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close this bookAction Research Report on «Reflect» - Education Research Paper No.17 (DFID, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folder1. Introduction
View the documentClaims & Counter-claims
View the documentPolicy makers & donors
View the documentRe-framing the questions

Policy makers & donors

Like the academics, policy makers and donors have undergone a shift in their attitudes to adult literacy. In the 1960s, 1970s and even into the 1980s adult literacy programmes were popular -playing a key role in many national development plans. In 1990 at the conference to celebrate the UN's International Literacy Year in Jomtien, the governments of the world committed themselves to "basic education for all". This appeared to reinforce literacy in general. But since then, despite an increase in investment in primary education for children by both governments and international donors there has been relatively little parallel investment in adult education.

The World Bank (1995) continues to argue forcibly for "good rates of return" to investment in primary education of children but has not yet undertaken similar work with adult literacy. The European Union has committed itself to support basic education overseas but pays only lip service to adult literacy. Bilateral donors have in some cases, after many years of support to adult education, started withdrawing (eg NORAD in Tanzania).

These trends are worrying, not least because of the important role that adult literacy can play in reinforcing children's education. It is parents who decide whether to send children to school (and it is parents who increasingly have to pay for that education). A literate and supportive home environment can be fundamental to consolidating and extending a child's progress in learning. Moreover it is the organisation of parents into PTAs or village education committees that can be one of the best means to improve quality in primary schools.

Why then are donors not investing substantially in adult literacy programmes alongside primary education (to fulfil what they committed themselves to at Jomtien)? Maybe it is, in part, the fact that some of the past myths surrounding adult literacy have been shattered. Maybe it is, in part, a lack of resources and a consequent need to prioritise. Maybe it is related to the difficulty "for donors to justify adult literacy in the kind of hard numbers terms that appeal to their economists" (Iredale 1995). However, a recent World Bank Discussion Paper (Abadzi 1994) perhaps provides the most important reason: most adult literacy programmes have failed. Reviewing adult literacy programmes worldwide over the past thirty years, Abadzi estimates that for every 100 learners who joined classes, on average only 12 of them actually learnt to read and write. Moreover, adult literacy programmes have, in general, failed to link literacy to wider development. There are of course exceptions (particularly with small scale programmes) but this is the norm. Even where remarkable successes have been declared they have rarely been sustained (eg Nicaragua, see Archer and Costello 1990). This has led to widespread disillusion and has made many governments and donors reluctant to invest in adult literacy.

Yet this is surely a mistake. It is not adult literacy itself that has failed - but adult literacy programmes.

We should respond to this by examining, in more detail, what is happening within adult literacy programmes. Even a simple review will reveal that, worldwide, almost all adult literacy programmes have one thing in common - the same basic method. That method is based on the use of a "primer". In order to resolve some of the problems associated with past literacy programmes should we not re-examine this basic methodology and look for alternatives?