Addressing Adult Literacy: “A Key Step to Ensuring That All Young People Become Literate”

From Reaching Full Literacy in Pakistan by 2025, a report commissioned by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party Chairman Imran Khan released this week:

While it is tempting to argue that the priority is to ensure that no child leaving primary education is illiterate, the evidence from both Pakistan and elsewhere is that adult illiteracy has a direct effect on the performance of the young. In effect, addressing adult illiteracy is a key step to ensuring that all young people become literate, especially as adult illiteracy is one reason why children drop out of school early. (my emphasis)

Rising Political Figure in Pakistan Says Illiteracy Is a “National Emergency”

According to Pakistan’s English-language newspaper The Nation, Imran Khan, the leader of a rising political party in Pakistan, plans to treat the country’s dismal literacy rates as “a national emergency” if his party comes to power.

Kahn is proposing “a twin track approach” that will expand primary education to universal access while simultaneously “tackl[ing] the adult illiteracy problem with all available resources.”

In a blog post published by The News Tribune, Kahn calls literacy “a fundamental human right” that is “essential to social and human development.” and explains why it is necessary to address both adult and children’s literacy in order to raise Pakistan’s overall literacy rate:

Tackling illiteracy starts with achieving universal primary education so that Pakistan’s 25 million children, who at present do not go to school, will have an opportunity for free, accessible, excellent primary education in a system that is uniform throughout the country.  Educational institutions will be devolved to the town level with management at district and sub-district levels.  Curriculums will be improved, teacher training radically increased and a new school building program will be initiated nationwide.

At the same time, I will create a special task force to pursue reaching full literacy in Pakistan by 2025, with a state sponsored mass literacy campaign for adults, making the best use of available resources. This will be an organised campaign using private and public sector resources, with major public media input and with programmes planned with relevance to poor and rural communities.

Kahn also outlines the economic case for improving his country’s literacy rate:

I have vowed to increase the education budget from 2.1% to 5% of the GDP. Illiteracy in Pakistan is costing an estimated $5.86 billion or 1.2% of GDP. The one-off investment in a successful literacy campaign will have diminishing costs and increasing returns over ten years, increasing the country’s GDP and lifting the country out of its current cycle of poverty, discord and violence.

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.

David Archer: “The Biggest Determinant of Success in Any School is the Home Environment”

David Archer, head of programme development at ActionAid, in a post yesterday to the Guardians’ Poverty Matters Blog, argues that policymakers make “at least four fundamental mistakes” when addressing children’s literacy around the world. According to Archer, one of those mistakes is “to think schools will do everything alone.” He writes:

…The biggest determinant of success in any school is the home environment. When children come from homes where both parents are illiterate, and there is nothing to read or reinforce their learning, they are likely to fail. If the school is an oasis of literacy in a village community, it is hard for children to develop literate habits or to value literacy practices.

Officially, there are more than 750 million illiterate adults in the world; in reality, that number should be doubled. Yet almost nowhere are governments investing in adult literacy programmes. There is compelling evidence on the particular importance of female literacy for transforming the chances of girls, and there is clear evidence about what works in running effective adult literacy programmes. A set of 12 core international benchmarks developed by ActionAid and the Global Campaign for Education have been widely agreed. Until we see new energy being invested in female literacy, we cannot be surprised that children struggle to learn. (my emphasis)