DVV » Publications » Adult Education and Development » Editions » Number 78 » BENEFITS OF ADULT LEARNING AND SOCIAL INCLUSION » Functional Adult Literacy for the Pastoralist Community in Ethiopia – Challenges and Prospects

Ziyn Engdasew

Ethiopia is one of the countries with a sizeable part of their population living on animal husbandry and following their animals as they search for pasture and water in order to sustain their herds. Frequently, pastoralists have an ethnic and cultural background that distinguishes and, in most cases, marginalizes them from the mainstream population. Clearly, pastoralists have different educational requirements than other population groups in terms of subjects treated or the organisation of their learning activities. Ziyn Engdasew, assistant professor at Adama University in Ethiopia, discusses how a special curriculum and appropriate learning conditions might help pastoralists overcome the current barriers of social exclusion.

Functional Adult Literacy for the Pastoralist Community in Ethiopia – Challenges and Prospects

1. Introduction

The World Declaration on Education for All (1990) clearly announced that everyone should get an educational opportunity. It is a direct political and human right response to pressures arising from civil society organisations and international humanitarian organisations, among others, who understood the role of education in promoting the establishment of good governance and democracy as well as the respect of human rights and dignity. It has drawn due attention to the need to eliminate educational disparity within countries and ensure that “particular groups didn’t suffer any discrimination in access to learning opportunities” (Article 3). It also encouraged “learning through a variety of delivery systems and the adoption of supplementary alternative programmes” (Article 5).

Therefore, equal and equitable educational access is appropriately thought to be an essential means of escape from socio-economic and political marginalization for different social groups in developing nations. Otherwise, the suppression and marginalization of the disadvantaged groups in society will continue unresolved. The recognition of education as an indispensable weapon for human and national development put pressure on both national and international communities to consider it as a human right. Based on this, the need to make education accessible for every individual citizen has been recognised.

Pastoralists are people who live and derive most of their food source and income from raising domestic livestock. They have no recognised place of residence and move from place to place in search of pasture and water. Pastoralists, as one of the marginalised groups, constitute a large portion of the population in Africa. According to a UNESCO study by R. Carr-Hill from the year 2002,(Education for Nomads in Eastern Africa), there are an estimated thirty-six million pastoralists in the world, and the majority of them live in seventeen African countries.

In many of the African countries pastoralists live in areas that hold potential promise for development. Pastoralist populations, though the poorest and most vulnerable, through their animals and the land they control, are potential resources for the nation. Moreover, pastoralists are viable and important natural resources. They contribute in various ways to the development of the communities and nations in which they live by providing social and economic services.

The pastoralist community relationship with their nation is not only economic and social, but also political. However, in many African countries they are prevented from participating in policy formulation and political and development decision-making. Consequently, they are denied proper social services like education and training, water supplies, schools and Adult Education programs by the dominant sedentary group. Thus, these marginal people are the most severely disadvantaged groups in the acquisition of educational and other social service provisions. In fact, the rate of illiteracy among pastoralists is very high. However, if the development of this section of society is hastened through education and training, it would reduce poverty and increase employment for them and for others, thereby improving their quality of life.

Since the 1950s, there have been increasing efforts by governments and development planners to provide education for the pastoralist community. Nowadays, the education of pastoralists has been well planned by many governments in the countries in which they live and by concerned agencies and organisations and regarded as a major economic, ethical and political problem deserving special attention. These endeavours are linked to the concept of education as a fundamental human right of the citizens of a country and an essential element for the complete fulfilment of individuals as human beings, their survival and lifelong development.

The importance of education in general, and Adult Education in particular, for pastoralists has been adequately documented in a variety of literature. Education serves them as a springboard for social and economic change. It is also regarded as an indispensable part of nation building. As part of the modernisation approach, it has to do with altering their traditionalistic way of life and acquainting them with knowledge and skills which can transform them socially, economically and politically. It equips pastoralists against impoverishment and ultimately helps them to eradicate poverty by opening access to alternative livelihood options. Education is an appropriate conduit for changing their perception and value system in order to integrate them into a broader socio-economic and political context and to take advantage of technology and information in this era of globalisation.

In addition, Adult Education would help pastoralist communities to better equip themselves for the future because their habitat and way of life are under threat due to climate change. It would also give them the means to make informed choices. Thus, a nation looking for long-lasting economic achievement must raise the literacy level of all its citizens, including the pastoralist community. However, providing appropriate education services to pastoralist people seems to be challenging and problematic. The top-down government approaches to education provision for pastoralists usually pay no attention to the views, opinions, living conditions and interests of nomadic pastoralist communities.

Moreover, lack of consensus and common notions on the value and meaning of education lead pastoralists to view modern education as a threat to their culture and way of life. The established curriculum of Adult Education mostly reflects the values and traditions of the dominant sedentary population and urban dwellers, ignoring the age-old tradition and culture of pastoralist groups.

In many of these countries – without excepting Ethiopia – statistics indicate that education provision has failed to reach these parts of the communities. Thus, providing education to pastoralist communities becomes one of the most challenging and urgent issues currently facing education policymakers and practitioners in the education systems of African nations.

2. Pastoralist Marginalization – The Ethiopian Context

Ethiopia is a country where 78 million people, composed of different nations and nationalities, live together in a total area of 1.1 million km2. About 84 % of the population lives in rural areas: 65 million people live in the highland temperate zone, while approximately 12 million live in the lowlands that cover 60 % of the country. The main occupation in the highlands is farming, while the lowlands are mostly occupied by pastoralists. Historically, the exclusion of pastoralists from Ethiopian life has been economic, political and social and their interests have been ignored.

Despite the many varieties of ethnic pastoralists in the country, there are four major features to the marginalization of the pastoral community in Ethiopia.

2.1 Political Marginalization

Like other cases of the marginalization of indigenous people in Africa, Ethiopian pastoralists are politically marginalised. They live mainly in the peripheries of the country. Their relationship with the central administration has often been, at best, a mixture of good and bad, and at worst, it has been openly hostile.

Moreover, the general attitude of Ethiopian policymakers towards these peripheral areas has been ambivalent at best. The people there have generally been regarded as troublesome and as causes of annoyance in border areas which are inhabited by traditional tribes who have only a meagre contribution to make to the country’s economy. Similarly, the attitude of the pastoralists regarding the central administration is likewise one of suspicion and hostility. They consider the central government to be unrepresentative of their interests and concerns.

At present, though the state system in Ethiopia has changed a great deal, the problems of pastoralists in the country persist. Presently the state system in Ethiopia is that of a federation among ethnic-based regional governments on matters of internal affairs, including development planning. However, this has aggravated the political marginalization of pastoralists because the difficulties facing the pastoral communities are left entirely to their regional government. On the other hand, many pastoralists suggest that there have recently been significant changes in the attitude of both government and broader society towards pastoralism, an acknowledgement of needs and the beginning of the recognition of pastoralism as a valid livelihood strategy.

2.2 Ecological Marginalization

Pastoralists in Ethiopia inhabit the peripheral lowlands which encircle the highlands. Because of its remoteness from the central major population, infrastructure and communication are generally poorly developed. The lowland environments in Ethiopia are characterised by extreme variability and unreliability of rainfall, both between different years and between different places in the same year, by the scarcity and seasonal variability of vegetation and by vulnerability to droughts. Successive regimes have swung between neglecting the country’s pastoralists and trying to exploit them and the lands they inhabit wherever possible.

In such environments, permanent domicile has often had a harmful impact on the local environment. Thus, extensive livestock production is often the only way to make use of the fluctuating resources. Moreover, the marginal nature of the pastoral environment has imposed some constraints to livestock-based economic activities and human settlements that lead to the development of certain basic adaptive strategies. One of the common strategies is nomadism or frequent mobility.

2.3 Economic Marginalization

Pastoralists are economically marginalised due to the little attention given to the economic contribution of their livestock to the national economy. Moreover, live-stock is not considered to be a major part of the agricultural economic activity.

As Melakou Tegegn points out, writing on “Pastoralism and Accumulation” (Pastoral Forum Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: PFE Publications):

“Ethiopia has the largest number of cattle in Africa, but pastoral livestock production has not been recognised as an important component of national economy. Hence, the pastoralist society as well as the nation at large is not able to benefit the maximum from the livestock production.”

Moreover, the development of mechanised agriculture on age-old pastoralist land leads pastoralists to impoverishment. Such policy contributed to the erosion of customary land tenure systems and pastoralists were pushed away to areas which have lost their viability to support livestock. High concentrations of people and livestock in small areas quickly diminished the environment’s ability to sustain them. Another form of economic marginalization of pastoralism is in the sphere of market orientation. Their isolation from urban centres and market infrastructure often means that they pay high prices for grains and other imports and get minimum prices for cattle and livestock product exports.

This marginalization and lack of control over the terms of exchange within the system leaves them more vulnerable to crises of all sorts. It is worse during the dry seasons, when livestock prices fall and the price of cereal and other stable foods rise.

2.4 Cultural Marginalization

Many governments do not trust pastoralists and their way of life. They consider them to be politically unreliable and their seasonal change of domicile does not enable the government to have control over them. They are mostly considered as non-viable and primitive, hostile to change and resistant to change agents.

Similarly, in Ethiopia there is a conception that the pastoral way of life is uncivilised and even barbaric. This opinion, passed on from generation to generation, has become a stereotype. For instance, the Amharic word Zelan, meaning nomad, is literally an insult implying an uncultured, mannerless, lawless, aimless wanderer. This idea is harmful to the cultural identity of pastoralists and shared by almost all the highlanders who were and still are politically dominant.

Cattle herding is a major economic activity for pastoralists



Cattle herding is a major economic activity for pastoralists
Source: World Changing




In general, the former central government marginalised pastoralists and failed to offer significant support, claiming that it is costly and difficult to provide services for mobile communities. More recently, however, as the government takes stock of the marginalised and vulnerable within their country, a greater understanding of how education can empower pastoralists is gaining momentum.

Empowerment among the pastoralists can be achieved by eliminating disempowering illiteracy. There is a need to eradicate illiteracy among pastoralists like “eradicating an epidemic disease”. In so doing, the causes of marginalization of pastoralists will be reduced to a bare minimum.

The rate of illiteracy among pastoralist people in Ethiopia is very high. However, if the development of this section of society is hastened through functional Adult Education, it would reduce poverty and increase employment for them and for others, thereby improving their quality of life.

Moreover, globalisation has increased the necessity of being able to read and communicate and to take advantage of technology and information in every sector of society, including pastoralists. Unless the problems of educational provision for pastoralists are considered as part of an integrated development approach of the nations concerned, the quality of their life and that of the society in general will hardly improve, they will not be able to contribute to national development and transformation efforts of the nation. Functional adult literacy must by necessity be provided for pastoralists to enable them to develop and diversify their livelihood and give them the option to empower themselves and to continue to improve and develop themselves, their communities, and their nations.

Today, the Ethiopian government, as a democratic polity and a signatory of international conventions, has committed to providing quality education for all by 2015, irrespective of race, religion, and geographic setting. This is also the major priority of ETP in general and ESDP IV in particular. If Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are to be achieved, FAL (Functional Adult Literacy) should be provided for pastoral communities in Ethiopia.

The country recognised that education is a key instrument for development. A massive movement has been carried out in the country through successive Education Sector Development Programmes (ESDP) launched in line with the Education and Training Policy (ETP). The main objective of the ETP is to produce a trained work force at different levels that will competently participate in the various economic, political and social undertakings of the country. In order to achieve this objective, continuous efforts have been made to alleviate the longstanding problems of quality, accessibility and relevance of the education system.

As a result of the implementation of successive education sector development programmes, access to formal schooling has significantly grown from its previous low level. However, in 2008 the Ministry of Education itself pointed out that the status of Adult Education had remained low in terms of both accessibility and relevance. Adult Education programmes implemented so far had not been geared towards problem-solving and were not relevant to the day-to-day life of the adult population that is directly involved in productive activities.

In order to alleviate the Adult Education problems, ESDP III underscores that lifeskill-based, work-oriented and community-based Adult Education programmes must be scaled up. The focus of Adult Education is to impart knowledge and skills among adults and to facilitate conditions for the provision of FAL programmes. In addition, it is designed to enable adults to read and write in order to acquire knowledge and skills in agriculture, health, civic education, cultural education, etc. Therefore, the strategy for Adult Education was developed with the active participation of all stakeholders in the nation in 2008. But Adult Education is still engaged with problems which accumulated through the years. ESDP IV revealed that the number of adult illiterates has remained high, and the issue has become the major challenge and priority programme in ESDP IV.

ESDP IV also foresees a major programme in Adult Education, the objective of which is to allow all adult illiterates to participate in two years of Functional Adult Literacy (FAL) courses. Under ESDP IV, the government will put more efforts into mobilising the resources and developing the partnerships necessary for a sustained adult literacy campaign. The focus is shifted towards Functional Adult Literacy (FAL) to ensure the active participation of the literate population in the socio-economic development of the nation. A Master Plan for Adult Education has been drafted and is expected to guide efforts in this sub-sector during ESDP IV implementation.

3. Major Challenges in Adult Education Implementation

One of the seven goals of ESDP III is to provide increased access to Adult and Non-Formal Education (NFE) in order to combat the problem of adult literacy. The Adult and NFE programme is planned, through its functional adult literacy component, to reach 5.2 million adults in the programme period – quite an ambitious target. Moreover, it plans to train 143,500 adults in different skills in the existing 287 CSTCs (Community Skills Training Centres). ESDP III recognises that government alone cannot provide sufficient financial or human resources to support the programme and hence will seek support from other stakeholders: multilateral and bilateral development partners, NGOs, local governments and communities. The targets need a well designed, professionally implemented strategy to ensure that these goals are achieved.

Elements of the strategy provided in the document for Adult Education include how functional adult literacy programmes will be expanded. Each region will organise adult literacy programmes which will involve developing materials in the mother tongues of learners and covering various areas of life skills. The areas listed in order to enable the population as a whole to participate in the development process are: primary health care, prevention of diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, etc., family planning, environment, agriculture, marketing, banking, and gender issues. On teaching arrangements, ESDP III provides that teaching will be a voluntary activity organised at schools, ABECs and at the village level. The programme, it is further explained, will utilise teachers, ABEC facilitators, literate adults, secondary and tertiary level students, while the main investments will be in the provision of literacy readers, training manuals and in the training of literacy volunteer teachers.

Recent statistical evidence from the Federal Ministry of Education has revealed that the literacy target set at 5.2 million in ESDP III was not achieved due to lack of funding, lack of structure at all levels to support activities, poor coordination, absence of guidelines and training manuals and unavailability of human resources at the grassroots level. According to ESDP IV, the major challenges in the Adult Education sector include:

  • Differences in the conceptual understanding of integrated FAL and lack of standardised parameters.
  • The limitation of Adult Education to FAL despite broader provisions in the national Adult Education strategy.
  • Failure to recognise the Adult Education activities conducted by various ministries, NGOs and the private sector.
  • Difficulties in the coordination, linkages, and monitoring of Adult Education programs due to the fragmentation of the provision.
  • Low level of relevance in relation to daily life situations.
  • Low level of quality Adult Education due to the absence or poor quality of Adult Education structures, programs and materials and unskilled human resources.
  • Low level of human, financial and material resource allocation.
  • Low capacity for data collection, evaluation, monitoring and reporting capacities at all levels.

4. The Way Forward

The quality of a nation, it has been said, depends on the quality of the skills, abilities and ideals of its people. Literacy enhances the quality of the people. It is a means to self-realisation and self development. To be illiterate is to be extremely handicapped intellectually, politically and economically. Cognisant of this, the constitution of Ethiopia stipulates that special assistance be given to the marginalised section of society in order to redress the imbalances in the provision of education. The Ethiopian government also has a comprehensive policy and strategy of Adult Education for the whole of the country. This however does not preclude the setting of policies for the specific context of regions. The “what and how” of pastoralist Adult Education was not sufficiently addressed in the recent national policies and strategies for Adult Education.

Pastoralists on the move with their cattle




Pastoralists on the move with their cattle
Source: World Changing



Pastoralists have a different way of life, they have socio-cultural and socio-economic features which make them different from the rest of the society in the nation. These marginalised groups have their own customs, values, norms and traditions that have their own effect on the provision of functional adult literacy. This means that strategies and policies based merely on a model of what works in urban and agricultural society is not enough to ensure that functional Adult Education and literacy can reach the pastoralist community.

Educational intervention for pastoralist communities requires a proper understanding of the social, cultural and economic situations and the particular needs and circumstances which directly affect these communities. Based on the national framework of Adult Education, the Ministry of Education should have established a separate department and/or commission with its own supervisory body at the national level. This organisation should have a legal status and intensively address the issues of pastoralist Adult Education, and it should be vested with the responsibility of formulating and coordinating Adult Education programmes and monitoring and evaluating the implementation of policies and programmes pertinent to the education of pastoralist adults in the various regions.

The regional governments where pastoralists live should have their own specific policies and strategies to implement the national Adult Education policy. The pastoralist community should be sensitised to the value of Adult Education through indigenous institutions and local leaders. Appropriate modalities have to be designed to provide functional adult literacy for the pastoralist community. Best practices and positive experiences from other countries (Nigeria, Iran, Sudan, etc.) show that a mobile tent school is a useful tool in the strategy of providing education for pastoralists who are constantly on the move. It could be useful as a tool in Ethiopia as well, since the cost of such a structure is very low and it could be provided by regional governments and local communities. The mobile tent schools should be provided with collapsible classrooms that can be assembled or dissembled within a very short time and carried conveniently by camels and donkeys. The mobile school should also have a flexible timetable that is adjustable to the mobility pattern of the pastoralist group being taught.

The mobile tent school teachers should be selected from the nomadic pastoralist communities. The belief is that a pastoralist community background will make it easier for the teachers to maintain a nomadic way of life as well as to adjust and gain the confidence of people living in the pastoralist community. It is also recommended to train teachers in areas such as first aid, family and community life skills, nutrition and livelihood, animal husbandry, business skills for selling of animals and animal products, modern herd management, immunisation, and the most common animal diseases and their cures. This kind of knowledge is usually highly appreciated by the pastoralist community.

The mobile tent school education programme should be under the strict guidance and control of clan leaders. The education calendar, curriculum content, temporary mobile school sites, seasonal mobility schedules and the recruitment of mobile tent school teachers should be a decision based on common consultation and agreement of the clan and/or tribal leaders of the pastoralist community.

Functional Adult Education should not only be designed to enable pastoralists to learn how to read and write and use numbers in simple calculations, but also to provide them with basic skills they can use in their daily lives. The curriculum should be developed through a detailed and sound understanding of the pastoralist way of life as well as their social and physical environments. It should enable them to prepare for daily challenges and contribute to economic diversification and the reduction of poverty in the community and in the nation.