David Archer

REFLECT was developed as a radical new approach to adult literacy and empowerment between 1993 and 1995 in three pilot projects in El Salvador, Uganda and Bangladesh. The approach has now been adapted to different contexts by about 250 organisations in 40 countries. In El Salvador, one of the original pilot countries, the national NGO CIAZO is now developing REFLECT programmes with 25 grassroots organisations spread across the country. In the process, CIAZO is confronting some fundamental questions about the conception of "literacy" and the problematic nature of "literacy programmes". It is also working towards some radical new solutions. REFLECT in El Salvador is now a very different approach to that used in 1995 and it seems that by 2001 it will be even more different! – David Archer is Head of the International Education Unit of ActionAid and has been one of the key persons in the conceptual and practical development of this still fairly new approach to literacy.

Reflections on REFLECT in El Salvador

1. Background

1.1 The Original Definition of REFLECT

REFLECT is a radical new approach to adult literacy and empowerment, developed through field experimentation in Uganda, Bangladesh and El Salvador. In a REFLECT programme there is no textbook – no literacy "primer" – no pre-printed materials other than a guide for the facilitators that is produced locally (preferably with the input of the facilitators themselves). Each literacy circle develops its own learning materials through the construction of maps, matrices, calendars and diagrams that represent local reality, systematise the existing knowledge of learners and promote the detailed analysis of local issues.

These "graphics" (from the PRA basket of tools) might include maps of households, land use, or land tenancy; calendars of gender workloads, illnesses or income; matrices to analyse local crops, credit sources or ratings of local organisations. Each graphic is initially constructed on the ground using whatever materials are locally available (sticks, stones, beans etc.), and the discussion is facilitated by a local person selected as literacy facilitator.

Participants use simple pictures to label their map and to help them transfer it from the ground to a large piece of paper – the first step to literacy. Words can then be introduced in places where their spatial location helps to reinforce recognition. As the REFLECT process progresses, so the range of graphics helps produce a wider range of literacy and numeracy activities. A range of participatory approaches can be integrated into REFLECT, including the use of real materials, song, drama, poems, proverbs etc. There is an emphasis on writing and the active construction of texts rather than passive reading.

By the end of the literacy course, each circle will have produced twenty to thirty graphics representing a detailed analysis of its environment, and all participants will have these in their own exercise books together with the phrases they have written. The learners are thus able to produce a real document instead of copied scribbles. The graphics become a permanent record for communities, giving them a basis on which to plan their own development. As participants construct their own materials, they take ownership of the issues that come up and often take local action, and change their behaviour or their attitudes.

1.2 A New Definition of REFLECT

REFLECT has continued to evolve and in 1998 a new definition was proposed at an international workshop in London:

"REFLECT is a structured participatory learning process which facilitates people’s critical analysis of their environment, placing empowerment at the heart of sustainable and equitable development. Through the creation of democratic spaces and the construction and interpretation of locally-generated texts, people build their own multi-dimensional analysis of local and global reality, challenging dominant development paradigms and redefining power relationships in both public and private spheres. Based on ongoing processes of reflection and action, people empower themselves to work for a more just and equitable society."

1.3 History of Ciazo and REFLECT

In 1993 the Salvadorean NGO CIAZO (Corporation of Popular Education) supported the grassroots organisation COMUS (United Communities of Usulutan) to develop a pilot REFLECT programme. In fact at that time "REFLECT " had not been named. It was introduced as a merging of the theory of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire with the practical methodologies developed by Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA).

At the time CIAZO was the most prominent literacy and popular education organisation in El Salvador (as it is to this day) and had a large national programme based around a primer entitled "Literacy For Peace". CIAZO worked with 25 grassroots organisations or cooperative federations and developed an excellent reputation for the quality of its work. Indeed, Paulo Freire himself visited CIAZO in 1992 and wrote about the inspiration he gained from it in one of his final works, "Pedagogy of Hope".

In 1993 the COMUS "experiment" with this new approach was just one of four innovative initiatives which CIAZO was developing in the field of adult literacy (others involved work at municipal level, a new approach to numeracy and an integrated approach). CIAZO provided some technical support for the development of a local manual and the training of local facilitators. It also became involved in the evaluation of the pilot experience in 1995, which involved comparing the outcomes of the REFLECT approach with the outcomes from the literacy work of CIAZO’s national programme "Literacy for Peace". According to this comparison:

"The results of the evaluation showed that REFLECT was about as successful as CIAZO’s national programme in respect of literacy work, but that it was massively more succesful when it came to generating community action, empowerment and social change."

Despite these striking evaluation results there was significant institutional resistance to change. In part this was "to do with a necessary process of ongoing learning and the need for evolutionary (rather than abrupt) change."

However, there was a recognition, even at this stage, that REFLECT had a contribution to make:

"For many years we were using radical discourse in trying to promote popular education, whilst using methodologies which were fundamentally traditional. At the time we were hugely critical of government programmes and yet those programmes were scarcely distinguishable in methodology from our own. REFLECT offers a fundamental shift in methodology and practice to match our different discourse."

CIAZO recognised that in its primer-based programme "the agenda was set by us as professionals and the methodology used rarely facilitated horizontal communication". So, in 1996/7 CIAZO replaced the primer with a national manual (or "methodological orientation book") for facilitators, called "Education for Action". However, by late 1997 it was becoming clear that the old primer had simply been replaced by a national manual which was turning out to be much like a primer. It was necessary to make a more radical move:

"Facilitators were being treated as passive implementors, not creative agents at the heart of the process. Trainers themselves had not taken ownership of the approach and needed further support. Despite good intentions it was clear that CIAZO had effectively distorted REFLECT, creating a hybrid which would not live up to our expectations."

During the first months of 1998 a series of workshops were held across the country to enable each grassroots organisation to develop its own local resource materials on REFLECT, making the facilitators centrally involved in adapting the approach and creating their own materials. This started with a workshop for 15 facilitators from one particular grassroots organisation together with one trainer from each of another 15 organisations – helping to ensure that the training of trainers was field-based and real, rather than detached. Each workshop started with an introduction to PRA and then had a one week gap in the middle, during which participants went back to their communities to use PRA tools for background research. They then re-convened and wrote their own local manual, adapting PRA tools to address the local issues they had identified and working in small groups to write their own Units:

"The impact of this training approach across the country has been a remarkable degree of internalisation of REFLECT by everyone involved – with people feeling a true sense of ownership of the approach and a high level of creative capacity being revealed. Production of training or resource materials is no longer seen as the reserve of experts in the capital – and horizontal exchange of materials between organisations has provided each facilitator with a huge resource base from which to draw."

2. Ciazo in 1999

This same decentralised approach to producing local materials was followed in 1999 so that new facilitators would always feel part of the process and would not feel that they were working with materials inherited from before. The results were very diverse, including the innovation of a range of new graphics which reveal a positive level of internalisation of the approach and creative thinking.

In Chirilagua, the preparation of local training materials involved an initial process of identifying seven key issues such as unemployment, health, discrimination against women and deforestation. The facilitators then prepared a series of REFLECT Units on each theme. The guidelines for each of the seven themes were written up in about 12 pages of A4, photocopied and stapled together. These included examples of each proposed visualisation and ideas for literacy and numeracy work. The theme of unemployment was chosen first as the biggest challenge facing the community. The proposed tool used to stimulate initial debate was a tree in which the roots were the causes of unemployment and the branches were the various effects. The guidelines then go on to include the identification of various solutions which are visualised as fruits.The manual then suggests constructing a calendar to identify the particular times of the year when unemployment or under-employment is a problem and to plan out a sequence of concrete actions for achieving some of the solutions. In the health theme, a series of three graphics are used, starting with a community map, then a community survey of the incidence of different illnesses, consolidated in a matrix, and finally a tree to explore the causes, effects and possible solutions.

In COMUS in Usulutan, the first Unit involves a tree to analyse the causes and effects of illiteracy. The groups then move on to construct a river showing the major incidents and developments in the life of the community over the past ten years. This then leads on to a community map. The second theme selected is community organisation, which starts with an attempt to identify the various impacts of the lack of community organisation.

Asked to identify graphics that they found particularly effective in their work, nine CIAZO promoters in the Centre and West of El Salvador identified a wide range of examples. This helps to illustrate that the local production of materials has certainly reduced standardisation and produced some innovation:

  • a pair-wise ranking of possible productive projects
  • a matrix to document what each individual participant is planning to plant in the coming year and on what scale
  • a map identifying the vulnerability of the community to various disasters, particularly flooding, which has led to various concrete actions to build barriers/walls
  • a map of deforestation, showing the connection between declining tree cover and various other problems (i. e. a map which includes an analysis of cause and effect)
  • a river illustrating the life of a community organisation, dramatising both problems and successes
  • a chapati diagram of community organisations including complex interconnections shown by arrows
  • a matrix to analyse the value of different core services (health, water, roads, schools etc.) to different groups within the community (classified by age and gender)
  • a calendar of market prices for coffee, showing the annual trend in prices at local, regional and national level
  • a tree to analyse the causes and effects of the breakdown of the values system of a community

3. Continuing Problems and Challenges: Illustrated by COMUS

COMUS (The United Communities of Usulutan) is the organisation which implemented the original pilot project using REFLECT. In the original pilot programme a number of problems were identified, but the successes of the approach, particularly in respect of community organisation and collective action, were striking.

Today COMUS works in 42 communities and has "education groups" in 17 communities, divided into three zones. The local facilitators, most of whom are new this year and all of whom are volunteers, did a survey using PRA to identify key issues and have produced local manuals on three core themes for this year, two of which are in use at present. Most of the education groups have just eight to ten participants, often including children, especially in communities where there is no local school. Attendance is often poor, with only three or four people participating. In this context there is considerable resistance from participants to developing the graphics. They have come to learn to read and write and rarely see the value of these "exercises". Where graphics are developed they are done mostly with pictures and the literacy activity is quite divorced from the process of developing graphics. The education promoters in COMUS (Rolando and Marguerita) commented that the facilitators only felt comfortable with three of the basic tools – the tree, the river and the map – so that these same tools are used again and again, which only increases the frustration of participants.

However, more significantly, the expectations of participants seem to be very narrow. Because they have joined something called an "education group" or "literacy circle", the mentality of the school is overwhelming. People see themselves as "learners" rather than "participants" and as learners they would appear to prefer a teacher who tells them what to do rather than someone who tries to get them to participate. As a result of all these factors there are very few local "actions" and it is difficult to see how the process is linked to wider community development.

One of the most revealing insights from the experience of COMUS is that the local facilitators regard the local manual as a "bible" – a document that they must follow step by step. This happens despite the fact that the facilitators themselves produced the manual! They lack the confidence to innovate and lack a wider set of resource materials from which they could draw new ideas.

In this context there are various possible strategies that could be pursued:

  • One would be to provide all facilitators with a much wider set of reference materials, for example a booklet with 50 or 100 possible forms of visualisation or participatory approach – each presented only in visual form and not directly linked to guidelines about reading and writing. This would give facilitators something more substantial to draw on but would still require them to select and adapt approaches.
  • Another strategy would be to give more intensive training on how to deal with the literacy and numeracy dimension as this is such a central concern for learners. This training might highlight the need to ensure that all graphics are constructed with words rather than pictures so that the process of construction and discussion is also a literacy learning process. Guidelines on strategies which go beyond the generative word and syllabic family approach would seem to be urgent as this is presently predominant. Focusing on using words generated by graphics for writing sentences and having facilitators write texts based on discussions which are then used for reading practice, are among the more obvious strategies that could be used.
  • More intensive ongoing training of the facilitators is also an option, particularly ensuring that they have weekly contact in the early period of the programme. This would enable them to share concerns, would increase confidence and would mean that new materials could constantly be generated.
  • Providing some financial incentive to facilitators (which is a continual demand) could also be considered as a way of ensuring lower turnover so that more serious and sustained capacity building can be undertaken.

The above ideas are amongst the more obvious ways of moving forward. However, they would not resolve the fundamental problem in COMUS, which is that the education groups are isolated within the wider community and are perceived, unsurprisingly given their title, as being primarily about literacy. In such a context it is difficult to conceive of the REFLECT approach ever genuinely being practised in these groups.

In 1993-5, during the pilot programme, despite all the problems, the political conditions were substantially different. The REFLECT circles in most cases involved more people and there was a momentum of change. The peace accords had just been signed and land reform was underway. COMUS itself was relatively new as an organisation and there was a feeling, which must have been shared by participants, that change was possible. In such circumstances, participants in the circles were not doing a map for the sake of doing a map. Nor were they doing a map just in order to identify a generative word. The process of analysis of local conditions was one that could feasibly contribute to the process of change that was underway.

This historical moment has passed. There is now deep frustration in most communities. People are deeply suspicious of external agencies (and even COMUS is not immune to this) and do not feel that it is worth discussing and analysing their problems any more because they have been let down so much in the past. In something called a literacy circle or education group it is quite reasonable that people should get frustrated at being asked yet again to discuss local issues in an apparently abstract way. The groups have very low participation levels and there is little meaningful learning going on or likely to go on. The most obvious conclusion is to close the literacy circles altogether.

4. Close the Literacy Circles!

This may seem rather abrupt but it is surely the best way forward. The literacy circles, though they go through the motions of using graphics, have little or nothing to do with the original conception of REFLECT. Even at its most basic, REFLECT aims to "fuse a process of literacy with a process of empowerment". Groups organised as "literacy circles" or "education groups" might be a basis for working with the REFLECT approach if the groups or circles do act as a basis to mobilise communities, if a critical mass of people are involved in the process, and if there is a genuine possibility that the group might contribute to wider processes of change. However, in the absence of such conditions a literacy group is quite possibly the worst place to start a REFLECT process! The expectations brought by participants will always overwhelm the possibilities for a wider process.

Besides abolishing the literacy primer, the learning from COMUS suggests that there are two more things that REFLECT needs to consider abolishing. The first is the manual, which at any level will always have a tendency to become a sacred text. The second is the literacy circle. REFLECT should still be a systematic approach, addressing literacy and power, but literacy classes, literacy circles or education groups should not be the means by which this is achieved.

In the context of COMUS there are numerous alternatives. The key is to work with groups which have their own existing logic and purpose and can use the approach to deepen their existing work. One option is to work with the newly formed Union of Organic Producers which has 100 members in the area. Most members are not literate while some have basic levels of literacy. Working with this group offers considerable potential. There are also women’s groups, alternative health groups, parent-teacher associations and cooperatives, all of which may offer a basic organisational framework for the use of REFLECT. How they might do so is illustrated by some of the other experiences of CIAZO in the following sections.

5. Leadership Training and the Systematic Use of Pra

CIAZO has been working towards a more integrated approach to its work. Alongside its adult literacy work it also has two programmes: Leadership Training (called "Escuela Metodológica") and systematic PRA work (called Diagnóstico Rural Participativa Profundo"). In both these areas of work, CIAZO talks about using the REFLECT approach, though this is more at the level of discourse than practice as it is not clear how the different areas are integrated.

The Leadership Training programme is conducted with those counterpart grassroots organisations which are interested. It usually involves some people from the management team of the organisation concerned, together with community leaders from the communities which the organisation represents. Once the organisation agrees to participate in this programme an initial participatory consultation is undertaken to determine those issues on which the organisation wants training. These might include subjects such as commercialisation, running a cooperative, accounting, planning, the environment etc. CIAZO often suggests additional themes, such as gender and strengthening local democracy, if these themes have not arisen. Tailor-made courses are then designed and workshops are usually held once a month for one or two days, facilitated jointly by CIAZO staff and the education promoters of the host organisation. Participatory approaches are used systematically in these workshops, drawing on the full range of popular education experience which CIAZO has accumulated over the past decade, but particularly drawing on its experience with REFLECT. Most of the workshops go beyond traditional training to involve concrete agreements and action points.

"Systematic PRA" is another area of CIAZO’s work in 1999. This involves intensive work with particular communities. CIAZO will train the existing literacy facilitators over a few days to conduct comprehensive surveys of their communities, with the support of community leaders and following consultation in community assemblies. The work will normally be undertaken at a time of low agricultural workload and will involve intensive workshops over a week or ten days with different sectors of the community to develop a full "diagnosis" of the community. This is done entirely within the community with no external input. PRA methods are used as the basis for most of the work and the facilitators, together with other literate members of the community, will write it up. In cases of best practice the final text is orally agreed word by word with all interested people. The aim is to produce a core text about the community written entirely from within and to use this as the basis to leverage external resources and influence external agencies. This is a relatively new area of work for CIAZO but the intention is to follow up the initial surveys with action plans and feasibility studies.

These two strands of work offer a powerful foundation for a re-conceptualisation of REFLECT in El Salvador. The work with community leaders could lead to the formation of planning and investigation groups within each community, with direct support from both the community leadership and the local voluntary organisation. These groups could use the "systematic PRAs" as a foundation for developing a range of core texts about their community. Literate and non-literate people would be involved in the process. By seizing control of the right to read and write their own reality, these groups would be a much more powerful basis for a process of empowerment linked to literacy than the existing literacy circles. The example of PRODECOSAL shows that this convergence is beginning to happen. The process is still intimately based around literacy but takes literacy out of the classroom and focuses instead on linking learning to the meaningful use of literacy in a real process of challenging power relations.

6. Using Literacy, Using Power, Abolishing the Classroom

Founded in 1992, PRODECOSAL started life as an organisation working with adult literacy in marginal urban areas of San Salvador. It rapidly extended its work to include providing support for CBOs (Community Based Organisations) in securing the legal status which would enable them to benefit directly from the numerous government programmes promoted after the signing of the peace accords. Its work spread to over 35 communities in 1993. Human rights became a central concern – particularly defending poor communities in marginal areas who were threatened with forced eviction from land on which they had been settled for many years. Later PRODECOSAL started work supporting the creation of small-scale businesses, particularly for people working in the informal economy, selling goods on the streets. With the support of an international NGO, PRODECOSAL supplied credit to these people. However, in the post-war context, where many agencies were providing direct benefits to people in a manner characterised powerfully in Spanish as "asistencialista", people who took funds perceived them as grants – either as a form of recompense for their suffering in the war or indeed as payment for their solidarity and support during the war. This was accentuated by the fact that almost all NGOs in El Salvador at the time were affiliated to (or associated with) different guerrilla factions. When repayments of credit failed to rise above 40%, the international NGO withdrew support and PRODECOSAL was widely condemned, leading to the virtual collapse of the organisation. One interpretation of this incident suggests that the INGO in question was looking for a way out as it was reducing its programme in Central America – which was no longer a "fashionable" or media-worthy region for development work.

PRODECOSAL has been struggling to rebuild itself after this collapse and with the help of CIAZO decided to focus again on adult literacy, targeting its support to just 12 communities around Nejapa. Rebuilding a relationship of trust with communities was a major challenge as so many communities have been disillusioned with the false promises of external agencies in recent years. With the help of CIAZO, Prodecosal staff started to work with REFLECT as an approach. Initially they perceived REFLECT only as an approach to literacy but as they saw the work develop they decided to innovate with the approach, taking it beyond adult literacy. They selected three of the 12 communities to do a pilot project which would involve using REFLECT as an approach to holistic community development.

There are two guiding principles to this pilot project: integration and "concertación". Rather than work in a piecemeal way just with literacy circles, "integration" implies using the approach with whole communities, addressing the full range of community development needs. "Concertación" involves recognising that no agency can undertake such work alone and that a wide alliance of all stakeholders needs to be mobilised, including local government, extension agencies and NGOs.

The starting point of this process was a comprehensive survey of the selected communities, using PRA tools. Although facilitated initially by PRODECOSal, this process became owned by the communities, which produced their own situational analyses, classifying and ranking their needs in three broad categories: economic, socio-cultural and infrastructural. Whilst initially conceived as a survey, these analyses became part of a permanent process of community planning. Each community moved on from producing a survey to developing detailed action plans. In the process, the principles of the REFLECT approach were shared in a number of different local workshops so that they became part of the philosophy and approach of each community. Whilst difficult to capture briefly, this was hugely significant in that REFLECT was not perceived as an approach used in the community by an outside agency but rather as something internalised and developed by the community.

So far this may sound little more than a systematic use of PRA. In the absence of literacy, what makes this anything to do with REFLECT? One of the key differences is that the process has revolved around the construction of different texts by the community. Beyond the situational analysis and overall action plans there have been more detailed workplans and feasibility studies. The focus has been on using these texts, produced by the community, to secure external resources. Writing formal requests to local government and other agencies, preparing petitions, undertaking detailed research, developing a community census and demanding formal documents of registration have all been part of the process. The focus is on establishing the community’s right to write its own texts and do its own analysis, rather than always being the object of other people’s plans. There are numerous agencies which develop plans on behalf of these communities and secure funding in the name of these communities. Government agencies, the local government and many NGOs all use their own literacy to wield power over the communities. Plans and budgets are written, decisions taken, resources allocated with at most only a cursory consultation. Many of these projects never appear on the ground in practice. In other cases, communities only see a fragment of the resources secured in their name as the institutions absorb most of the money for their own functioning. Asserting the right to read what is being done in their name and the right to write their own proposals is the most fundamental step towards redressing the power imbalance. The challenge of all literacy programmes has always been to create uses for literacy after the period of learning. Here, this challenge is confronted head on – with the aim of becoming a "literate" community as the first step – seizing the power of literacy from those who presently wield it.

The implications of this are huge. PRODECOSAL has been concerned that in its literacy circles REFLECT too easily becomes mechanical. Participants construct maps and matrices and other graphics as "exercises" which are undertaken primarily to generate a few words for learning literacy. There may be some discussion but the process is not "real". The analysis in these circles too easily becomes like a rehearsal or a simulation as a path to something else. In contrast, in the pilot project every graphic is constructed with a real and immediate purpose. Only by getting away from anything resembling a classroom situation can the formal expectations attached to any learning process be challenged. Participants in this new process are involved for a reason and with a clear end. Graphics do not becomes abstract objects for studying but become a means to an end, and the end is explicitly focused on a process of change. Within that process, both those who are literate and those who are not are equally involved. Texts are constructed in a participatory way, ensuring that those not familiar with the formal symbols of the alphabet at least input into, understand and agree with the content. Since literacy acquires meaningful uses, the demand for learning is developed and significant learning takes place, although outside any formal context. Learning is not structured around introducing ABC or generative words or syllabic families but around real uses in real contexts.

One revelation that comes from this experience is that in communities which are largely non-literate, even those who do have literacy are effectively illiterate because they rarely use the power that comes with literacy. Having technical knowledge of the alphabet does not constitute literacy. Until communities seize literacy as their own, and demand the right to read and write their reality, no one is truly literate. By confronting the relationship of literacy practice to the practice of power in a direct way, these communities are more truly literate, even though individuals may remain technically illiterate, than communities where people may have technical capacity for literacy but do not use it.

A concrete example of how PRODECOSAL has worked with literacy in a directly empowering way is its work with identity cards. The records kept in the local government offices are out of date and do not represent the true population of the communities. Decisions on projects are taken on the basis of this inaccurate information, and the communities benefit less than they would otherwise. At election times, electoral cards are distributed on the basis of the data that exists, which is never accurately updated. PRODECOSAL undertook its own survey, using mapping to identify the population of the area and then led a campaign to ensure that everyone formally registered and received an identity card. This is a fundamental step towards enabling the community to ensure that it has a say in official documentation and that its voice is heard. Analysing the plans and budgets of the local government and of other agencies may well be the next step. In this way literacy and empowerment really do become interwoven, and act as a force for promoting accountability, transparency and democratisation.

7. Conclusion: Possible Ways Forward

REFLECT is proving problematic in the context of literacy circles in CIAZO, but there are many promising new directions, including the work with leadership training, the systematic use of PRA for community surveys and the pilot project with PRODECOSAL. The cross-cutting work with gender, local democratisation and the environment also offers useful threads. CIAZO is already taking up this challenge. Having evolved as an organisation primarily concerned with literacy, CIAZO will retain this focus. However, it will do so with an expanded conception of literacy.

CIAZO’s new approach is still evolving. What is laid out here is therefore just possibilities rather than certainties. The new approach may start with an analysis by facilitators (with the help of promoters) of all existing organisations functioning within their communities. These may include the governing boards, women’s groups, credit groups, production associations, cooperatives, environmental groups, youth groups, cultural groups etc. An analysis may be made of each organisation or group to determine those which are or could be engaged as agents of serious development in the community. This analysis may use various participatory tools (pie charts/matrices etc).

On the basis of this initial analysis, CIAZO may offer to work with a cross-section of the key groups and organisations in order to strengthen their capacity. Initial meetings could be held with each group to outline the possible process. Those groups which show an interest could then be asked to name a key contact person. The CIAZO-trained facilitators could then work with the key contact people (who could also be offered CIAZO training) to develop a set of tools and techniques which would help each organisation do a detailed "diagnosis" adapted to its particular concerns. CIAZO promoters would bring together key contacts from similar organisations for workshops specifically tailored to their needs (e.g. bringing together representatives from all local women’s groups to help them develop tools appropriate to their interests).

Facilitators may then work one day a week or one day every other week with each group or organisation. Most groups may not have such regular formal meetings but this capacity building process will require regular reinforcement, so that the minimum should be contact once a fortnight. In each meeting, the facilitator and his other key contact person would facilitate a session addressing a different element of the organisation. For example:

  • history of the organisation (e.g. timeline/river)
  • personal histories of participants (e.g. river of life) – to deepen trust
  • analysis of the connections between the organisation and others inside/outside community (e.g. Venn)
  • map of areas touched upon by the organisation’s work and possible future work
  • problem ranking/prioritisation
  • a matrix to analyse the existing work of relevant external organisations
  • matrix studying the internal functioning of the group/level of participation and democracy
  • calendars to look at annual trends of things concerning the organisations
  • team building/cooperative games should also be used (cube, knot etc.)

Once each organisation has conducted a comprehensive survey/diagnosis, this could be written up by the facilitator / contact person and the final text agreed, ideally word for word by the whole group. Flowing out from this, each group should produce a plan of action, which again needs to be agreed, word for word. These plans would arise from a similar range of participatory techniques.

These documents could be copied and shared within the community, with similar groups in other communities and with relevant external agencies (to whom covering letters may also be written asking for a meeting or making specific proposals). From the plan of action of each group, the proposed actions could be given further study or information could be identified. Feasibility studies could then be developed on these issues. This may involve writing to request external technical help, but this help should always be based on terms of reference agreed by the group. All groups could keep a detailed record both of their meetings and of their actions. Meetings with other groups working on the same theme in other communities could be encouraged, as could visits to resource centres or external agencies specialising in their area of concern.

Each organisation could also be encouraged to identify documents that are produced by other organisations that affect them (e.g. plans of NGOs, regional or national institutions, local government, laws, government policies). These could be critically studied and used as the basis for engaging pro-actively with those other organisations. One of the roles of the facilitator will be to help the organisations access these documents and find the key parts of them which are relevant for critical study.

The idea of the above is that meaningful uses of literacy are generated within existing organisational processes, and that these practical uses of literacy advance the work of each organisation. Alongside literacy work, practical numeracy work could critically analyse the budgets of local government and other organisations, for example calculating what percentage of funds which are raised in the name of the community actually arrive.

At all stages this new strategy would involve working with literate and non-literate adults alongside each other in constructing meaningful uses of literacy. It is based on a recognition that there is a range of literacy levels in the communities and that most supposedly literate people do not assert the power of literacy and hence are effectively illiterate. In the process those with no literacy or little literacy will start encountering meaningful texts. Facilitators may encourage those who are literate to help those who are not – both in understanding texts and even learning basic skills using some of the texts (particularly the visualisations which act as useful teaching tools or "bridges"). However, there will be no literacy classes as such – and these should probably be actively avoided.

Facilitators and promoters would work with a range of groups in the community as a starting point. They might then, through a series of bi-lateral meetings and then an assembly, exchange the work of different groups within the community and work towards strengthening overall community work. This will not always be relevant as some groups may prefer to focus on stronger linkages with other communities or external agencies (e.g. district level women’s groups, regional and national movements etc.). These connections upwards should also be actively promoted – so long as the local group becomes an active agent in the organisation or movement.

Where common problems are observed across different surveys by different community groups, community interactions should be encouraged. This may lead to new survey or consultation work or a consolidation of existing work into a community survey and plan of action. It is likely that there will be shared interests across different groups, particularly in relation to how they deal with external agencies and local government. Meetings with external organisations and local government might be based on the demand that each agency provide full details of its plans, budgets, records, etc., which concern the community. Demands for transparency and democratisation thus become directly linked to the process.

One of the major challenges in taking up such an approach might lie with the grassroots organisations themselves, which gain their credibility by being representative of the communities they serve but which are rarely accountable or democratic. If communities are encouraged to analyse documents that exist in their name and to challenge institutions and agencies which "use" the name of their community, then the first targets are likely to be the organisations themselves. It would be a bold organisation which really takes this on – which is transparent enough and sufficiently open to change to promote such an approach. CIAZO may need to work in such a way that the ultimate goals (which include reform of these organisations themselves) are not made explicit at the start but rather emerge in the process. However, in order to prepare the ground for change, it will be important for CIAZO also to be working at an institutional level with these organisations, doing capacity building workshops with their governing boards and key staff where possible.

Indeed, the logic of the REFLECT approach as I observed it emerging in El Salvador is eminently about organisational change as well as change in the community. NGOs are not neutral or invisible. Nor indeed are they always a positive force. In many cases we are an integral part of the problem as we embody the very practices which perpetuate poverty. Our own lack of coordination, our own (even unintentionally) vertical practices are embodied more than anywhere in our own uses of the power of literacy. It is the written documents of institutions that mediate power: plans and budgets that stake out mini- empires, formats that constrain creativity, tables, procedures, policies and jargon that make us impenetrable to outsiders and thus keep our professional status and aloofness intact. And it is our institutions which absorb the vast majority of resources.

We ourselves are part of one of the prominent characteristics of globalisation – the overwhelming presence and multiplication of agencies working for "development". Almost no community is unreached. Increasingly, as the new "missionaries", we share a discourse but even as we do so we argue between ourselves like so many sects. We put the "community" at the centre of our discourse but in practice institutional survival is our primary concern and the poor come second. We become self-justifying and even parasitic, swarming around the poor in order to make ourselves richer. Very few agencies are working in a truly transparent way – with the communities having real control of resources. We talk of empowerment but our own practice dis-empowers.

Moreover, very few institutions are places where serious learning or reflection takes place. It is not just communities which lack the space for a democratic or reflective process. Most institutional training courses tend to deal with fragments rather than then bigger picture. Strategic planning is often a process of showing off the latest jargon and undertaking a process of self-justification. We rarely analyse who we are and what we are doing in a serious way – though we go through the motions of planning and reviewing all too often. We talk of democracy but do not practise it. We promote cooperation but create competitive environments. We generate endless paper but very little learning.

REFLECT could become an approach to radical social change in El Salvador which addresses these problems directly, focusing on the power relationship between poor communities and the diverse agencies which supposedly work for those communities. CIAZO could work on both sides of this equation:

  • strengthening the capacity of community organisations to seize control, enabling them to critically read and write their own reality
  • strengthening the capacity of voluntary organisations/NGOs/institutions to instigate a radical process of change, critically addressing their own power and their own use of literacy to retain power over communities.

On both sides, this work revolves fundamentally around literacy and power. As such it is true to the history of CIAZO. But to work radically with literacy there is a need to break the attachment to literacy circles and to take a wider view of the use of literacy.

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