NGO Perspectives


Prepared by
Ila Patel
Institute of Rural Management, Anand, India
Ms Maria Lourdes A. Khan, Secretary General
c/o H. Bhargava, 1st Floor, Shroff Chambers
259/261, Perin Nariman Street
Mumbai 400 001, India

E-mail: maria@aspbae.ilbom.ernet.in

This paper is based on preliminary analysis of the findings of project, sponsored by the Asian-South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education and International Council of Adult Education, on Commentaries on Adult Literacy Policy and Practice in eight countries from Africa (Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa) and Asia (India, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka). As country reports for the project are not yet finalised, trends discussed in this paper should be interpreted as preliminary findings of the project.


Project Sponsors:
Asian-South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education (India)
International Council of Adult Education (Canada)

Contact Persons:
Maria Lourdes Almazan Khan, ASPBAE Secretary General
Nitya Rao, ASPBAE Programme Officer

Project Team:
Asia -Africa

Ila Patel (India)
David Macharia (Kenya)
Amara Peeris (Sri Lanka)
Michel Omolewa (Nigeria)
John Yehinaka (Papua New Guinea)
Babacar Diop (Senegal)
Ministry of Education and Training (Vietnam)
Deena Soliar (South Africa)




In the 1990s, education has come to the forefront of the development debate. Human resource development through education and training has been recognised by development planners as a vital element in the overall strategy for sustainable development. Though mass illiteracy is perceived as an obstacle to attaining ambitious goals of development, the focus in education has shifted to elementary education for children in the 1990s. Hence, it has been an uphil task for all those working on literacy to justify investment of resources (human and financial) for promotion of literacy.

The CONFINTEA V, the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education that was held at Hamburg in 1997, was an important landmark in the re-assertion of faith in adult literacy. It raised concerns for the provision of learning opportunities for all, including those who are excluded and unreached. It also drew attention of development planners to:

* link literacy to the social, cultural and economic development aspirations of the people;
* improve the quality of literacy programmes and
* enrich the literacy environment.

The NGOs gathered at the Hamburg Conference identified two clear goals for the follow-up, namely to influence policy formulation in adult education at regional and global levels, and to monitor implementation in relation to commitments made as part of the broader Education Watch Programme. It is in response to the new challenges of community-based monitoring of literacy policies in developing countries, developed as a result of CONFINTEA V, that the Asia South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education (ASPBAE) has initiated a project on Commentaries on Adult Literacy Policy and Practice since September 1998 in eight countries from Africa and Asia. In the first Phase, the project is undertaken in four countries in Africa (Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa) and four countries in Asia (India, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Vietnam). It would be extended to other countries and regions if resources are available.

The primary objective of the project is to undertake critical analysis of literacy policies and practices with the help of NGOs and researchers in order to influence the educational agenda of the government and donor agencies and bring back their commitments to literacy once again. The project focuses on understanding the extent to which adult literacy policies meet international commitments after the Jomtien Conference (1990) and CONFINTEA V and how far they have been put into practice. Guidelines for critical analysis of adult literacy policies and practice for this project was prepared in a two-days meeting on "Commentaries on Literacy Policy and Practice", organised by the ASPBAE, ICAE and ILSS at Mumbai during September 17-18, 1998. Findings of the project would be used for advocacy at the national, regional and international levels by civil society groups in all these countries and regions.

On the basis of initial review of the country reports, this paper highlights emerging trends in adult literacy policies and practices in the selected countries of Africa and Asia.


With the expansion of the formal educational system, there has been significant improvement in the literacy situation of developing countries. The progress of literacy, particularly adult literacy rate, is evident in all the countries selected for the study (Table 1). During 1970-95, adult literacy rate has increased for both, the medium human development countries (South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea) as well as low human development countries (Kenya, India, Nigeria and Senegal). However, gender gap in female adult literacy rate has continued in all the countries except South Africa. Furthermore, gross enrolment of females in primary education is not in par with that of male enrolment, particularly in Papua New Guinea, India, Nigeria and Senegal (Table 2).

The challenge of adult literacy for countries with high adult literacy rate (above 80 percent), South Africa, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, is essentially to address the problem of residual illiteracy and reduce gender disparities in literacy, while continue to support good quality universal primary education. To sustain the progress of literacy, countries with the medium literacy rate -- Kenya and Papua New Guinea -- cannot ignore either universal primary education or adult literacy education. While countries with low literacy rate (India, Nigeria and Senegal) have a challenging task of making provision of basic education -- universal primary education and adult literacy education -- to a large population of illiterate and semi-literate children and adults. The challenge of literacy is to reduce gender disparities and make basic literacy education available to all those who have remained outside the formal educational system.


International Literacy Year (1990), the Jomtien Conference (1990) and the CONFINTEA V (1997) have contributed to highlighting the significance of promoting literacy among children and adults in developing countries. How the governments in the selected countries of Africa and Asia have articulated their commitments to promote adult literacy? This section highlights trends in adult literacy policies and practice in the selected countries of Africa (Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa) and Asia (India, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Vietnam) on the basis of preliminary analysis of country reports.

3.1 Direction of Policy Initiatives

In the 1990s, adult literacy has emerged as an important area for achieving the goal of Education for All. Although universal primary education is given much more importance in the national educational policy and plans in most of the selected countries, governments have started paying attention to promoting adult literacy. Direction of policy initiatives in promoting adult literacy education, however, differ in each country.

3.1.1 Countries with Low Human Development


The Jomtien Conference (1990) provided impetus to formulating a National Plan of action for implementing Basic Education for All (BEFA) programme in Kenya that assigned priority to primary education. The ambitious goals of BEFA are, however, not realised by the Kenyan government in the context of deteriorating economic conditions. The Seventh Development Plan (1994-96) underscores the need for promoting the literacy programme through mass mobilisation and creating awareness about the benefits of basic education and literacy. However, these concerns are not translated into practice. No serious efforts are made in the 1990s to improve the provision of adult literacy. On the contrary, the current Development Plan (1997-2001) is completely silent on adult education and literacy. Adult literacy education has also been completely left out in the Terms of Reference formulated for the on-going Commission of Inquiry into the Educational System. The Department of Adult Education with limited budget organises adult literacy and other adult education programmes.


The International Literacy Year (1990) and the Jomtien Conference (1990) have played an important role in highlighting the magnitude of illiteracy in India and significance of concerted efforts to tackle the problem. However, impetus to development of a mass approach to literacy in India came from the National Policy on Education (1986) that assigned priority to basic education -- universalisation of elementary education and adult literacy -- in educational planning. In pursuance of the mandate of the National Policy of Education (1986) that the National Literacy Mission (NLM) was launched in 1988 as a societal and technological mission to address the problem of eradication of illiteracy in a time-bound manner with planned, concerted and coordinated efforts.

The NLM has adopted the Total Literacy Campaign (TLC) as a principle strategy for promoting literacy on a mass scale in order to attain the goal of universal literacy by year 2000. The TLC is an area-specific, volunteer-based and time-bound literacy programme, implemented through decentralised administrative and organisational structure. It uses the strategy of mass mobilisation to generate demand for literacy, while involving wider sections of society in promoting literacy. In quantitative terms, TLCs have been launched with full or partial coverage in 417 districts by December 1996. Similarly, post-literacy campaigns have been implemented in 178 districts for remedial learning, continuation and application of literacy skills.

In practice, however, universalisation of elementary education has become the most important priority of EFA and the political will to consolidate the gains of rudimentary literacy skills through innovative and sustainable programmes of post-literacy and continuing education is gradually declining.


The Federal Government of Nigeria acknowledges its commitment made at the Jomtien Conference (1990), while recognising the problems involved in the provision of basic education for all citizens of Nigeria by the year 2000. To promote literacy, the Nigerian government has constituted the National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-formal Education (NMEC) in 1991 by Decree 17 of 1990. To actively involve the states, State Agencies for Adult and Nonformal Education (ANFE) are also inaugurated in all the states of the Federation including the Federal Capital in order to expand the literacy programme and at the same time reduce administrative bureaucratic bottlenecks in literacy education promotion. The Local Government Areas (LCA) are equally involved in facilitating delivery of literacy programmes in the country, specifically reaching people at the grassroots for whom the literacy programmes are launched.

Beside the government, several donor and intranational agencies and organisations (UNESCO, British Council, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, EDC ODA, etc) and notable NGOs, religious and voluntary groups and philanthropists have enthusiastically lent their support to literacy programmes. Some of the NGOs have initiated new strategies for imparting adult literacy and mobilised citizens for participation in adult basic education.

The focus of literacy efforts by the government and NGOs in Nigeria has not yet shifted from basic literacy to post-literacy and continuing education to reach the goal of education for all.


The government in Senegal has attempted to formulate a literacy policy in line with several national and international conferences and commissions. Literacy policy of Senegal is articulated in the Action Plan (1995-2005) of the government that aims at reducing illiteracy in the age group 9-39, while redressing regional and gender imbalances. The government's approach to promoting literacy is based on the principle of "faire faire", that advocates implementation of functional literacy programmes in partnership with literacy providers in the field -- NGOs, associations, economic and women's groups and communities and the integration of all literacy efforts within the framework of the government's action plan in order to avoid duplication of work.

Key stakeholders involved in implementation of literacy programmes in Senegal are government, donors and target groups and literacy providers. The government through its local structures ensure initial training, monitoring and evaluation. While the communities are expected to recruit teachers and pay for follow-up courses and set us classrooms wherever there are no primary school facilities. In the context of dismal situation of primary education, greater efforts are required to promote literacy among adults and adolescents who never had access to school education or had dropped out early.

3.1.1 Countries with Medium Human Development

South Africa

Provision of adult education by the apartheid state in the past was largely a second chance schooling system based on a primary or secondary school curriculum unsuited to the needs of adult learners. With transition to a democratic society, the government has started paying attention of adult basic education within the new educational policy.

The formulation of a policy for Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) in South Africa has been a part and parcel of a larger process of developing a new policy framework for all aspects of the education and training system in the democratic society. The process towards the development of a relevant policy of ABET started in the early 1990 and culminated in the adoption of the National Adult Basic Education and Training Framework: Interim Guidelines as the interim policy on ABET by the Ministry of Education in September 1995. The ABET policy document, published in October 1997, is built on this interim policy, the White Paper on Education (1995), the National Education Policy Act (1996) and the South African Qualifications Act (1995).

The ABET policy is perceived by the Department of Education as part of and a foundation of lifelong learning. The new system of adult education is envisaged to bring "a transformation from prescribed school-centred education to an integrated outcome-based, open and accessible lifelong learning approach to education and training for all". It is within the general framework of the ABET that basic literacy education for functionally illiterate adults is emphasised. The Department of Education has identified institutional infrastructure to operationalise the policy. However, for operationalising ABET, the government has not yet paid serious attention to the provision of adequate human and material resources.In practice, only a few provinces have set up workable provincial ABET councils or stakeholder forums.

Sri Lanka

In the context of high rate of literacy in Sri Lanka, the major thrust of the EFA strategy is on improving the quality of primary education and early childhood education, and not on adult literacy education. The new educational reform, introduced in 1998 in response to the changing requirements of economic restructuring, gives primacy to universal primary education as a strategy for tackling the problem of illiteracy. It regenesis the significance of adult education in human resources development in the country, particularly provision of learning and training opportunities for adults in order to prepare the skills and educated labour force. However, the dispersed population of adult illiterates is invisible in the new educational reform. Nonetheless, some efforts are made to promote nonformal education to functionally illiterate children and school leavers in early stages.


The International Literacy Year (1990) and the Jomtien Conference (1990) provided considerable impetus to initiate policy measures for eradication of illiteracy and universalisation of primary education for children within the school-going age in Vietnam. However, the adult education policy in Vietnam is shaped by the broader context of educational restructuring that aims at making education relevant and efficient in response to transition to the market economy. To provide educational opportunities for all, the educational policy of Vietnam has placed emphasis on building and strengthening the existing system of nonformal education through the muti-pronged approach. Adult literacy education and adult education is planned as an integral part of the system of nonformal education.

The adult education policy of Vietnam in the 1990s advocates expansion of adult learning opportunities for different sections of society, while reducing the incidence of illiteracy. It also aims at raising minimum educational attainment of the entire population up to grade 3. The National Committee for Literacy, a government body, review the literacy situation and plans literacy activities since 1990. Continuing Education Department (CED) of the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) is the nodal agency for pursuing the government's programmes of literacy and post-literacy education. It is also responsible for Adult Education Programme of the MOET for upgradation of skills and on the job training for adults and other workers. Thus, in Vietnam efforts are made to integrate adult literacy education with nonformal education and continuing education.

Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, literacy policy of the government is implicit in its new Language Policy, which was introduced in June 1989. The primary thrust of the language policy is on promotion of initial literacy (i.e. reading and writing) in a language familiar to learners (i.e. a mother tongue or a local language) in early stages of formal education, mostly pre-school education and primary education. Though this policy places much more emphasis on promoting children's literacy than on literacy for youth or the adult population. It also promises to provide some financial support to youths and adults who would like to start their own tokples literacy programmes. The government has established the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat (NLAS) to monitor and coordinate all literacy and awareness activities in PNG but to date NLAS has not fulfilled its function. Financial resources are allocated by the government to the Village Service Programme (VSP) for organising the literacy programmes. However, the VSP has not been effective. At this stage, however, there is considerable confusion regarding the government's approach to promoting literacy policy in Papua New Guinea due to the changing guidelines and practices.

In summary, in the countries with high illiteracy among the adult population (India, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal), adult literacy education is recognised as an important area of attaining the goal of EFA. In the absence of long-term commitment to promoting sustainable level of literacy among the large population of adult illiterates, policy initiatives in adult literacy have, however, remained programmatic. In general, universal primary education is given much more attention in educational planning than on adult literacy education.

On the other hand, in countries with high literacy (Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Vietnam), adult literacy education is not a priority area. The focus of educational policy in Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka and Vietnam is much more on improving children's literacy through quality primary education than on literacy education for adults. Except in Vietnam, no systematic and concerted efforts are made by the government in these countries, to address the problem of residual illiteracy. Nonetheless, adult education and continuing education is given considerable importance in the educational policy of Vietnam. South Africa and Sri Lanka in order to prepare the skilled and educated labour force.

4.2 The Practice

Adult literacy education in most of the selected countries is imparted through literacy programmes, organised by the government in collaboration of the NGOs. Though adult literacy education promoted by the government differ in each country, this section highlights the practice of adult literacy education in salient areas, such as financing of adult literacy education, gender equity, language and literacy and the role of NGOs/civil society.

4.2.1 Financing of Adult Literacy Education

Despite ambitious policy goal of reducing illiteracy, in most countries financing of adult literacy education in far from satisfactory. The following observations are made on the basis of commentaries:

The government is the main source of financing adult literacy countries in all the selected countries. However, financial allocations to adult literacy education by the government in most countries is far from satisfactory. In Kenya, primary education remains the priority sector of the government in the educational budget. Budget for Adult literacy education comes from the Ministry of Home Affairs in which the Department of Adult Education is housed. Though the DAE received 9 per cent of the budget, 80 per cent of that is spent for personnel emoluments and on 20 per cent for operation and maintenance of services. At present, less than one per cent of the educational budget of the government in Nigeria goes to adult education. At the national level, the government has launched National Mass Literacy Fund for raising funds from various sources for the promotion of literacy in the country. In South Africa, though education gets the largest slice of the national budget (22.9 per cent), the funding for ABET is not a priority area. The government looks to the private sector and voluntary service for supporting the ABET.

In general, international donor agencies and organisations provide some financial support to the on-going literacy programmes of the government. There are only a few literacy programmes of NGOs, which are directly supported with foreign aid or assistance. For example, in Senegal the pilot project for female literacy is sponsored by the World Bank. ACTIONAID in Kenya (with funding from the World Bank) and in India has financed literacy programmes of NGOs that are based on the REFLECT approach. On the other hand, funding of literacy programmes of the NGOs in South Africa has dropped dramatically once the democratic government came in power as donor agencies began engaging in bilateral agreements with the government.

Most of the times NGOs are supported either by the government or foreign agencies and organisations including donor agencies. However, in a few case the NGOs have used their resources for literacy education. For example, in Papua New Guinea, local communities fund literacy programmes of NGO and only limited funds are available from international NGOs.

4.2.2 Gender Equity

International consultations in the past decade has played an important role in bringing gender issues to the forefront of adult literacy interventions in developing countries. How are gender concerns articulated in the literacy policy and practice in the selected countries?

Given high illiteracy among women, they are identified as one of the key targets/beneficiaries of the literacy programmes in several countries, such as Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, India and Vietnam. How are gender concerns translated into practice? At one level, efforts are made to mobilise and motivate women to join literacy classes and organise literacy centres for women learners. On the other hand, literacy curriculum and teaching-learning material have been geared towards women's reproductive and productive work. For example, functional literacy curriculum of literacy programmes in Kenya emphasises women's productive roles. While the literacy programme in Senegal addresses gender concerns by focusing on health, environment, hygiene and economic issues in the curriculum and teaching-learning materials. In Vietnam, literacy curriculum for women and girls is developed around four functional areas: family, health, economy and income and civic consciousness. On the other hand, literacy programmes in Nigeria and India have stressed women's empowerment in literacy curriculum. But integration of women's empowerment as a theme in the literacy curriculum does not necessarily mean that gender equity cut across all dimensions of adult learning.

Furthermore, gender equity in literacy does not mean neglect of addressing the problem of illiterate men. In Kenya, too much emphasis on women as the key target group of the literacy programme has resulted in the neglect of the needs of many men who are still illiterate. At present, men perceive the literacy programme as merely "women's activity" in which they have no role. The strategy of empowering women learners while excluding illiterate men is not likely to succeed in the long run to reduce gender gap in literacy.

In conclusion, women have become an important group of beneficiaries for literacy programmes of the countries with high illiteracy among women. Literacy curriculum and material for women, however, continues to highlight gender division of labour and gender roles.

4.2.3 Language and Literacy

For promotion of literacy in the multi-linguistic contexts, the language policy is very crucial for imparting adult literacy education. Selection of a language for literacy education is a complex issue that is shaped by socio-cultural, political and economic forces at a given point in time. Emerging trends from the country reports are summed up as follows:

To facilitate acquisition of literacy among adult learners, either mother tongue or a local language (for example, Kenya and Nigeria) or standard regional language (India) is used. In multi-linguistic contexts of South Africa and Senegal, national languages are used in adult literacy/adult education programmes. For example, in Senegal literacy education is promoted in six officially recognised and codified Senegalese languages. While in South Africa, ten official languages, including Afrikaans, are used in adult education and training programmes.

Promotion of literacy education in local language(s) or national language(s) does not imply that languages of ethnic minorities are ignored. In India, the language policy for the Total Literacy Campaigns advocates a flexible approach for acquisition of literacy among learners who use a distinct dialect of the spoken standard language and recommends gradual transition from the dialect to the standard language through appropriate literacy material. Vietnam faces the challenging task of eradicating illiteracy among ethnic minorities with diverse languages. As popular (i.e. standard) script and languages are not used in these communities, learners relapse into illiteracy when literacy is imparted in the standard language. Hence, efforts are also made in Vietnam to impart literacy in minority languages. However, very limited literacy material, books and newspapers are written in minority languages.

The growing issue regarding the choice of language(s) for literacy education is not simply about the use of local language(s) or national language(s), it is also about enabling adult learners to communicate and participate in the context beyond their communities. In several countries of Africa (Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) and Asia (India, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka), English has continued as an official language besides other official language(s). While in Senegal French remains an official language in which formal schooling is imparted.

There is an emerging trend in several countries to consider English, the language of power, in adult literacy education. For example, the literacy programme of Kenya has decided to offer English from the third phase and also at the post-literacy level. In Nigeria, post-literacy primers are developed in English or official language. In Sri Lanka and South Africa, the countries with high literacy, there is a growing realisation that comprehension of English is necessary for functioning in the global market economy. The new educational policy in Sri Lanka has stressed teaching of English to children and youth. In South Africa, however, the government has not yet taken any measures to assess the number of South Africans functionally literate in English and initiate measures to develop their proficiency in English language.

4.2.4 The Role of NGOs/Civil Society

Government is the principle stakeholder involved in planning and implementation of adult literacy programmes. However, the role of NGOs cannot be underestimated in supplementing the government's efforts and in promoting innovative approaches to literacy education in most of the selected countries.

Implementation of adult literacy programmes in India, Nigeria, Senegal and Vietnam is based on a wider support of all sections of society for eradication of literacy. These programmes are planned and implemented with active participation of NGOs. NGOs have played an important role in the implementation of TLCs in India. The NGOs in Nigeria have enthusiastically lent their support to literacy programmes at the state and local government area level. They have stabilised literacy centres, initiated new strategies and mobilised citizens for participation in adult basic education. The functional literacy programmes of Senegal are implemented through active partnership with NGOs. UNAL and ADEF AFRIQUE are two national NGOs, which are involved in the implementation of the PAIS programme. In Vietnam, mass organisations at the grassroots (unions of women, farmer and youth) and social organisations are assigned an important role in promoting adult literacy.

Efforts of the government in promoting adult literacy education are also supplemented by NGOs in many countries (for example, India, Kenya, Papua New Guinea and South Africa) through their own programmes. In Kenya, ACTIONAID, Plan International, Literacy and Evangelism, Bible Translation and Literacy, Kenya Adult Education Association and Kenya Adult Learners Association have made significant contribution over the years in promoting adult literacy. Papua New Guinea (PNG) Trust and several other NGOs have played an important role in the revival of critical literacy in local languages. Though financial support of donor agencies have declined for literacy work of NGOs in South Africa, some of the NGOs have continued with their literacy activities on a small scale.

The work of NGO sector is highly commendable due to their innovative approaches to literacy education. The small and focused literacy programmes of NGOs are often much more effective than those of the government in imparting critical literacy skills and empowering adult learners. Nonetheless, the government's literacy programmes are by far the largest with nationwide coverage.

The role of communities in facilitating literacy education is also worth mentioning. In Kenya, the rural communities have contributed to literacy efforts of NGOs by providing physical facilities and in a few cases by employing part-time teachers. In Senegal, the communities recruit literacy instructors, pay for follow-up courses and set up classrooms wherever no primary school facilities are available for literacy classes. In Papua New Guinea, many community literacy programmes are organised, managed and supported by the community with the help of literacy committee.

Coordination among various providers of literacy education - the government, donor agencies, NGOs, etc -- is limited in most countries except Senegal. The type and quality of literacy education offered by various literacy providers in Kenya and Nigeria for example vary in the absence of well-defined norms and standards.

Space for critical literacy work by the NGOs is adversely affected in a few countries (for example, South Africa and Papua New Guinea) due to lack of financial support from the government or donor agencies, for innovative literacy efforts. On the other hand, involvement of NGOs previously active in the literacy sector has somewhat declined in Kenya with the establishment of the Directorate of Adult Education on the assumption that the government-sponsored literacy programme covers all the areas.

In the 1990s, the International Literacy Year (1990), the Jomtien Conference (1990) and the CONFINTEA V (1997) have played an important role in highlighting the significance of promoting literacy among children and adults in developing countries. In countries with high illiteracy (India, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal), universal primary education is given far more importance in educational planning than adult literacy education. For countries with high literacy rate (Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Vietnam) upgradation of competency levels of children and adults has received much more attention in educational planning than addressing the problem of residual and functional illiteracy. In practice, commitments to promote adult literacy are not supported through adequate resources (financial and human). Hence, we need to bring literacy back to the agenda of EFA as basic education is a human right.