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The findings > Thematic Studies> Literacy>Part 1
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This study, undertaken by the International Literacy Institute (ILI), was commissioned by UNESCO on behalf of the EFA Secretariat. A draft overview was presented at the Asia and Pacific regional meeting of EFA in January in Bangkok, Thailand. Beyond the principal author, other ILI staff who contributed importantly to this paper include Martha Wright, Landy Lin, and Mohamed Maamouri.

Conscious of the need to arouse awareness, nationally and internationally, that the struggle against illiteracy can be won, to demonstrate solidarity with those working on behalf of the thousand million adult illiterates in the world, and to vigorously mobilize the resources and will to eradicate illiteracy before the end of this century...(we) hereby adopt this Declaration... (The Udaipur Literacy Declaration, 1982).
Reduction of the adult illiteracy rate ... to, say, one-half its 1990 level by the year 2000, with sufficient emphasis on female literacy to significantly reduce the current disparity between male and female illiterate. (Target 6; Report on World Conference on Education For All, Jomtien, 1990).
The 1990 World Conference on Education for All (WCEFA) in Jomtien, Thailand included adult literacy as one of its six major worldwide goals. Although the complete elimination of illiteracy by the year 2000 was adopted as a goal of UNESCO and a significant number of its member states in the Udaipur Declaration (cited above) of two decades ago, the Jomtien Conference scaled back such promises, and chose a more modest, and theoretically achievable, goal of cutting illiteracy rates in half by the year 2000. The reasons for this reduction in targeted goal were numerous. As this report will describe, important gains have been made in literacy and adult education over the past decade since Jomtien - in various places and using various methods - but the overall literacy situation remains still today one of the major concerns of the 21st century.
During the 1990s, views on literacy and illiteracy changed dramatically. Many literacy specialists and policy makers have moved away from the monolithic view of illiteracy as a disease in which the germs might be 'eradicated' with an appropriate drug or vaccination. Rather, literacy is now more broadly viewed as a product of educational, social and economic factors that cannot be radically changed in short periods of time. Indeed, while numerous efforts have been undertaken in both research and practice in the past decade, it comes as no surprise that the fundamental problems, and the global statistics, on literacy have changed only moderately, whether in industrialized or developing countries. Nonetheless, due in large part to increasingly competitive and knowledge-based economies across the world, most governments and international/bilateral agencies have expressed increased concern about illiteracy and low literacy since Jomtien, yet resource allocations have remained a disproportionately small fraction of what is contributed to formal schooling.
The present global thematic study on literacy and adult education considers trends and innovations that have been particularly salient over the WCEFA decade, though many of these same issues have been present during the preceding decades. The particular focus here is on the knowledge base that is currently available as well as the gaps that need to be filled in order for the field to make substantial progress in the coming decade and beyond. The 'bottom line' of this study is that the overlapping fields of literacy and adult education can and must do much better in the future, but will require not only more fiscal resources, but professional expertise (including teachers, specialists, programme directors, and policy makers) as well.
In some locations, special programmes have been developed for the disabled, for child soldiers and ex-combatants. The need to raise awareness of the dangers of landmines, of HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and other health hazards and of environmental degradation has led to innovative programmes. There are exciting new initiatives in the field of education for peace, human rights and civil society. These initiatives have been scattered and exploratory, however, because the field of education in emergency, crisis and transition is relatively new and has not yet received the attention it deserves.
1.1 The Jomtien challenge
The 1990 World Conference on Education for All (WCEFA) in Jomtien, Thailand included adult literacy as one of its six major worldwide goals. Specifically, a number of national educational goals related to youth and adult education were agreed upon, including: (1) to reduce the number of adult illiterates to half of the 1990 level by the year 2000, while reducing the male-female disparity; and (2) to improve learning achievement to an agreed percentage of an appropriate age cohort (which might vary from country to country). As part of all Jomtien goals, a new approach to learning was emphasized, one that focused on measurable learning achievement (rather than mere class attendance or participation). These challenges, then, have formed the basis for much of the international renewed interest in literacy and adult education over the past decade, and, in may ways, remain the continuing Jomtien challenge for the first quarter of the new millennium.
Jomtien was not alone. Concern about illiteracy has been a focus of human activity in many parts of the world for centuries. As part of the creation of UNESCO after WWII, literacy was chosen as a key part of its mandate, and one that has been adopted by nearly all the international and bilateral agencies over the decades that followed. Focused international conferences on literacy also show its importance prior to Jomtien, such as Persepolis (1976) and Udaipur (1982); and following Jomtien, the Mid-Decade EFA Review (Amman, 1996), World Conference on Literacy (Philadelphia, 1996), and the International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA V, Hamburg, 1997). In addition to this list, there were a myriad of other meetings, symposia and conferences on literacy and adult education stimulated by Jomtien.
With respect to the goal of improving learning achievement, Article 1 of the WCEFA Declaration stated that "basic learning needs" or competencies (BLCs), "comprise both essential learning tools (such as literacy, oral expression, numeracy and problem solving) and the basic learning content (such as knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes) required by human beings..." (UNESCO, 1990, p. 43). This second goal of relevance to literacy and adult education appears to have received somewhat less attention in the literacy and adult education arena, for the obvious reason that broadening the range of content in literacy programmes, especially in LDCs, was a major challenge in itself (for a review, see ILI/UNESCO, 1999).
Overall, the Jomtien challenge, combined with increasing pressures on national governments to be concerned about global competitiveness and workforce skills, has stimulated a renewed involvement in literacy and basic education in virtually all countries of the world. While the literacy targets were not generally met, it is probably correct to say that there is greater interest in trying to meet them today, in the year 2000, than ever before.
1.2 Historical and social context
Literacy is a word that is usually associated with the more positive aspects of human civilization, and is strongly associated with some of the most positive aspects of social and economic development. Indeed, the label of "illiterate" has been used and is today often used to characterize the poverty and lack of education still experienced in many parts of the world. Yet literacy also encompasses a wide variety of attitudes, beliefs, and power relations between individuals and groups of individuals. Thus, literacy itself is at the heart of the changes that have taken place across literate human history. Whether in the domain of religious tradition, the invention of the printing press, or the Internet, literacy has been central to many of our most profound human and historical developments.
In this report, literacy and adult education are terms that, together, are meant to refer to "second chance basic education" carried out among youth and adults. By "second chance", we are referring to educational activities that are meant for those individuals who never attended school (i.e., who missed schooling the "first time" when they were younger), or who left school before completing the acquisition of skills such as literacy and numeracy (see definitions below). Thus, adult education in this paper is not meant to include the myriad programmes of lifelong learning for adults (as important as they are), but rather a focus on the most disadvantaged who do not possess basic skills and are thus in need of basic education in non-formal (as different from formal) schooling. Further, the paper's focus is more on "less developed countries" (LDCs) - meant here in the standard sense of the bottom half of the list of countries in terms of per capita GNP. These countries have consistently had the highest rates of illiteracy since World War II.
A focus on "disadvantaged" out-of-school youth and adults - those who have had limited or no opportunities to access or benefit from sustained learning in formal school settings, also will lead to discussions of gender, social, economic, geographical, ethnic and political factors in development. This target group may or may not be wage earners or effective participants in other economic or community activities, but their basic or functional literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills, as well as "life skills" (related to managing personal health, nutrition, and workplace contexts; see World Health Organization, 1999) are likely to be lower than desired by national policy makers and/or what is needed to assure economic survival.
Finally, though the focus in the paper is on LDCs, there are numerous commonalities in literacy and adult education needs between developing and industrialized countries, indeed amongst all countries. As will be described below, major international surveys (such as recently in OECD countries) have demonstrated that virtually every country, even those with very high GNP, have significant portion of its population whose basic skills are too low. Thus, literacy may be seen today as a worldwide problem, even though the needs and levels of skills may vary widely from country to country.
1.3 Rationales for literacy and development
Human development rationale. Literacy is often understood as something that is "good" for the individual and for society. Indeed, unlike some other advocacy domains for social change (such as full employment and universal health insurance), there are very few critics of greater societal literacy. This is not to say that specialists or the public can agree as to what they mean by increased literacy. Note, for example, the heated debates over whether literacy should be taught in the mother-tongue or a second (usually metropolitan) language - still controversial in many countries (see below). Although primary education is already a core institutionalized goal of all nations, investments in non-formal and adult literacy education programmes tend to vary widely between countries.
Economic rationale. From the poorest villages in Africa to the city boulevards of industrialized Europe, one can hear the important economic rationale for literacy development. Few countries are oblivious to the perception that a literate and skilled populace can have an important impact on the social and economic life of each nation. Numerous claims have been put forward that a given minimum rate of literacy is a prerequisite for economic growth in developing countries, and we can read headlines in European newspapers today which proclaim that, in the context of global competition, adult illiteracy will lead to economic ruination. Indeed, estimates of the direct cost of adult illiteracy to North American business has been estimated at about US$40 billion annually. From the advent of the Experimental World Literacy Programme in the 1960s (Gillette, 1999), and to the 1990 WCEFA, claims have been made as to the positive impact on economic productivity of literacy and basic education. Most of the empirical research on this topic comes from a handful of studies that relate number of years of schooling (mostly primary schooling) with income or job productivity. For example, in the agricultural sector, studies have been undertaken which support the notion that an additional year of primary schooling can directly affect wages and farm output (Jamison & Moock, 1984).
Until quite recently, there was very little information available on the economic returns to literacy among adults. Indeed, there are very few empirical studies on the economic impact of short-term literacy programmes in developing or industrialized countries. However, a new set of household literacy surveys (where literacy skills are measured and quantified) has begun to fill this gap in information (OECD/Statistics Canada, 1995; Tuijnman et al., 1997). These studies suggest that income and job attainment are strongly related to literacy skills, but there is little empirical research as yet to show that adult literacy programmes directly enable the unemployed to obtain new jobs. Furthermore, in developing countries, the direct impact of adult literacy programmes on individual economic improvements in the lives of programme participants remains to be systematically studied (Windham, 1999).
Social rationale. Literacy may also have social consequences that are important objectives for national policy planning. Particularly in developing countries, the gender dimension of illiteracy has been raised in this regard, as the majority of illiterate or low literate adults tend to be female in the poorest developing nations (Stromquist, 1999). Furthermore, there are numerous empirical relationships between literacy and fertility, infant mortality, and so forth (see below), and we are just beginning to understand the complexity of the relationship between mother's education and consequences for children (LeVine, 1999), especially in reducing health risks and lowering fertility. Generally speaking, the research evidence for social consequences of literacy appears stronger (at least in terms of more demonstrable empirical outcomes) than that of direct economic consequences.
Political rationale. There is a long tradition of utilizing literacy programmes in general, and literacy campaigns in particular, as a way to achieve political goals (Bhola, 1999). In the 1500s, Sweden engaged in one of the earliest known national literacy campaigns in order to spread the state religion through Bible study. The apparent goal was not only religious salvation (as in previous and contemporary missionary work), but also national solidarity. This latter aspect of campaigns remains a potent source of government support of literacy work in many countries. Perhaps most visible are the socialist literacy efforts in the former USSR, China, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia; yet, the political appeal of literacy as a policy goal is also apparent in today's resurgence of literacy work in North America and Europe as well as in parts of Asia and Africa (Arnove & Graff, 1987). This type of political appeal often stems from a government's need to show that it is doing something good for the most disenfranchised communities of the country, while often justifying the investment in terms of lower social welfare costs and greater economic productivity. Political solidarity can also be achieved through the utilization of a national language in the literacy campaign. While tensions may result from the imposition of a national language on ethnic minorities, the promotion of national languages is seen as a positive outcome by many governments.
Endogenous rationale. There may be, of course, strong pressures to provide literacy and basic skills programmes at the community level. Often organized by NGOs, such as church or mosque groups or private voluntary organizations, such programmes tend to be small-scale and focused on particular segments of the population (e.g., adolescents out of school, young mothers, the elderly, the homeless, and so forth). In the case of endogenous programmes, governments generally have had little involvement, as the programmes are self-funded via religious associations and tend to rely on volunteer tutors and teachers. Recent exceptions to this model include the support of NGOs by multilateral agencies seeking to support literacy work. The historical rationale for such endogenous community-based literacy programmes may be seen in terms of both moral and social cohesion, in the sense of providing and reinforcing a sense of community. These types of endogenous literacy programmes have predominated in industrialized countries, where governments have until recently claimed that illiteracy was so marginal as to command little national attention or government financial support. Over the past decade, however, policymakers' attitudes in both industrialized and developing countries have changed sharply on this point, with many realizing that community-based programmes, funnelled through NGOs, may be more effective than government run programmes.
Exogenous rationale. Since the establishment of United Nations agencies following World War II, there has been growing pressure on all nations to improve their performance in education and literacy, due to what might be called exogenous or external pressures. This pressure appears in two major ways. First, bilateral, regional and multinational agencies may offer financial support only if certain types of educational initiatives are promoted, and educational targets reached. Over the past decade or so, the promotion of primary schooling has been a centrepiece of multinational education support to LDCs, although interest in adult literacy has been growing again, based upon recipient country demand following the WCEFA meeting in 1990 (Eisemon et al., 1999).
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