Malcolm Skilbeck

Malcolm Skilbeck provides a “global synthesis” of the various studies, evaluations and country reports on the Jomtien Decade. This contains detailed outcomes, major concepts and trends in the conclusions drawn about literacy work. – The text is taken from a more wide-ranging publication: Education for All – Global Synthesis by Malcolm Skilbeck. EFA International Consultative Forum Documents. Paris: UNESCO EFA Forum, 2000.

Global Synthesis
Education for All – 2000 Assessment



The World Conference on Education for All held in 1990 in Jomtien, Thailand, marked a new start in the global quest to universalise basic education and eradicate illiteracy. Through the Jomtien Declaration and the Framework for Action, commitments were made and directions set for a decade of large-scale and sustained efforts. Agreements were entered into by countries, inter-governmental organisations, and NGOs to work together throughout the decade. The EFA Forum was established to guide and coordinate :he work, to monitor progress and to assess achievements.

Further global and regional conferences throughout the 90s reinforced the Jomtien message, setting it in a global context of social and economic development and environmental change. Several cooperative ventures were launched in order to monitor student learning achievements, to share knowledge and experience and to drive the Jomtien agenda forward.

Throughout the decade countries have introduced a wide array of educational reforms either directly within or related to the six target dimensions agreed at Jomtien. In preparation for the World Conference to be held in Dakar in April 2000, the progress that countries have made and the difficulties and setbacks they have encountered have been analysed in a series of national reports, regional synthesis reports, thematic studies, and other documents. This material has now been brought together in two main summary reports, the present Global Synthesis, and the Statistical Document. In both documents material is presented according to the six target dimensions.

Countries in their pursuit of the Jomtien goals were invited to set their own specific targets according to their situations and capabilities. Thus there are many country-specific differences in the kinds of material that have been prepared, the topics that have been treated and the issues that have been identified. The Jomtien Declaration was grounded in fundamental values and principles, several of which proved extremely difficult for a number of countries to sustain. This Report attempts to capture that diversity of response, within as well as between countries. Consequently quite varied kinds of evidence are drawn upon.

The ‘Jomtien decade’ witnessed important contextual changes both positive and negative for the achievement of the EFA goals: the collapse of political regimes, civil war, scientific and technological advances, major economic fluctuations, and others. These changes had quite different impacts on different countries and regions.

Analysis of the success or otherwise countries have had in achieving the Jomtien goals forms the main body of this Global Synthesis. For each of the six target dimensions, an account is rendered, based largely on the materials prepared for the EFA 2000 Assessment and drawing on the judgements of their authors.

Arising from experience in trying to achieve their targets, a number of cross-cutting issues have emerged:

  • how to overcome barriers to improved access and greater equity
  • strengthening the quality, relevance and effectiveness of education
  • new patterns of shared responsibility and decision-taking
  • ways to mobilise resources and use them more effectively
  • the creation of a new educational knowledge base

What have been the results of the EFA movement? What are its major successes, its shortcomings and failures? Have the goals been attained? What has been learnt and how can the experience of the Jomtien decade be used for the design and development of the next stage?

Answers to these questions are given, but they are neither simple nor straightforward. Partly this is because of large variations in the quantity and quality of information that has been provided. Also, answers are inevitably complex, given the breadth of the target dimensions and the different courses countries have taken in the definition and pursuit of their own targets. Trend analysis in particular is not possible in any systematic way, but snapshots are taken throughout the Report to highlight singular achievements or critical problems. Despite the difficulties of analysis and assessment, overall major gains can be clearly identified as can the shortcomings. The capacity to monitor and evaluate has been greatly enhanced as a direct result of the Jomtien movement and associated developments. This alone counts as a major achievement of great value for future work.

The purpose of target setting is to stimulate creative thinking and planning and to mobilise action. These have certainly occurred on a large scale. Countries have not mechanically followed the Jomtien framework: instead they have interpreted and modified it according to their own requirements. This in fact is quite in line with the original agreements and expectations. The targets were defined as directions to which countries would relate their own goals and strategies. There have been setbacks and failures, including a lack of commitment and leadership, poor planning and management, neglect of critical problems. It cannot be concluded that, from a global perspective, the targets have yet been reached or reached in quite the way they were thought about a decade ago. Nevertheless, in the following ways there has been real progress towards achieving the Jomtien goals:

  • significant improvements in achieving enrolment, and participation targets for basic education at all levels of education including early childhood care and education
  • big reductions in some countries in inequities, notably in the area of gender, disability and ethnic minorities
  • big reductions in a small number of countries in volumes and/ or rates of adult illiteracy
  • new policies, frameworks, legislation and resources in several countries to pursue one or more of the EFA target directions
  • greater involvement of non-government organisations, community groups and parents in decision making, action programmes and the operation of child care and education facilities
  • big improvements in educational information and in analytic and evaluative capacity (the knowledge base)
  • the targets, although not achieved or fully achieved, are more attainable than a decade ago

Whatever the failures and setbacks, there is more than enough here to demonstrate the massive achievements and value of the EFA movement and to inspire confidence in the future.

The ‘Jomtien Decade’


Principles and Purpose

The commitments and undertakings made at Jomtien were premised on quite fundamental values and beliefs:

  • People everywhere have basic human aspirations and needs: these include nurture, health, training and education in order to fulfil themselves and live well in their families, their communities and as citizens.
  • Injustice, poverty, disease, war and violence are inimical to the satisfaction of basic human needs.
  • All societies have fundamental requirements and they have obligations towards all their members, whose rights as affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights include education.
  • There is a bond between people and society of mutual rights, responsibilities, duties and commitments; education serves to strengthen and enrich this bond.

The movement of Education for All (from Jomtien to Dakar and beyond) affirms:

  • the right of all people everywhere to basic education
  • people’s needs and responsibilities as learners
  • society’s expectations and requirements of its members as learners
  • the need for commitment, leadership and change in the education environment and wider context to foster and facilitate learning

The overriding purpose of the global movement of Education for All is no less than the achievement of a better life for all people, grounded in civilised values and human rights and responsibilities. The goals set and the strategies adopted have, as their rationale, global agreements and commitments to make a living reality of a vision. That reality, however, must embody and express the principles underlying the Jomtien Declaration and Framework for Action.

These principles are ethical, humane and civic; they are culturally and socially sensitive. Mutual obligations and responsibilities bind people and communities together. They can be described as a set of social virtues; combining goodness with efficiency. These virtues include: equity and justice; fairness; empathy and considerateness; peace; the valuing of difference; and active democratic citizenship. They combine in the ideal of a full, good life for everyone, to which education ministers.

Have learning opportunities for all people everywhere – infants, children, youth and adults – been provided? For the EFA 2000 Assessment, there are questions to raise about rates of progress and the directions pursued in achieving the goals. As these questions are addressed, it is also necessary to ask how far and in what ways equity, justice, peace, and democracy have been advanced.

The Six Dimensions of the Jomtien Targets for Education

Achieving universal basic education poses very different challenges for different countries and regions and for particular groups within countries. Even so, it was agreed that there could be a common set of target directions for all countries. Countries were invited at Jomtien to set their targets for the 1990s in terms of six dimensions.

Countries have provided data for each of these targets, which have been analysed in reports on each major regional grouping: Asia and the Pacific; the Americas; Arab States and North Africa; Europe; Sub-Saharan Africa; E9 (the nine most populous countries).

These targets have been operationalised and analysed in the Statistical Document,ýthrough 18 core EFA indicators. These indicators are designed to describe and measure the main components of basic education as envisaged and agreed at Jomtien, and progress over the decade. Despite the active encouragement and support to countries and the EFA regions to provide data through these 18 indicators as well as in many other ways, there are, inevitably, many gaps. In the statistical data and in the country and EFA regional reports there are considerable variations in coverage and topics discussed. A set of highly authoritative special thematic studies, commissioned by intergovernmental organisations and NGOs, draws upon statistical data, surveys, the research literature, anecdotal evidence and other sources in providing rich insights and judgements about trends and issues that lie at the heart of the EFA movement. A number of reports on specific topics and projects have been prepared, including information on student performance in several reports on the UNESCO-UNICEF project, Monitoring Learning Achievement (MLA). But despite freely acknowledged deficiencies, the knowledge base is vastly better in 2000 than 1990.

The Six Dimensions of the EFA Targets


  • Expansion of early childhood care and developmental activities, including family and community interventions, especially for poor, disadvantaged and disabled children
  • Universal access to, and completion of, primary (or whatever higher level of education is considered as ‘basic’) by the year 2000
  • Improvement of learning achievement such that an agreed percentage of an age cohort (e.g. 80 per cent of 14 year olds) attains or surpasses a defined level of necessary learning achievement
  • Reduction of the adult illiteracy rate (the appropriate age-group to be determined in each country) 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 illiteracy rates
  • Expansion of provision of basic education and training in other essential skills required by youth and adults, with programme effectiveness assessed in terms of behavioural change and impact on health, employment and productivity
  • Increased acquisition by individuals and families of the knowledge, skills and values required for better living and sound and sustainable development, made available through all education channels including the mass media, other forms of modern and traditional communication, and social action, with effectiveness assessed in terms of behavioural change

(Note: The Jomtien Framework for Action invited countries to set their own targets with reference to these dimensions; it was not assumed that all the numerical targets could be met within a decade.)

The Wide Jomtien Agenda

The suggested target directions and hence the statistical indicators are part of a larger framework of concepts, ideals and ideas, and strategies of action which were incorporated into the Jomtien Declaration and Framework for Action. The key concepts of learning and of learning in different settings and in a variety of modes, were treated in the Jomtien documentation in considerably broader contexts than schooling and the provision of formal education through school-like instrumentalities. Countries have not, however, often reported as comprehensively on learning as was expected.

Other considerations that were raised at Jomtien include: cost effectiveness and improved efficiency; local empowerment and community action; the disabled; partnerships; the terms and conditions of service of teachers; child care and development; education in the context of cross-sectoral policies (economic, trade, labour, employment, health, etc); and private and voluntary funding sources.

Overall, albeit often implicitly, there has been a clear set of expectations for the 90s: improved human development policy; appropriate legislative and regulatory frameworks; well-managed systems and procedures; competent personnel of integrity; transparent and accountable use of resources; enhanced public awareness; and better learning opportunities and outcomes. That in many countries one or more of these expectations could not be met or was not reported, would in no sense be a reason to forego or dilute them in future planning.

… Reflecting the Times

At Jomtien, attention was frequently drawn to the political, social, economic and cultural environments which both condition educational policies and practices and are interactively informed and modified through education. Satisfaction was expressed over progress (at that time) towards peaceful entente, greater co-operation among nations, the increasing recognition of women’s rights and capacities, growth of information services and scientific and cultural developments.

Set against these and other positive trends at the beginning of the 90s were conditions and forces which could jeopardise future progress: mounting debt burdens; threats of economic stagnation and decline; rapid and unsustainable population growth; widening economic and other disparities within and between countries; war, occupation and civil strife; enforced migration; violent crime; widespread environmental degradation; and the preventable death of millions of children. Especially – but not only – in the least developed countries these negative forces had resulted in major setbacks to education throughout the 80s.

… But There Are Emerging New Contexts

The Jomtien Declaration and Framework for Action were forged in a particular historical setting. Today, a decade later, that context has undergone transformations. In the changing environments of the 90s, topics scarcely considered at Jomtien or developments not anticipated have come to the fore. Their seriousness and impact will require some reshaping of the new agenda and hence of target directions for the next phase of EFA.

To mention only some of the most dramatic changes of the era:

  • the political, social and economic shifts in Eastern and Central Europe
  • the rapid development of the Internet as a pervasive lever of change for the organisation of life, commerce, entertainment and education;
  • the emerging new economy based on intangible capital and calling for much increased adaptability to rapid change and a new repertoire of entrepreneurial capabilities and attitudes
  • dramatic developments in the life sciences with far-reaching implications
  • the voluntary and enforced movements and mixing of people and cultures
  • the growth of poverty and increasing debt around citadels of increasing affluence, and the swift advance of economic and cultural globalisation

Whole countries and regions within countries have experienced either economic decline and collapse or unprecedented growth cycles; war zones and areas of civil unrest have spread with whole populations held to ransom; and in some regions, notably Sub-Saharan Africa, there has been the disastrous spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It seems, also, that there has been an intensification of natural disasters attributable to climate change, underlining the need for much improved emergency services.

Most of the issues raised at Jomtien remain highly relevant but they need to be treated as it were in a new key due to the changed environment. There is basic continuity from Jomtien to Dakar and beyond, but these and other contextual issues call for a revised agenda. A new Framework for Action is required to reinforce the mission, to continue with unfinished business and to take up the new challenges.

… And Reinforcements of the EFA Mission

Strategic reinforcement of the EFA mission and of the expressed need for further sustained effort has come from several different sources: first, the continued growth of systematic knowledge including increased understanding of changes in the wider environment impacting on education; second, a succession of world conferences throughout the 90s which have both documented and given prominence and publicity to major world issues, many of these having quite direct educational implications; and third, changes in communication, trade and international finance which heighten public awareness of global interdependence and imbalances.

The advance of educational knowledge and understanding is of particular relevance to the fulfilment of the Jomtien mission. While not an explicit target at Jomtien, knowledge building has in fact proved to be one of its most positive outcomes with highly significant implications for future strategic capability and the ability to target action and mobilise resources.

By the end of the decade, there are much more advanced systems for data collection and analysis in many countries than existed at the beginning. There has been a real effort by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, working closely with national and other statistical agencies around the world, to come to terms with previously existing deficiencies. Country reports, regional syntheses and the special studies provide numerous examples of improved data sources and advances in knowledge. The problems have not all been solved but they are, at least, much better documented and understood. This should be seen as a crucial step towards overcoming them.

Of course, not all improvements in educational knowledge are attributable to Jomtien, but there have been several important gains consistent with the Jomtien Framework for Action and supportive of its goals. For example, the initiative for the development of an international set of education indicators by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predates Jomtien and has proceeded largely independently of it, as has that Organisation’s procedures for reviewing educational trends and developments in member countries and others. Likewise, the education statistics work of the European Union (Eurostat), its reviews and those of the Council of Europe and other international bodies are free-standing. They can, however, all be counted as major regional achievements supportive in various ways of the EFA mission. They have a potential extending far beyond the regions in question.

Whether or not specific development programmes, progress in research, and advances in knowledge for decision making are attributable to Jomtien is of far less significance than their strengthening and reinforcing of the broad international movement to improve education and learning.

The Evolving Concept of Basic Education: Schooling, Education and Lifelong Learning

In affirming the universal right to and need for education, the Jomtien Declaration must be interpreted in the broadest possible sense of learning – formal, non-formal and informal – and at any stage of life. Learning takes place in and out of school – in the home, the local community, the workplace, and in recreational and other settings. Not confined to childhood and the formative years, it extends from infancy throughout the whole of life. What is ‘basic’ is no longer confined to the primary school or formal education. An important achievement of the EFA movement is the closer attention being given especially by NGOs and voluntary bodies to the foundations of learning in the 0 – 6 period. Care, nurture and encouragement of all-round child development at this stage are increasingly being recognised as essential for subsequent growth and hence for satisfactory basic education.

Increasingly, also, there is a challenge to find appropriate structures for supporting and recognising different kinds of learning previously disregarded or given scant recognition in formal education systems. Most countries are still at a relatively early stage in developing new procedures for assessing competence and awarding new kinds of qualifications that give credit for experiential learning that takes place outside formal education institutions. For education of all kinds, there is scope for much greater use of a variety of media and settings and hitherto untapped resources, as pointed out in several of the special studies.

The issue of the diversity of learning and the danger of equating ‘learning’ with ‘schooling’ having been noted, it remains true that organised schooling provides, for most people, essential foundations for learning over the lifecycle. As many of the country reports point out, schooling builds on a platform of early childhood care and education (ECCE). It is succeeded by vocational preparation, tertiary education and organised adult continuing education, which have reached a highly advanced stage in a growing number of countries. Schools and school teachers are also a resource for adult literacy and continuing education programmes, not only in developing countries where they have a vital role. While there are indispensable, major contributions to education and learning by all kinds of voluntary bodies, community and self-help organisations, however, the provision by public authorities of schools of good quality, access to schools, and opportunities and active encouragement for all to succeed and progress in and through schooling remain the essential and central ingredients of EFA.

The commitment of EFA is to basic education. But this is not a fixed or clearcut concept and countries were advised at Jomtien to determine their own definition. Most but by no means all have chosen to restrict ‘basic’ to primary schooling, meaning the first stage of formal schooling – which so many have yet to attain. ‘Basic’, in an increasing number of countries, however, now connotes not only early childhood care and education and primary schooling. In some it now encompasses junior secondary schooling and in others it extends to a full secondary education. China, for example, is shifting the focus for much of the country from the primary school to the nine year compulsory school, preceded by a variety of early childhood care and education programmes. The National Education Guidelines and Framework Law in Brazil in 1996 defined the whole system from day care provision to the end of secondary schooling as ‘basic’. In Nigeria, ‘basic’ education refers to early childhood care and pre-primary education, primary schooling and the first three years of secondary. Throughout Europe, North America and Australasia, Japan and parts of South East Asia, ‘basic’ includes both primary and secondary levels.

In a small but growing number of countries, some kind of post-secondary or tertiary education is almost becoming ‘basic’ in that it is seen as a foundation for working life or further studies for all youth. There are moves to incorporate all levels and forms of education within a framework of ‘lifelong learning for all’. These require a reconsideration of just what is best taught and learned in childhood and youth, as a foundation for continuing learning.

Difficult – indeed unnecessary – as it is to maintain clearcut distinctions, for ease of communication as well as target setting, basic education does need to be redefined, with reference to ‘technical’, ‘specialist’, ‘higher’, ‘tertiary’ and ‘lifelong’.

‘Basic’ in this Report refers to the competencies, knowledge, attitudes, values and motivations that are deemed necessary in order for people to become fully literate and to have developed the educational foundations for a lifelong learning journey. Basic education commences at birth and may be achieved through either formal or non-formal means and agencies. Competencies, skills and substantive learnings defined as basic, when provided for in schools and similar institutions, are usually cast in the form of a core curriculum which, while it includes and builds on literacy, includes numeracy, social and scientific knowledge, physical and health education and the arts and crafts. Dimensions like visual and aural literacy and oracy – in a world where multi-media are pervasive – are no less ‘basic’ than verbal and numerical skills. In short, the four ‘Delors pillars’ – learning to know; learning to do; learning to live together; learning to be – are all basic.

The length and nature of schooling that have been defined as ‘basic’ by countries vary: from a bare minimum of 3-4 years of primary school to a nine year school, or completion of full secondary schooling. Programmes and campaigns of adult literacy are an example of non-formal basic education, as are community health campaigns, parental education in child care and educational campaigns conducted through the mass media. ‘Basic’, with reference to these minimum levels, should be treated as the very early stages of a process that needs to continue and grow.

Strengthening the Knowledge Base

During the nineties many countries have improved their capacity to gather and analyse educational data and evaluate performance: preparation of the EFA indicators and the national and regional reports and of the UNESCO World Yearbooks of Education have been a stimulus. National systems are introducing new structures or strengthening existing ones. Examples include the National Qualification Framework in South Africa, the Office for Standards in Education in England and Wales, the system of observatory and evaluation reports in the National Ministry of Education and Culture, France and the expanded evaluation role of the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research, Brazil. By participating in the UNESCO/UNICEF Monitoring Learning Achievements project, more than fifty countries have gained a better understanding of pupils’ learning achievements.

Common Targets and Diverse Circumstances

As the EFA 2000 Assessment reports indicate, education, and especially schooling, is firmly grounded in the historical, cultural, social, economic and political conditions of countries and regions within them. These constitute environments which profoundly affect not only policies, legislation, regulations and resources, but also the quality of the curriculum, the capacity of teachers and the conditions of teaching and learning. Countries are not affected equally, nor are regions, groups, families and individuals within countries.

A question arises therefore as to just how far goals and targets can be described as ‘common’ when such varied meanings are attached to the term ‘basic’ and when circumstances for attainment vary so widely, not only between but also within countries. The six target directions were outlined at the beginning of the decade with such generality as to be applicable universally, although with a bias in a couple of them towards countries with low rates of participation and literacy. The translation of these broad general targets into country- and region-specific policies and programmes was properly left to the countries themselves, as was the anticipated rate of progress in attaining them. Thus one of the most problematic aspects of EFA – the pursuit of common goals and the implementation of strategies in circumstances of enormous diversity – must be kept to the fore in assessing the achievements of the Jomtien decade. Inevitably, rates of progress from quite unequal starting points and in a great variety of environments differ dramatically.

While global, regional and national indicators tell important stories, they cannot completely capture either the full range of conditioning factors or the diversity of provision, resources and response within countries. It is by attention to environmental conditions as reported in the variety of documents assessing progress and problems that the diversity can best be understood. Many countries, in responding to the Jomtien challenge and in pursuing their reform strategies, adapted targets to the diverse circumstances. For example, extreme regional inequalities in Brazil have seen the national government in a federal system playing a differentiated provisioning and redistributive role. In China, there are different targets for length of primary schooling in different parts of the country. These presumably would eventually be amalgamated within the overall target of the nine year compulsory school, but that is not at all imminent.

Inevitably much of the concern that has been expressed in the reports of progress since Jomtien relates to the difficulties many countries or parts of countries are experiencing. Making adequate provision for access and participation by learners and for teachers to be adequately prepared, equipped and resourced to carry out their work is still a monumental challenge in many countries and areas. These difficulties reflect conditions and circumstances which in part are beyond the education system itself. Although frequently not open to direct action through educational policies and programmes, they must however be addressed, both as conditions for the realisation of EFA goals and as susceptible over time to influence, if not complete redirection, by a well-educated populace. The need for a renewed commitment is evident in those countries where little if any progress has been made.

Educational policies which squarely address the key issues are needed and can work, as has been shown in those countries that are making progress. Educational reform can itself be a potent means for achieving much more effective use of resources and for improving economic and social conditions, which are often seen as a barrier to educational development.

Reduction of the Adult Illiteracy Rate

TARGET – Reduction of the adult illiteracy rate (the appropriate age-groups to be determined by each country) 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 illiteracy rates.

Changing Concepts of Literacy

Literacy has over the years been given a variety of interpretations, from the earlier idea of a deficit to be overcome in the basic skills of reading and writing in the mother tongue, to the much broader concept of the making of and active participation in a literate culture, at the individual, local, national and regional levels. Terms such as literate environments, a culture of reading, post-literacy, continuing and non-formal education and adult education and adult learners give some indication of the scope and diversity of reporting. Just as measures like levels of government spending on non-formal education and family and community support are used as proxies of commitment to literacy programmes, so ‘adult literacy’ is itself a proxy for a wide array of adult learning outcomes.

During the 90s, literacy has come to be accepted as a product of a complex interplay of factors: cultural, socio-economic and educational, not a disorder or disease that can be swiftly and effectively eradicated. The older operational notions of literacy (grade-level, decoding or deciphering competence with written text) were complemented in the 1960s by the broader concept of functional competence in society. This refers to higher level abilities, those enabling people to function in the community and the workplace, to achieve personal goals and develop personal knowledge and potential. This broadening of the concept implies a close attention to contexts, uses, applications and changing relationships between the individual and society. A crucial example is the impact of technology and the consequent need for more people to become technologically literate, that is, capable of making effective use of the instruments for communication and information processing that are becoming available. Visual literacy, including the ability to read graphs and diagrams, is an issue that arises. Technological literacy is highly advanced in some groups and in some countries, not at all in others. The growing gap between those who are – or can be – technologically literate and those who are not has emerged in the 90s as a theme equal in importance to the longer standing consensus over the need for students to have access to printed texts.

However, all definitions start with the ability to handle printed text. Minimal definitions continue to be used, for example in the compilation of statistics. Even then, some interesting variants occur. For example, the criteria in the Chinese Regulations on Eradicating Literacy are

‘the recognition of 1,500 Chinese characters for peasants and 2,000 characters for staff and workers in business/enterprises and urban dwellers, the ability to read simple and easy newspapers and articles, the ability to keep simple accounts, and the ability to write simple practical writings.’

UNESCO’s definition of the adult literacy rate, as used in the EFA Technical Guidelines to countries, is the percentage of the population aged 15 years and over who can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement on their everyday life. But countries were also invited to report on ‘literate environments’ and learning opportunities especially for women, ethnic and cultural minorities, socially disadvantaged groups and others with special learning needs.

Thus, the first question arising is the nature of the different targets that are being addressed by individual countries and within countries, for different groups. If in many advanced economies, there is universal completion of 8 to 10 years of schooling (and more) and measured reading levels at school are fairly high, it might appear that the target of basic literacy has been met. However, recent studies in economically developed countries suggest that between 10 and 20 percent of the adult population have difficulty with basic reading, writing and numeracy skills.

The approach that takes completion of several years of primary schooling as a proxy for adult literacy is not always satisfactory. For example, countries often express satisfaction if a rate of, say, 80% literacy is reached by a given age-grade level, but may not devote adequate attention to the remaining 20%; also, rapid technological and workplace changes and an increased demand for more diffused civic and social responsibilities mean that skills acquired in primary school are insufficient. Such skills, what is more, have been shown to deteriorate if not well exercised.

Thus there are several aspects of literacy to consider: basic skills acquisition; targets for the low performers; active participation in a literate culture, concepts such as technological and visual literacy; changing contexts for the uses of literacy; and the maintenance and development of literacy once basic skills have been acquired. In adopting the restricted UNESCO definition of basic literacy, countries can report big gains, and several of them do. These are of course of special importance but it must not be forgotten that the figures do not capture the broader concepts of literacy which are of growing significance as illiteracy, worldwide, in its most basic or rudimentary form slowly diminishes.

Literacy Trends

Literacy campaigns have a long history, well predating the Jomtien decade. They are part of a constant struggle to create wholly literate societies.

Literacy Goals

To reduce and ultimately eliminate illiteracy, programmes aim to:

  • reduce the total number of illiterate people as populations continue to expand
  • improve literacy rates for specific age bands and groups in society
  • ensure that literacy achieved in the school years is not lost
  • use literacy as a lever for social, cultural and economic advancement
  • at the same time, set higher standards of performance as broader concepts of literacy and literate cultures emerge

During the 90s there have been real gains even though the number of illiterate people remains very high and in some parts of the world is increasing. There were an estimated 895 million illiterates in the world in 1990, 887 million in 1995, and an estimated 875 million in 2000. The large majority are women, in developing countries.

In Arab countries as a whole, only moderate gains are reported in reducing the overall illiteracy rate; differences between and within countries are great. Gender disparities actually increased in this region, reflecting the continuing cultural bias against enrolling and teaching females. For the region as a whole, there has been an increase in the literacy rate but of only 10% in the decade (from 51.3% to 61.5%). Widespread illiteracy is reported to be the main obstacle to achieving the goals of Education for All in the Arab countries at the beginning of the 21st century. In the Arab States’ regional report, it is estimated that there are 68 million illiterate people of whom 43 million are female. A quarter of these are found in one country, Egypt (17 million), and 70% in five countries: Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco and Yemen. Illiteracy in most of these countries is linked with high population density, poverty, and rural areas.

Large as these numbers are, they are dwarfed by those from South Asia. In both Bangladesh and India nearly half the adult population are still illiterate and in Pakistan the adult literacy rate is lowest in the sub-region at 40% in 1998, with a very low rate of improvement (0.7%) per annum between 1991 and 1998. Sub-Saharan Africa includes a band of countries with 50% or less literacy extending from West Africa through the Sahara to East Africa (where overall illiteracy levels match those of South Asia) and also Angola, Mozambique and Madagascar.

But on the African continent, sometimes in adjacent or nearby countries, adult literacy rates are reported to be as high as 90% (Swaziland) or 77% (Kenya). These figures indicate progress and success or near success in meeting targets. Explanations for these wide variations are not provided in the regional syntheses but certainly bear investigation in future work. High levels of literacy in some African countries support the argument that attainment of the Jomtien goals is possible. With allowance for setbacks that result from major crises, countries can with sufficient determination bring about the improvements that their commitment to the Jomtien Declaration requires.

There have been important gains: and there is a greater realisation by governments, communities and the non-government sector and the international agencies of the need for yet more intensive efforts. Both the continuance of established, effective literacy programmes and the introduction of new ones are required, to achieve significant increases in the number of literates and decreases in the number of illiterates. Some countries – Maldives and Sri Lanka, for example – which have achieved high or near universal basic literacy rates, are taking the path of improved functional literacy, so for them the targets are of a different order than in those countries where basic literacy for all remains a distant goal.

Of particular interest are the sub-national programmes upon which so much depends in heterogeneous countries with very large populations. For example in India, district level Total Literacy Campaigns (TLCs) have resulted in a rate of literacy about 80% in some districts. This so-called ‘campaign mode’ at the village level depends on people’s participation and low costs, involves NGOs and adopts a variety of strategies. Yet, despite quite dramatic gains in some districts early in the 90s, progress slowed. There are different versions of the facts and the explanation for them, but it seems clear that the focus on community self-help, voluntary action and a policy of saturation could effect major gains.

Many NGOs have shown initiative in literacy drives including the targeting of illiteracy among women and girls, for example the activities of the Associations of University Women and other organisations in Africa, South Asia, Latin America and the Pacific region as reported in the assessment by Berewa Jommo, Gender Dimensions in Education for All: NGO and Civil Society Experiences. Often of a highly local nature, such initiatives where they cannot effect significant advances in the education of girls and women, at least aim to prevent further erosion in the most difficult areas. These interventions underscore the crucial interrelationships between socio-cultural attitudes toward girls and women, occupations and poverty.

Mention is made in several reports of the great difficulty of reaching reliable estimates of literacy rates – the lack of clear indicators and of available and accessible information, the multiple, varied efforts of NGOs and community groups and definitional issues already mentioned. One problem is that adult literacy rates are estimated on the basis of self-proclaimed literacy, during surveys or census taking. This is a very rough and ready mechanism, subject to a high degree of estimating error. Figures, too, are sometimes manipulated: it can be important that programmes are seen to be succeeding even when they are not. In these circumstances it cannot be too emphatically stated that the empirical foundations of figures, percentages and rates of change are very often shaky. They must always be accompanied by the on-the-ground judgements and appraisals by those responsible for and involved in the programmes. In the summaries provided in the regional syntheses, notice is taken of accounts of success – or indeed of misfortune and the explanations for them – as much as it is of overall trends.

Despite the continuing literacy drives, progress is often slow. In Bangladesh, Pakistan and parts of Brazil, both basic literacy and the more broadly defined functional literacy rates continue to be a cause for concern. The Recife Declaration of the E9 countries thus gives the highest priority to eradication of adult illiteracy.

There are many countries reporting little if any increase in literacy rates – programmes do not match population increases, or are undermined by civil strife, disease, immigration, poor retention rates and other disabling factors. Yet there have been gains in the face of great problems and setbacks in some regions and countries. Eradication of illiteracy is extremely difficult, but it is possible over time and with the necessary commitment and effort.

In many parts of the world, the challenge is to enable adults who have had no formal schooling at all or only the barest minimum to acquire basic skills. But the Jomtien goal is far more ambitious than this: to cut the 1990 illiteracy rate by half. Moreover, the definition of literacy cannot be fixed at the minimum level of operation but has to expand to incorporate increasing expectations of inter-personal and official communications, social and cultural life, and economic activity.

It is doubtful whether the Jomtien target as stated was achieved in the 90s in any of the numerous countries with large numbers of illiterate people. Big differences still remain or have sometimes even increased between urban and rural areas, richer and poorer elements in the population, and minority and majority populations. Females are still discriminated against. This indicates a need to focus campaigns on the most deprived groups and difficult areas, even if a likely consequence is a relatively slow rate of progress in reaching some of them. Blanket targets, setting percentage reductions for the whole country, are likely to be less useful than more precise targeting taking account of key variables – demographic, geographic location, occupational profiles, socio-economic conditions, ethnicity, local traditions and customs, gender and so on. Figures on illiteracy (age 15+), for example, show huge variations according to ‘racial origin’ – in Brazil ranging from 5.4% to 50.8% in the 1991 census.

Across much of India adult female literacy rates are either low or very low, as illustrated by the detailed district level data given in the map from the 1991 census. These data have been used to target district level programme funding. For example, UNFPA’s current five-year cycle of funding is based on a composite index of mortality, female literacy and fertility (rather than economic indicators).

The Focus on Adult Literacy Must Also Involve Children and their Schooling

Universal access to basic schooling and literacy training for children cannot be overlooked when reviewing adult literacy rates. Looking to the future, it is extremely important to bring children’s literacy into the equation. Problems of large and varied geographical regions and diverse cultural expectations, inadequate schooling in poor and remote areas and lack of suitable programmes and facilities for linguistic and cultural minorities are among the existing factors which are storing trouble for the future. The pool of adult illiteracy should not be enlarged by inflows of illiterate children who have either not attended school at all or have had only minimal and inadequate schooling.

Severe problems of adult illiteracy cannot be solved through the formal structures that are being put in place for children. There are various responses: reliance on voluntary and non-government organisations in all regions; the district as a base and mobilisation of civic society in India; a concerted interdepartmental campaign in Indonesia which is reported to have brought levels of the illiterate population (15 – 24 years of age) down to under 2% in 1998; and intensive drives, mobilising all available resources in China.

The E9 synthesis report draws attention to the striking success of the Chinese efforts to reduce adult illiteracy rates from a high of 80% in 1949 to 22.3% in 1990. A further reduction over the Jomtien decade brought the figure for 1997 down to 16.4% of those over 15 – still a large absolute figure, however, given the size of China’s population.

Thus, often in the face of great difficulty, determined and well-organised efforts have brought about significant reductions in illiteracy rates. Countries report many examples of successful literacy training programmes, both public and private, from which much is being learnt for future campaigns. Most important is the need for consistent effort with the full engagement of the community supported by strong, well-resourced policies.

Lessons from the Literacy Drives

The conclusions drawn in the EFA 2000 Assessments about the outstanding problems in adult illiteracy are familiar and unsurprising. As in other dimensions of education for all, illiteracy remains greatest in rural areas and marginal urban areas. Poverty is a key issue and must be addressed. Groups and communities with the lowest levels of literacy need to understand its wider benefits and to become directly involved in campaigns, not the subjects of strategies devised on high and in remote centres of power.

A Sample of Latin American Literacy Initiatives

In Brazil, the Solidarity Action Literacy Training Program for young people and adults is sponsored by state and municipal governments, the private sector and NGOs.
In Ecuador, the ‘Monseñor Leonides Proano’ National Literacy Campaign mobilises support from universities, the judiciary, churches, the armed forces, secondary schools, community organisations and volunteers.
In El Salvador, literacy training programmes or projects have been targeted on women, people in prison and displaced civil war refugees; they have been supported by UNESCO, UNDP, Cooperación Española, and the European Community.
In Guatemala, programmes have been delivered through a network of governmental and non-governmental agencies.
In Paraguay, the Ministries of Education and Culture, Agriculture and Livestock, Justice, and Labor, Public Health and Social Welfare, and Defense offer literacy courses as do NGOs.

Source: Latin America Sub-regional Report. pp.39 – 40

In many countries, literacy levels of adult women, particularly in rural areas, remain lower than those of men. As girls’ participation in primary schooling increases and as they continue to outperform boys, this pattern can be expected to change in the decades ahead. Meanwhile the direct involvement of women at the local level is essential and many grass roots projects have demonstrated its value. Co-operation among the various players, public and private, local and donor is often weak; it can be greatly improved. Policy priorities and coordination of cross-sectoral effort by governments are often inadequate to the task. Bureaucratic structures and ingrained habits need to be reviewed as part of national commitments to achieve results. Top-down strategies that fail to engage communities at a very local level and build on their motivation and interests don’t work.

For each of the negative lessons, there is a positive correlate and an implicit target for the future. Where weaknesses persist – in retention rates and successful performance by children in primary (and secondary) schools – improvements are required if adult illiteracy levels are to be further reduced. Conversely, the best predictor of the learning achievement of children is the literacy and education level of their parents.

This underlines the importance of reform strategies that are comprehensive and systemic. Adult literacy, like adult education generally, needs to be interrelated with basic education reform strategies whose focus is the formal school system. As in other target areas, there is a need for systematic monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness and impact of non-formal literacy programmes.

Universalisation of basic education, where it has been achieved, leaves a concentration of higher rates of illiteracy among adults who have lacked basic education in the past or regressed in literacy skills. This circumstance provides an opportunity for highly focused policy initiatives. In Latin American countries where participation rates in basic schooling have risen, there is a progressively greater focus of attention in literacy campaigns on the post-school population. But attention must be given to what children actually attain by way of literacy standards in school. Results on tests are falling well below age norms in many countries, as reported in the MLA studies of African and Arab states. Universalisation in the sense of enrolment and participation rates is not enough. The persistence of illiteracy among children in primary school is itself an indicator of future adult illiteracy.

Despite the enormous difficulties arising from the inadequate empirical base, lack of clarity in definitions and the different interpretative standpoints, several messages emerge from the assessment of the adult literacy target.

Literacy Messages


  • The data bases are so inadequate as to require a much greater effort at systematisation if firm conclusions and reliable inferences are to be drawn and if coherent policies are to be developed and implemented; audits are needed to ensure open and honest reporting.
  • There is a general consensus that in many countries there is slow and steady, sometimes spectacular improvement in reported literacy rates; better data would enable more reliable conclusions to be drawn about trends.
  • Long standing disparities and inequities remain within countries; there is a need for better focused equity targets; the poorest countries, the poorest regions and the poorest groups are not receiving adequate support, although they are targets of several donors and aid agencies; in the least developed countries 1:2 adults are still illiterate.
  • Adult literacy and non-formal education more generally are in many countries accorded insufficient priority and are at the margins of reform efforts.
  • Successful programmes depend upon a variety of conditions: mobilising many and varied resources, local, national and international; sound organisation and persistence of activity often over long periods; community involvement and leadership; and attention to the life conditions of illiterate people and to their motivation and incentives to become fully literate.
  • Policies for adult literacy need to take account of problems being experienced by school age children and the literacy standards they attain.
  • Literacy of the most rudimentary kind is a useful intermediate target, as a step towards a broadly defined culture of literacy.
  • Regular, reliable reporting of performance on agreed targets of basic literacy would enable concentration on the most difficult problems and areas of greatest need.


Adult Education and Development


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