Advocating adult literacy in international development
Jan Eldred describes the work of the Literacy Working Group
Current difficulties in financial markets highlight the reality of global interdependence in the most tangible and painful ways. No longer can politicians, alone, shape national economies; global influences are at play.
Shifts of manufacturing and servicing from industrialised to developing countries, along with interdependency on food and fuel, highlight the need to not only understand global economics but also recognise that investment in skills is vital in developing flexibility, coping with uncertainty, and dealing with rapid change and competition.
The UK has invested far more than any other industrialised country in adult literacy, numeracy and English for speakers of other languages, recognising the importance of these skills to optimise human potential and fulfilment.
The same rationale must be applied to developing countries if HIV and AIDS, maternal ill-health and infant mortality, climate change and crop failure are not to have a devastating impact not only on the poorest people on our planet, but on all of us.
Our interdependence means that, if we neglect to invest in supporting emerging economies, we do so at enormous cost. Powerlessness, a sense that hegemony rests elsewhere, and inequality of opportunity to lead healthy, fulfilled lives lead, understandably, to unrest and protest. Helping to create a more equitable world, where wealth and influence are more evenly distributed, can be supported by education and training; adult literacy has a vital role to play in advocating greater global harmony.
Education For All
Seven years ago, 164 governments and organisations committed to expand educational opportunities for children, young people and adults by 2015. The resulting Education For All (EFA) initiative set the agenda and the goals, including literacy, for adults and young people. The goals are concerned with:
■ early childhood care and education
■ universal primary education
■ meeting the learning needs of young people and adults
■ developing literacy and literate environments
■ promoting gender parity and equality
■ improving the quality of teaching and learning.
The UNESCO Global Monitoring Report on the mid-term review of the EFA goals reported: 'Illiteracy is receiving minimal political attention and remains a global disgrace, keeping one in five adults (one in four women) on the margins of society.'
The statistics tell a graphic story: worldwide, 774 million people lack basic literacy skills; 64% of them are women. In addition, gender disparity is huge with only 59 countries achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education by 2005. The quality of teaching is of great concern, with crowded and dilapidated classrooms, too few materials, and large pupil-teacher ratios. HIV/AIDS has impacted enormously on the teaching force. In addition, 72 million children remain out of school. One of the EFA goals is to reduce illiteracy by 50% by the target date.
The Literacy Working Group
Adult literacy and numeracy have been prioritised as essential aspects of living and working in industrialised countries; the Literacy Working Group advocates that aid to developing countries should reflect similar priorities. The group was set up as a result of growing interest in this area, generated especially by the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report (2005)1 which looked in great depth at the state of literacy in the world.
The UK National Commission (UKNC) for UNESCO, the UK Forum for International Education and Training (UKFIET) and the British Association for Literacy in Development (BALID) organised linked events in December 2005 and January 2006 to discuss the findings. Discussion at these events identified a need to create a continuing UK forum for the exchange of ideas, for support and promotion of international literacy programmes and campaigns, for advocacy for literacy development, and for mobilising UK literacy expertise on behalf of development efforts worldwide.
The Literacy Working group was established as an autonomous group, made up of representatives of organisations and of expert individuals, committed to the promotion of literacy. It is linked to the UKNC but independent of it. The current membership is drawn from the three founder organisations plus NIACE*, ActionAid, NRDC, and some individuals who are highly experienced in this field.
The group aims to encourage the UK Government to develop policies, planning and implementation of more adult literacy programmes - including family literacy - in international development activities, and to encourage integration of literacy into aid programmes. The shared vision is that the EFA targets would be more effectively and efficiently achieved if such approaches were adopted.
Early in its formation, the Group met with the Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning in Hamburg, to hear about its literacy priorities. It commissioned and edited a position paper on literacy concepts and strategies, which was distributed and discussed at UKFIET and International Adult Learners' Week conferences. Members have met on several occasions with senior DfID* officials to discuss literacy in UK aid programmes and have produced for them, under contract, briefing notes on the concepts, issues and practices of adult literacy. The group responded to UNESCO (2007) from a literacy perspective, as well as making input to the UK Confintea* report which will contribute to the global conference of Confintea in May 2009.
The group takes an holistic view of the EFA goals, arguing that many could beachieved more readily and sustainably if adult literacy was woven into the policies and programmes that deliver them. For example, the goals concerning early childhood, primary education and gender would be more effectively reached if family learning programmes were advocated and developed. Both in industrialised and in developing countries, the children and families experiencing the greatest poverty and disadvantage have the least access to learning support.
We know the benefits of family programmes in supporting families with the greatest needs. We also know that integrated approaches to learning, where literacy and numeracy are closely linked to vocational education and training, are effective in developing both the technical skills and the literacy skills. Drawing on the expertise of teachers of adult literacy as well as of VET* teachers ensures that the learning is explicit, relevant and purposeful.
Moreover, we are absolutely clear that the quality of teaching and learning is central to the achievement of EFA goals, just as the UK Skills for Life programme has invested massively in training and developing teachers to achieve its purposes. The development of their own literacy and numeracy skills equips teachers to influence the quality of the learning and achievement of their learners.
The future work of the group includes a continuing dialogue with DfID and DIUS*, making presentations at conferences, and exploring how we can extend the advocacy role to include the media as well as politicians who are sensitive to the purposes and priorities of the group. We will continue to explore opportunities for enhancing and adding value to other DfID policy priorities. We will work to influence global meetings as well as through organisational and personal networks.
We recognise that as the demands of living and working in the 21st century change and increase, vibrant economies, which support social justice, active citizenship and lively democracies, also require lifelong learning policies and practices. The vision must also embrace UK aid programmes in developing countries where the needs are even more obvious and vital. We know how to take such imaginative steps; there must be the global, national and local political will to lead and support them.
Jan Eldred is Associate Director for Literacy, Language and Numeracy at NIACE and current Chair of the Literacy Working Group
 The UNESCO Education for All: Global Monitoring Report is published annually. See www.efareport.unesco.org