UA-Led Program Graduates Risk Managers in Ethiopia

You might call it a bit of nation building.

University of Arizona researchers and instructors have helped 13 young Ethiopians earn their master of science degrees in disaster risk science and sustainable development, or DRSSD, from Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia.

This is a historic first for the besieged east African nation. The new graduates are the first cadre of young, mid-career professionals trained in a new academic field, one that impacts the future of one of the poorest countries on Earth.

A second cohort of 15 master's candidates – including four women – is now preparing for thesis field research in the coming months. A third cohort has just enrolled for its first semester in the DRSSD program.

The project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development under a three-year university linkages grant and is administered by Higher Education for Development, an American-based NGO in Washington, D.C.

Tim Finan, a professor in the School of Anthropology and the former long-time director of the UA Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, is the principal investigator. Other UA instructors include Lezlie Moriniere from the Office of Arid Land Studies and Muluneh Yitavew from the agricultural and biosystems engineering department. Michelle Gamber, a doctoral candidate in both public health and anthropology, has served as the project field coordinator at Bahir Dar University.

Two private-sector collaborators include Rose Hessmiller, CEO of Ferguson-Lynch, a New Mexico-based firm that provides the Web portal for the distance learning portion of the degree program, and Tim Frankenberger, president of TANGO International, a Tucson-based company with extensive food security expertise in Ethiopia. Frankenberger serves as the fourth team instructor on the project.

Finan said the initial intent was to train four faculty members who would take over the project and teach the new risk management curriculum at Bahir Dar University. Courses include topics such as sustainable economic livelihoods, vulnerability analysis, geographic information system mapping, community-based disaster management and public health.

But, he said, that role has expanded to include training other professionals and the future creation of a new center of excellence in risk management studies that would serve the entire region in and around Ethiopia. The goal is to train new educators and managers to bolster their nation's risk preparedness and prevention capacity.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. In area it is about the size of the U.S. Four Corner region (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah). But its 68 million people make it five times more populous. About nine of every 10 Ethiopians live directly off the land, either through farming or raising livestock.

While the country has a fairly sophisticated safety net to help with the worst disasters, most Ethiopians have no access to modern agricultural technology, said BARA project coordinator John Magistro. So while farmers can sometimes export surpluses in good years, without a constant and reliable source of water, or a weak rainy season or one that comes a few days too early or too late can result in widespread crop failure. The key is developing a cadre of professionals who can help the country deal with its cycles of drought and floods.

Magistro said that in addition to training the master's students, the Bahir Dar University project also has plans for other activities such as use of the Web-based project portal and teleconferencing to facilitate distance learning through BDU, a national conference on disaster risk management, and potential faculty exchanges between BDU and the UA.

"Within their ministry of agriculture they have a division devoted to disaster risk management," Magistro said. "Our program will feed skilled people directly into that area, and on the civil society side of it, through NGOs and others. One way would be to create short courses on risk management issues that would be designed for government and NGO workers and not require as much academic expertise as the master's program."

While happy with the success in graduating the first class of students, Finan and Magistro said the program hasn't always been smooth sailing. "It's not very IT-friendly there," said Finan, a problem since most of the course work has been conducted over a Web portal.

It's all about distance learning, where we put all of our instruction material on a Web portal run by the folks in New Mexico," said Finan. "The IT capacity has a lot of limitations in Ethiopia. So getting material to students to where they can download and access it has been an ongoing technical problem."

"The other is the face-to-face contact in the classroom. This project has combined distance learning with, each semester, week-long visits by the instructors for intensive face-to-face classroom lecture sessions. That's been a major constraint, for sure," he said.

"Another constraint has been English," said Magistro. "Tim and the others have had to read assignments, essays, theses. English is not the first language; the first language is Amharic. You would be surprised even at the post-graduate level that people might be fluent in spoken English and can communicate, but written English has a lot of limitations. English instruction in the primary and secondary school systems is limited," he said.

Most of those in the first cohort have been promoted at work. Two are working on doctoral degrees. Another participated in the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen and has recently publish his thesis as a book. Magistro said these have been major success stories for the project.

The project is drawing to a close, said Magistro, but he and Finan are working to develop a strategy that would allow it to walk on its own legs and aid the country's infrastructure.

"They have one of the major social safety net programs in the world," said Finan. "It's funded at $3 billion annually and assists the most vulnerable people – the dollar-a-day folks – in the country, a combination of cash and food to build a set of assets at the household level they can use to absorb the ups and downs of environmental shocks that they face and will continue to face, and even more so through the projections of climate change."

By Jeff Harrison, University Communications, November 18, 2010