Nitya Rao

The author, who is on the staff of the Asian-South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education (ASPBAE), gave this courageous and respected speech at a plenary session of the World Forum. This was on one of the themes concerned with cooperation with the civil society for the purposes of attaining social goals through adult education. At the end of her speech she asked why it was that fewer than half of the NGOs present in Jomtien were contributing in Dakar.

Cooperating with Civil Society to Achieve Social Goals through Education

We are today gathered here to review the progress of education in our countries and the world during the last decade. Considerable progress has no doubt been made, but there are still 113 million children who have no access to primary education, 875 million adults who are still illiterate, persistence of gender inequities in education systems and poor quality of education and learning. We are therefore also here at this Forum to discuss strategies for the future, to make Education for All a reality in the coming years.

Premises for Civil Society Intervention

The last decade has thrown up numerous experiments of civil society intervention to achieve the broader social development goals through education. Various international conferences in this decade have emphasised the role of civil society to achieve the ­oals of social development. I would like to put forward three initial comments on this before turning to the role of the civil society in the coming decade to ensure EFA.

1. The Intrinsic Value of Education

The first premise is that education is often viewed in a very functionalist and instrumentalist sense, as a means to increase productivity, reduce population, eliminate poverty etc. While this is no doubt true, education also has an intrinsic value in terms of empowering individuals and communities for effective citizenship, consolidating democratic governance, promoting creativity and a culture of peace. Education is a fundamental human right of every child, young person and adult. One needs to remember, however, that education is not the utopia or the solution to all problems, nor is it an alternative to other development programmes or structural change. Where people live at a subsistence level, a convergence of different sectoral and development programmes is essential. The tension between making literacy the kingpin in social transformation and placing it as one of many components in this process needs to be recognised.

2. Civil Society Implies Diversity

A second basic premise is that the civil society is not one homogenous entity – it includes a diversity of development organisations, media, consumer and business associations, religious groups, even fundamentalist forces. While the diversity makes for the strength of the civil society to take on different roles, it is difficult to generalise the civil society as one block. One has also to guard against the obscurantist elements, many of whom are also active in educational processes. For the sake of my presentation here, I limit the usage of the word civil society to development organisations, committed to the values and principles of social equity and transformation as well as sustainable human development. 

3. Education – the Responsibility of the State

The third premise I make is that while development organisations have been and are committed to the attainment of the goals of EFA, particularly in regions of mass illiteracy and mass poverty, education is a core responsibility of the State. National governments need to ensure the provision of educational services, protecting this right from the polarising effects of market forces that can cause the exclusion of disadvantaged groups.

The role of the Civil Society

I would now like to address the role of the civil society in attaining the goals of social development through education. Civil society can supplement, support or add on to the state initiative.

1. Enhancing the Quality of Education

The first role one can see is that of enhancing the quality of education. In countries that have a problem of mass illiteracy as in much of South Asia, civil society cannot take over the task of education delivery. Given its strengths in terms of flexibility, responsiveness to needs, ability to pilot innovative methods and projects, it can contribute substantively to an improvement in the quality of education – one that is relevant to the daily living conditions of the community, the needs of the marginalized, of women, of groups left out by the formal education system, in terms of content, language as well as culture: an education that is learner-centred, facilitates a process of critical analysis and application rather than just learning by rote.

2. Building Micro-Macro Linkages in Education Systems

A second key role of civil society is to use the wealth of grassroot experience at the micro-level for advocacy and building micro-macro linkages. The Rishi Valley Education Centre has developed an innovative non-formal education curriculum and programme used by many NGOs. They have recently been able to negotiate with the Government of Karnataka for its adoption in 3000 state schools. Eklavya has done this in Central India.

Such interventions are particularly important in the context of the Structural Adjustment Programmes and an increasingly minimalist state. The last decade has shown for example in India a sharp increase in inequalities and uneven development across regions and groups. Apart from the increase in inequalities due to differences in access, there is also a danger of decline in the quality of education in the process of privatisation. There is an encouragement to private schools, which may charge fees, but do not necessarily have qualified or trained teachers or a relevant curriculum. Further, in its effort to reach the remotest parts and the unreached groups, the state itself develops new programmes that use local people as teachers. They are less qualified, not trained and paid less, as in the District Primary Education Programme in India. While some of these para-teachers are sincere, socially committed and accountable to the local communities, when two such parallel systems exist, quality may suffer. The thrust for civil society then is to make the existing state educational delivery systems both functional and accountable to the communities they seek to serve.

3. Ensuring Access to Education

A third major role is in terms of access – where NGOs can play both a mobilising role and a monitoring function to ensure access for communities to both educational institutions and processes. Mothers’ groups, Village Education Committees and local government committees have been set up for this purpose in several parts of India; however they often lack the teeth and powers to secure accountability from the teachers and the administration. The rural communities, underdeveloped regions, ethnic groups, women and adolescent girls usually get the worst deal, and this needs to be reversed. Budgets exist for free textbooks and scholarships, but remain unspent.

In much of the Asia-Pacific, we already have free education, however due to its poor quality, lack of relevance, problems of delivery and resource constraints of the parents, all children do not receive it. Civil society thus has a role in ensuring access to educational services, for both children and adults.


4. Building Bridges with Development Programmes

A fourth key role is for civil society groups engaged in educational interventions to facilitate linkage with other development sectors and programmes. This is important if one recognises the considerable overlap between those who are marginalized, economically and socially, and those who lack access to education. Bunyad in Pakistan has effectively linked literacy with poverty alleviation programmes for women. Health education, water, savings and credit, resource mapping and organisation for demanding rights are other interventions that have been linked to literacy. The challenge lies in going beyond literacy, to providing lifelong learning opportunities for the achievement of social development goals.

The need for holistic development and integration of different services is universally acknowledged. Given that these services are managed, controlled and monitored by different departments of the state, this integration does not happen automatically. The linkages need to be made. When this has happened, whether it be securing a loan or a water connection, the educational interventions themselves have been more sustaining. Cooperation between the different actors involved in development – the state, civil society and communities – is critical for social development.

Mechanisms to Mainstream NGO Innovations

What are the mechanisms for achieving this? How can the NGO innovations be mainstreamed? How can effective partnership be developed with the State at different levels, from framing educational policies to providing inputs to improve the quality of education? How can accountability be ensured at every level, from the local school to the district, national, regional and global levels?

1. At Community Level: Starting from Where the People Are and Creating a Volunteer Development Force

Several models have emerged at the community level. The Swadhyaya movement led by Pandurang Shastri, covering more than 2 million people in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in western India is an example worth mentioning. It is based on the concept of using collective wealth generated through collective action for the purpose of social transformation and community development. It uplifts both the facilitators, generally belonging to the elite class, who contribute their wealth, talent and time (two days a month) and the poor and deprived. It draws on the deep-rooted humanitarian impulses present in each human being. The agenda in these cases is controlled by the community and education is given its place in their overall life scheme.

The lesson is to start from where people are. The Public Report on Basic Education in India released in early 1999, revealed that poor parents too want to educate their children. They realise that education can open up a whole new world of opportunities for them. But the education needs to be relevant to their lives, to meet their needs, and be sensitive to their constraints, particularly of resources.

A second mechanism is to create a “volunteer development force” engaged in many different activities, but unified in their attempt to help the under-privileged access their dues. The total literacy campaigns in India have been a vibrant example of this. Literacy Volunteers active in the campaigns are today engaged in many tasks – water and sanitation, health awareness, promoting thrift and credit, development of watersheds and resource planning, legal literacy and women’s empowerment. In the State of Kerala, they have been active in the People’s Planning campaign, wherein local plans are integrated upwards into the district and then state plan. Here one is really talking about a major paradigm shift, a shift in values and attitude from one that is target-driven to one that is owned by the people. It is only this that can lead to the attainment of social goals.

2. At District Level: Decentralisation

At the district-level, mechanisms for decentralisation in terms of Panchayati Raj institutions have been put in place in India. However, they too need to be empowered and their capacities built to take on educational interventions. One workable model that emerged during the total literacy campaigns in India, initiated in 1988 by the National Literacy Mission, was a three-legged structure – a partnership between the government, an NGO/activist group and the people, each playing a complementary role. These should be sustained through clear and binding mechanisms, spared from the changing whims of the local political leadership.

3. At National Level: Necessity of Clear Plans

At the national level, the national plans for achieving the EFA goals must be clear, time-bound, action-oriented, transparently and democratically negotiated with all the stakeholders in order to develop constructive partnerships. Along with different Ministries of the state, a broad alliance of civil society groups – NGOs, women’s groups, providers of information technologies, media, the corporate sector, communities of teachers, parents and learners, should be involved in the process. While an overall national commitment is crucial, in India there exist sharp regional disparities, ethnic and caste disparities, gender disparities. While giving voice to these groups at the national level, detailed sub-national and even local plans would be required to address these issues. If the State does not stick by its commitments, civil society should be able to appeal to the UN Rapporteur to investigate this.

4. At the International Level: Clear Accountability but Responsibility with National Governments

At the international level there is a need to recognise that despite considerable progress, education did not get the necessary status in the last decade, partly due to the lack of structures and mechanisms set up to achieve EFA goals post-Jomtien. Post-Dakar, all EFA structures should have a representative base, clear lines of accountability and central responsibility with the national governments. Regional structures should be strengthened in areas where the problem is most severe, namely, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The Civil Society Alliances as Partners of Governments in Achieving Education for All

The Dakar Framework for Action highlights the need to ensure the engagement and participation of civil society in educational development. There are however serious concerns about the partnership with NGOs. While 125 NGOs were invited to Jomtien, only 55 found a place in Dakar. It is not only lip service that is needed now, but civil society alliances should become key partners of governments in achieving EFA. The right to education is already enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We cannot wait any longer to make this a reality.

Adult Education and Development


DVV International operates worldwide with more than 200 partners in over 30 countries.

To interactive world map

Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.