New Study Suggests Literacy Programs in Ghana Lead to Lower Rates of Infant Mortality

Although it supports the (apparently) widely agreed notion among those in the global development community that adult literacy programs are not effective, a new study does point to an “unintended success” of such programs: decreasing child mortality.

So says Niels-Hugo Blunch, associate professor of economics at Washington and Lee University, in his recently published a paper, “Staying Alive: Adult Literacy Programs and Child Mortality in Rural Ghana.”

Blunch says that evaluations of adult literacy programs in developing countries tends to skip over beneficial outcomes that would cast them in a more successful light. From Washington and Lee’s news release:

Blunch explained that although the adult literacy program is formally about literacy and numeracy, it is really a multiplex program that integrates other modules such as health and social issues, income generation/occupational skills and civic awareness. Approximately 28 different topics are covered across those three modules.

Under the health module, women learn about family planning, teenage pregnancy, environmental hygiene, immunization, HIV/AIDS, safe motherhood and child care, drug abuse, traditional medicine and safe drinking water.

Blunch is hoping that publication of his paper will get the attention of the global development community, including the World Bank, and result in increased attention and funding for these programs, especially in rural areas.

I also thought this was interesting:

Classes in rural Ghana are held two to three times a week for a total of about six hours per week and, in most cases, there are 20 to 30 participants per instructor. It takes about 21 months to complete the course. Yet, according to Blunch, a significant reason for the skepticism and resulting reduction in funding of these programs is the poor outcomes in Latin America and South America, where classes frequently lasted only six to eight months, were shorter, and often also not with the additional health, income generating activities and civic awareness components.

I don’t have any direct experience with adult literacy programs outside of the U.S., so I can’t speak with any kind of expertise about them, but in general, with adult literacy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that programs that are longer, with a greater intensity of instruction and an integrated learning approach would lead to better outcomes than the programs he is describing in Latin and South America.

Blunch’s paper also included a cost-benefit analysis (again, this is according to Washington and Lee’s news release—I don’t have a link to the paper itself) of program participation that showed “substantial positive net benefits in monetary terms, including the future earnings of children whose deaths have been averted, even when disregarding women learning about income-generating activities, as well as the many other positive potential outcomes of program participation.”

From the perspective of domestic adult literacy policy and advocacy, I think it’s equally important to conduct this kind of research, and to point out these “indirect” outcomes to policymakers—and in monetary terms. (I know, of course, that there has been research like this, but there needs to be more of it, and it needs to be better publicized.) Anyone who has been around an adult education program here in the U.S. has seen the positive impact that simply enrolling and participating in a program can have on the individuals who have enrolled—in terms of their health and overall well-being, the example they set for their children, etc. We sell our programs short here in the U.S. as well.