 and examples of reading tasks completed in mother tongue

©Young Lives report 2014

Strains on the capacity of Ethiopia’s schools and teachers are likely to remain for some time. Young people represent a large proportion of the Ethiopian population. While economic growth has been robust, the tax base remains relatively low. As a result, per pupil spending remains low, with (non-salary) expenditures as low as US$2 per pupil annually. Though international aid agencies have supported various initiatives, improvements in educational outcomes will depend substantially on securing gains in efficiency, which is now the focus of government initiative.

At the same time, reaching the most marginalised populations is likely to require additional resources. Languages offer an example of the challenges the educational system faces; more than 80 indigenous languages are spoken in Ethiopia. The sheer diversity of the geography of Ethiopian life, with the population living in urban areas, and distinctly different rural regions (highlands and lowlands), means that educational reforms must find methods that can improve the learning of students in diverse settings and difficult conditions.

Research issues

The Country Research Team’s analysis will examine the government’s flagship education programme, the General Education Quality Improvement Programme for Equity (GEQIP-E)(2018-2022),a complex and evolving series of reforms intended to facilitate sustainable improvements inequitable learning. GEQIP-E is the third phase of the government’s education reform programme, and this phase marks a shift from the input-based approach of previous phases to a more concentrated focus on outputs around equitable and quality learning. The RISE project will consider the effectiveness of the previous reform programmes, and will track progress in the design, implementation and impact of GEQIP-E.

RISE Ethiopia will consider whether the GEQIP-E reform programme supports equitable learning in Ethiopia. In addition, it will consider the impact of the new Performance for Results (PforR) financing modality that will underpin the implementation of this programme, which is expected to galvanise and incentivise stakeholders around a common set of results and help to leverage more impact.

A key aspect of the research is its focus on understanding the political process that sets the stage for change, and to understand the dynamics needed to devise, implement and sustain methods that ultimately lead to enhanced and equitable levels of learning.  In the light of Ethiopia’s ambitious and politically backed reform package, researchers want to know more about its political underpinnings. The research will examine how the reforms were selected, designed and implemented. The team will look closely at the political levers used by key decision makers in the process to understand how incentives, opportunities and barriers to change affect the outcome.

The complex and multi-faceted reforms underway in Ethiopia lend themselves to the ‘systems-focused’ approach of the RISE initiative. The innovative systems approach employed by RISE Ethiopia will involve different research methods undertaken in a sequential manner, including a system diagnostic, quantitative data collection, and qualitative case studies to understand how the education system functions as a whole. Broadly, the research will explore the nature of accountability within a large educational system, and among key people – administrators at national, regional and local levels, teachers, parents, and students.

Once researchers have a clear picture of the process that gave rise to the reform package, they will seek to understand whether and how reforms accomplish their main mission of improving learning outcomes for all children, regardless of their background. The team will conduct quantitative and qualitative research to gain insight into the extent to which reforms are working at scale, why certain reforms work or fail, and how to overcome any impediments.

Over the five-year period, researchers will also seek to answer key questions that include:

  • Understanding the politics of change - How has the reform package been designed and implemented? How do participants involved select and design the reforms? To what extent are intended designs realised in implementation? How do incentives, opportunities or barriers affect the participants in their effort to design and implement effective programmes?
  • Examining the results on students’ performance- How are students’ learning outcomes affected by the reforms? What are the effects from initiatives intended to lead to equitable learning outcomes for Ethiopia’s diverse populations?
  • Understanding the reasons for success or failure- How and why have reforms had success – or failed – in the mission to raise learning outcomes? What lessons can be learned from the reforms’ design and implementation that can inform ongoing change and progress? How can successes or failures of the package inform the development of educational reforms in other country contexts?

The research project is designed to be longitudinal in nature – that is, studies will follow the same children in the same schools over the five-year period of the research project. The work will measure foundational skills in reading, vocabulary, numeracy, and non-cognitive skills, such as non-verbal reasoning and self-efficacy (self-belief in the ability to succeed or master certain tasks).

The potential benefits of the research project extend beyond Ethiopia. In some respects, Ethiopia’s education system is a forerunner for other systems now looking to translate expansion in access into expansion in learning without leaving those from disadvantaged backgrounds behind. As a result, the research offers the opportunity to inform policies elsewhere.