Greetings from the Ethiopian project monitoring trip! Except that, on this occasion, I didn’t actually leave home for project monitoring because the coronavirus pandemic means that we’re still avoiding travel. Luckily, we were able to hold discussions with representatives and a few students of local universities.
We often use remote meetings with our local partner organization, ECDD, to discuss the progress of our joint EMPOWER development project in improving study opportunities for university students with disabilities. However, we had never held remote discussions with the participant universities before. The discussions were not a complete success, due to frequent cuts in connections, problems with sound adjustment, and a power outage at one university leading to a five-hour interruption.
On the other hand, remote discussions were better than no discussions at all. University administrators provided much information, particularly on their commitment to the project. In just the second year of the project, two of the three universities have begun planning use of their own funds to improve accessibility, and all are now paying more attention to students with disabilities. Of course, it is not the case that everyone means to discriminate against students with disabilities, but they may never have thought about the challenges that being blind or deaf, or having a physical disability, can pose to participation in higher education. Indeed, one of the discussions’ most touching moments came when a student pointed out that the project had made students with disabilities visible, even changing the way in which staff greeted them.
Unfortunately, only a couple of students took part in the discussions, as Ethiopian universities were closed in March 2020. They reopened only in December, and even then solely for graduating students who are still taking their final exams. Other students are scheduled to resume their studies early in the year.
I hope that the pandemic will ease soon, so that our joint project can continue, as planned, without exceptional measures. Happily, over the last year we have been able to provide a little emergency assistance with the coronavirus in cases of pressing need. However, long-term development, which avoided emergencies on this scale and enabled local communities to prepare more effectively for crises, and to handle them independently, would please me even more.
The gratitude of locals for equality work done by Finnish students was conveyed by the discussions. On the other hand, I found that while our project is helping to improve several matters, many major issues — such as the livelihoods of local students and inclusive education for students with disabilities in nearby schools — remain unresolved. Because resources are limited, a single actor or project cannot solve everything. However, everyone can contribute, and even just one project can dramatically change the lives of many people.