Jon Lauglo

What is the case for a renewed engagement with adult basic education in developing countries? In particular, with regard to Africa, what is the value of such education? What are the main issues? What advice should be offered about how best to develop it? In addressing these questions, the present paper summarizes main points from a recent study (Lauglo 2001) which was conducted at the World Bank’s Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Department and which is on the web at ( The Study is part of a wider effort since 1997 which started with the ­“BELOISYA” project that enlisted the collaboration of African ­researchers in assessing internationally available evidence on a range of issues regarding Basic Education and Livelihood Opportunities for Illiterate and Semiliterate Young Adults (World Bank 2001). Jon Lauglo is a Senior Education Specialist at the World Bank, a Professor of Sociology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and a Senior Researcher at NOVA-Norwegian Social Research. The following contribution will also appear in a collection of his works, edited by Klaus Schaack and Lim Se-Yung, which is being published in English in 2002 by Peter Lang Publishing Group (Frankfurt) under the title: “Education, Training, Contexts”.

A Case for Renewed Engagement with Adult Basic Education in Africa

UNESCO and UNICEF have long been supporting this field with some technical assistance and finance. For many years the German Adult Education Association has also been extending support to adult education in many countries through the work of its Institute for International Cooperation. But in major development financing agencies the interest is recently renewed. Thus, from 2001 the World Bank has been advising countries developing poverty reduction strategies to include adult basic education in their plans. See the Bank’s “Source book for PRSP” ( Other international funding agencies are during 2001-2002 looking into new ways to support the development of adult basic education. This is the case for DfID, Sida and NORAD. Norway’s interest is also reflected in the role that the Norwegian Trust Fund for Education in Africa has taken in financing new initiatives from the World Bank in the last four years. Thus, there is a new momentum.

Actual growth is already occurring. Outside the Africa Region, the Bank has in the recent past supported adult literacy programs in Indonesia and Bangladesh. Within the Region it has for some years financed adult literacy programs in Ghana and Senegal. In 2001 implementation started also in Côte d’Ivoire. Adult education is now being made part of national education sector development programs in a number of other countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, and Tanzania; or support will be given under community development or poverty reduction programs (Uganda). In some countries (the Gambia, Rwanda, Burundi) plans for World Bank finance are at an earlier stage. There are of course also countries with well-established programs which have been going on for some time with finance from other sources. South Africa, Namibia, Eritrea, Cape Verde are examples. The events demonstrate clear growth in this field.

Adult Basic Education - ABE

Adult Basic Education (ABE) will here refer to education which is aimed at adults who have had no schooling or very little schooling. “Adults” are reckoned to be persons above 14 years. Outside the scope of ABE as here defined, it is of course also important to develop educational provision which aims to reach children and adolescents who are below that age but who have been missed by primary schools. A major issue that is distinct for that population is how far one can develop better outreach and more inclusive practices in primary schools for “over-age” children as contrasted with separate “nonformal” provision.

The core elements of ABE will be literacy and practical arithmetic (numeracy), but ABE is also expected to include other learning than literacy and numeracy alone. What should these other elements be? Many learners would welcome vocational skills for livelihood improvement - a wish which it is very difficult to accommodate in large-scale programs that are established mainly to teach literacy and numeracy. Seemingly it is easier to add literacy teaching to programs which originally were set up to teach practical livelihood skills, than it is to add livelihood skills training to “literacy programs” (Oxenham et al., forthcoming in 2002). Childcare, health, nutrition are often offered in ABE. In many countries today, there will be a particularly strong case for including the teaching of basic knowledge of HIV prevention and care for AIDS victims. But it would be wrong to assume that the so-called functional skills are the only ones that learners need or will want to learn. Religious expression can be very important when ABE is run by religious organizations. Artistic expression can also be cultivated as part of ABE. Nor should pure entertainment be ruled out.

It appears that no fixed formula is appropriate about what ABE should teach in addition to the core of literacy and numeracy. What illiterate and semiliterate adults already know well enough, what others think they “need”, and what they want will vary considerably from place to place and with the type of group one is trying to reach. Consider, e.g., the range among such groups as cashew nut farmers, miners, micro-entrepreneurs, urban out-of-school youth, religious congregations, women’s associations. Prescriptions across countries would be even less meaningful. Rather, the elements of “other learning” should depend on what the learners want and on what it is practically possible for a program to teach. Thus, it seems best to propose a flexible concept of ABE: basic literacy, basic numeracy and context-dependent other learning. 1 The term “basic” should be seen as carrying more meaning that simply a first or elementary stage. Basic should mean that which suffices to serve as a basis, a foundation upon which subsequent learning and use will build. This means that skills which atrophy and are lost have not reached the “basic” level - only those which are retained and improved though later use.

The Case for ABE

Why should governments and aid agencies re-engage with adult basic education in Africa today?

ABE is needed for progress towards EFA. In many African countries the pace of primary school expansion, even if stepped up considerably, will fall far short of what is required in order to reach international targets for human development. Primary school expansion will not on its own suffice to reach the Education for All target of halving the rate of adult illiteracy by 2015. Besides, under EFA the demand for basic schooling from illiterate and semiliterate adults must also be taken seriously in its own right, now that the necessary role of adult education has been clearly recognized at the World Forum on Education for All in Dakar in 2000. Schools for children and basic education for adults are complementary services with potential for synergy, rather than merely being activities that compete for scarce resources. Adult learners become more supportive of their children’s education. This finding is consistently documented in many countries.

ABE and community schools can mutually reinforce each other. In many governments and agencies there is support for making primary schools more community-based. Adult education not only generates support for adults for sending children to school, it can also give adults the skills and confidence to involve themselves more in local schools. It can also be developed as an outreach function of a community oriented school. Thus, ABE and primary education can mutually reinforce each other in school, but there is a need for applied research to draw lessons as to how this can best be achieved.

ABE serves the poor and improves gender equity. Adult Basic Education is important for an education strategy that seeks to be pro-poor and to redress social injustice. ABE is self-targeted upon the poor because it is sought by those with no schooling or very limited schooling.2 ABE has a special role to play in alleviating gender inequity. ABE programs nearly always find it easier to attract females than males.3 This is true even in those few developing countries where girls outnumber boys in school (e.g., Botswana). The gender gap is especially great in the very poorest countries with the most weakly developed school systems; and these are the countries which have the most urgent cause for developing ABE.

ABE empowers and can help build broadly based civil society. If education is to serve as a means of empowerment for the disadvantaged then it is essential that adults be reached with a type of education which helps turn “subjects” into “citizens” and which equips prospective leaders with appropriate skills and networks. A consistently reported positive impact of Adult Basic Education is that it builds a greater sense of self-efficacy, confidence to act on a wider range of social arenas than before, greater readiness to formulate and express one’s own views. This empowerment function makes adult education especially important for the development of a broadly based civil society. The rise of such a civil society is generally held to be a precondition for a government that is held more accountable and responsive to the interests of the poor. Thus ABE is a means to good governance in keeping with poverty-reduction goals. Historically, adult education has been closely connected with the growth of broadly based democracy in many countries. One could expect that more participatory forms of pedagogy (at least a style of teaching which treats learners with respect) are likely to be more conducive to the development of individual and group efficacy. But it also seems that “empowerment gains” are a robust result from ABE projects using quite diverse pedagogies.

ABE can improve family health. A large number of studies show that literate mothers are better able to protect their children’s health. One such study by Sandiford et al. (1995) from Nicaragua found such effects after 10 years, making use of large samples and careful controls for other conditions affecting the results.

ABE removes barriers to entrepreneurship and can improve livelihoods. Oxenham et al. (forthcoming 2002) review research on ABE and improved livelihoods. Literacy and numeracy are widely perceived by ABE learners as a protection against being cheated and manipulated in the market place (see also Okech et al. 2001). Attempts to quantify the gains in life-time income which would be due to participation in Adult Basic Education are yet to be made, and there is recognition that ­other inputs also are needed (e.g., access to credit, vocational skills training) for tangible short-term income benefits to occur. But for micro-entrepreneurs it is also clear that lack of literacy and weak numeracy are major impediments to success.

Countering Misgivings

Misgivings about earlier adult literacy campaigns have led to much skepticism about adult basic education. UNDP’s 1976 evaluation of the Experimental World Literacy Programme showed disappointing results. The ratio of successful completers to initial enrolments in such a mass program was approximately 20% for Tanzania, 14% for Iran, 25% for Ethiopia, 23% for Ecuador, and 8% for Sudan (UNDP 1976:174) - very low “internal efficiency” indeed.

In the World Bank there was in fact strong interest in nonformal education in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was followed by a review by Romain and Armstrong (1987) which left a widespread impression of weak performance in projects supported by the Bank. Adult literacy education was part of only some of the nonformal education projects covered in that review, and there was no analysis of the efficiency, learning outcomes or impact of such education. The review was really commenting on the difficulty of implementing nonformal education under conditions when preventable mistakes had been made. Implementation had suffered because nonformal education had typically been but a minor component in projects which mainly had other goals, and  ­crucially - the nonformal components had not been welcomed by the governments. Nonetheless, along with findings concerning UNESCO’s Experimental Literacy Programme of earlier years, the review left a legacy of skepticism that also affected literacy education.

Is “efficiency” too poor? Past generalizations about poor internal efficiency of ABE (very low completion rates) are contradicted by more recent evidence. Programs have also changed. In recent years the trend in ABE provision has been to respond to active demand by local groups - unlike the early “mass campaigns” that sought to “eradicate illiteracy”. Better efficiency should follow.

“Drop-out” may not be a very appropriate measure of efficiency in ABE because a “trial period” is to be expected among adult learners. A more appropriate measure may be whether a sufficiently large group stays with a course until completion, so as to ensure that there is a pedagogically viable group - without excessive unit costs. Nonetheless, in most recent programs for which there is information, at least half of those who enter, complete the course and meet whatever minimum performance criteria are used in each case. A recent review of 17 programs for which relevant data are available, found that in most programs at least 70 % of initial enrollees remained throughout the course period (Oxenham and Aoki forthcoming; for a summary, see The median rate of completion was 78 %. The proportion of initial enrollees who persist to completion and also pass minimum requirements will be lower. Among the 14 programs for which information on such rates was obtained, Oxenham and Aoki found a range from 5 to 89 percent. But the median rate among these 14 programs was in fact a respectable 60 percent of initially enrolled learners. Clearly, the “efficiency” of adult basic education courses is on the average much better than what some critics have ­alleged in the past. But there is also much variation among and within programs and therefore a need both to monitor implementation and to take remedial action when performance is weak. The findings do not point to any single prototype of superior teaching and learning methods. Several routes have seemingly worked well - as far as “internal efficiency” is concerned.

Is it too hard for adults to learn? One line of past criticism against adult basic education is that adults acquire literacy skills more slowly and less well than do children of school age and that the skills are not well retained (Abadzi 1994). These claims are not supported by recent findings. In the case of Functional Adult Literacy programs in Uganda (Okech et al. 2001), “minimum literacy” was achieved in much less time (and at much less cost) than among children in primary schools. See ( If adults nonetheless are handicapped, then other circumstances associated with ABE (self-selection, strong motivation) must outweigh any disadvantage, and it would be mistaken to consider such learning disadvantage to be a decisive barrier to literacy learning among adults.

Are costs too high? There is paucity of cost analysis for ABE (the Brazilian Solidarity in Literacy Program is one exception). However, high costs have never been an common argument against adult basic education, though tooling up of any new programs will have high start-up costs when a field has long lain fallow. Adult basic education is likely to have considerably lower operating costs (per person per year) than primary schools (let alone compared with other and costlier schooling) simply because ABE is much less teaching-intensive than schools. Adult courses typically meet only 4-6 hours each week, and ABE teachers are in any case often paid an allowance or “incentive” rather than a “proper wage” for their time.

Do adult learners lose the skills they have acquired? Such limited research as is available indicates that the loss of reading and basic arithmetic skills acquired from ABE is not the internationally pervasive problem it sometimes has been perceived to be. Findings from Uganda (Okech et al. 2001), Kenya (Carron et al. 1989), as well as studies reviewed by Comings (1995) suggest that the retention of reading skills and of skills in practical arithmetic is fairly robust, but that writing skills are more vulnerable. It is probably misplaced to invoke the risk of loss of reading skills as a reason for advocating access to libraries and support for “post-literacy courses”. But even if skills are not “lost”, there would be little point in teaching them if they find no use, and literacy is best conceived as a continuum where there is good cause to promote improvement beyond whatever level a learner reaches to begin with. This applies to school education for children as well as to adult education.

Are the learning outcomes too meager? If “literacy” is best conceived as a continuum, it is still useful to think of some basic level of mastery whose achievement will greatly ease further learning. Most “completers” of adult basic education courses achieve very limited literacy skills. It is likely that the same applies to most children completing primary schools in many developing countries. What would be a minimally “acceptable” level? A pragmatic criterion is that the level reached should be sufficient for later retention and improvement of skills - given the learners’ life circumstances. Monitoring of retention would then become a means for assessing whether the initial learning has reached a minimally adequate “basic” level or not. However, the final goal of ABE - if it can be assessed - is not literacy but improvement in the conditions of life of the participants. Regardless of measured literacy gains, ABE can therefore be justified if empowering social skills and networks are acquired, if family health and livelihoods are improved, if life appears to be enriched by cultural expressions. Since such learning often is part of ABE, the associated learning activities may themselves be attractive to learners and worthy of assessment. Literacy outcomes may well be the most easily measured outcomes of ABE, but ABE should not be judged by literacy outcomes alone.

Are there “many literacies”? Among some academic adult educators there is much interest in distinctly different “literacies” for different uses. Should one abandon the idea of literacy as a unitary concept? Particular skills are of course required to operate a bank account, or to keep records of village council meetings, or to deal with authorities about land ownership. But the transferability of literacy and numeracy as general communication skills is a major reason why these skills are held to be important to begin with. Transferability was evident historically in countries which achieved early mass literacy. Literacy skills taught for religious instruction and self-instruction clearly found application in a wide range of secular pursuits - letter writing, reading newspapers, trade, nascent civil society organizations. Examples would be the Sunday Schools (for adults too) in early 19th century England, and the beginnings of schooling in Lutheran countries which long relied on Luther’s Catechism as the primer. The evidence of transfer is strong enough to justify thinking about literacy as a single concept. However, there is also a pedagogic case for teaching reading and writing with close regard to that context of application which is of shared importance for the learners. The argument about what that context of application should be, runs close to arguments about what “other skills” should be taught. It should depend on what learners want and on their conditions of life.

Policy Issues

A government that is prepared to strengthen its support for ABE needs to consider a range of policy issues. As discussed in Lauglo (2001), these issues will often include:

  • What groups to target?
  • What are the roles for various organs of government and for NGOs?
  • What the roles for businesses and industry?
  • What language policy to adopt?
  • How firmly should ABE be institutionalized? (e.g., the contrast between campaigns and permanent institutions, between volunteers and civil servants)
  • Apart from literacy and numeracy, what should ABE teach?
  • Should ABE give officially recognized equivalence to formal schooling?
  • What role should information and communications technology play?
  • How far can participatory pedagogy be implemented?
  • How to build local social support for ABE?
  • How to ensure adequate monitoring?
  • How to finance ABE?


Decisions on how best to grapple with complex social problems will not be derived from research alone - nor can they be. But research still has an important role to play. Often its contribution will be to help define agendas for discussion. It can also challenge or add nuance to commonly held beliefs and give corrective feedback to implementation of projects and programs. Research on ABE has been helpful in identifying issues (e.g., in showing the great variation in how successful ABE is, and hence the need for monitoring), in challenging some of the more pessimistic generalizations which have been influential in the past, and in showing that no single approach is internationally supe­rior in reaching good “internal efficiency”.

“Recommendations” cannot escape personal judgment. The recommendations which are offered below have also benefited from much ­interpersonal consultation within the World Bank and with colleagues ­outside the Bank. Advice and critical feedback have widened the range of arguments and added nuance. Thus interpersonal “judgment” has played a part.

Judgments will reflect values as well as perceptions of how “the world works”. Regarding ABE, there is among adult educators much agreement about the importance of personal autonomy and active democratic citizenship as educational goals. The value of personal autonomy and active citizenship translates into recommendations in favor of influence (or choice) for the learners, and for the groups and communities to which they belong, rather than strongly “statist” models. Within the World Bank, and in many other development agencies, there is declared support for making governance more accountable and more responsive to the interests of the poor. Strengthening civil society and making it more broadly based is seen as a means to this end. See, e.g., the World Bank’s Comprehensive Development Framework, the thinking behind Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, and the analysis in the publication “Can Africa Claim the 21st Century?”. This view of civil society points to the importance of encouraging civil society to take a strong role as a provider of ABE.

In principle, the recommendations below must be both tentative and general  “tentative” because any perception of good practice should be provisional and open to revision in the light of experience, and “general” because they are intended as advice on the development of ABE across a very wide range of societies. Two of these recommendations, “responsiveness to learners” and “collaboration with civil society” are highlighted as especially important because they will echo the value concerns just mentioned, not merely arguments about efficient delivery.

Responsiveness to learners. The planning and implementation of ABE should strive to be responsive to the learners and their views. Such ­responsiveness need not always imply a strong local-community ­orientation of the ABE curriculum because the learners will sometimes see ABE mainly as a window to the larger world. The main point is that adult learners will walk away if ABE does not speak to their motives for participating, and strong motivation and social support are needed for adults to persist long enough to achieve “basic literacy” - however that be conceptualized. Adult learners are also entitled to respect and to some “voice” simply because they are mature persons in adult roles.

Collaboration with civil society. Governments should collaborate with civil society organizations in the provision of ABE and look for ways of benefiting from the experience of such organizations because:

  • Civil society organizations are active providers of ABE and a source of innovation
  • Collaboration helps maximize the total supply of ABE in a country
  • Community-based organizations can give much needed local social support for ABE (churches, mosques, farmers’ organizations, women’s organizations)
  • Support for ABE in civil society organizations is also a means to strengthen such organizations and their community base

“Civil society” is of course a liberal concept that presupposes a certain mutual respect and tolerance among its constituent associations and organizations. It presupposes that legitimacy has been achieved for pluralism. In sharply polarized societies trust and acceptance of pluralism will be weak. But it is important to exploit such opportunities for collaborative relations as exist. ABE policies should do so.

Other recommendations for governments

  • Recognize the importance of ABE for achieving Education for All
  • Give strong political leadership to ABE, find good staff for key government positions, be prepared for considerable investment in institutional development
  • Regardless of what form of collaboration is established with civil society (e.g., considerable outsourcing) a specialized government unit for Adult Education is needed, and in countries with high adult illiteracy its focus should be on Adult Basic Education
  • Give strong political leadership to ABE, find good staff for key positions
  • Be prepared for considerable investment in institutional development
  • Consider other forms of administration than the normal government departments (e.g., foundations, funds over which stakeholders can be given some influence too)
  • Target especially women and out-of-school adolescents
  • Look for opportunities to initiate ABE in already established groups.
  • Build partnerships with enterprises too, not only “civil society organizations”
  • Use local languages for initial literacy teaching, and provide a route to the official language for those who have acquired literacy
  • Recruit teachers locally and use fixed-term contracts
  • Respond to what learners want and adapt ABE curricula and materials to the local context
  • Include prevention of HIV and caring for AIDS victims in the ABE curriculum
  • Back ABE up with radio; more advanced Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has a role to play in enriching the training of managers and instructors/facilitators
  • Use methods that show respect for the learners, and seek to make them active participants
  • Create opportunities for continuing education
  • Monitor ABE carefully but look for ways that are participatory and helpful to providers
  • Ensure that no one wishing to attend ABE is unable to do so because of inability to pay

“Fixed-term contracts” for literacy teachers could be interpreted as part of the “contract teaching” phenomenon which is opposed by many educators committed to improved professionalism in education. A comment is therefore needed. In those predominantly rural African countries where the need for ABE is especially great (high adult illiteracy, low school enrollment rates, low urbanization), there are a number of practical constraints which make employment on civil service terms unrealistic. Usually, in rural settings ABE teaching is only a part-time job for a couple of teaching sessions each week. Even if most adults are illiterate or semiliterate, the long-term effective demand for ABE will be uncertain in a small village. In most cases, those who are locally available for ABE teaching will have no formal teaching qualification and at most a secondary school background. Organizing a supply of teachers with long training in ABE teaching is not a workable medium-term solution in such circumstances. Is it a worthy long-term goal? There are other arguments for fixed-term contracts than lack of ­workable alternatives. If one wants to make ABE accountable to the participants, to the local community and to civil society organizations sponsoring or providing ABE, “civil service” terms of employment for teachers would hardly be expedient. Contract renewal should be based on demonstrated good performance and on good indication of continued local demand for ABE.

Recommendations for development agencies. Development agencies should actively advocate ABE programs. They should help countries prepare and finance such programs as well as mobilize financial support from others and develop their own capacity regarding ABE, and they should work actively to improve and share the knowledge base regarding promising initiatives and practices in ABE.


Abadzi, Helen (1994) What We Know about Acquisition of Adult Literacy. Is There Hope? Washington: World Bank Discussion Paper No. 245.

Carron, Gabriel; Kilemi Mwiria and Gabriel Righa (1989) The functioning and effects of the Kenya literacy programme. Paris: IIEP Research Report No. 76.

Comings, John (1995) Literacy Skill Retention in Adult Students in Developing Countries. International Journal of Educational Development 15 (No 1).

Lauglo, Jon (2001) Engaging With Adults. The Case for Increased Support to Adult ­Basic Education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Washington DC: World Bank. Africa Region Human Development Working Paper Series. (a French version is entitled: Inclure les adultes. Pour un appui à l’éducation de base des adultes en Afrique subsaharienne).

Okech, Anthony; Roy A. Carr-Hill; Anne R. Katahoire; Teresa Kakooza; Alice N. Ndidde and John Oxenham (2001) Adult Literacy Programs in Uganda. World Bank Africa ­Region Human Development Series.

Oxenham, John; Abdoul Hamid Diallo; Anne Ruhweza Katahoire; Anna Petkova-Mwangi and Oumar Sall (2002 Forthcoming) Strengthening Livelihoods with Literacy. Report of a study of programmes of adult education and training that have attempted to incorporate either training for livelihood skills into mainly literacy instruction, or literacy instruction into mainly training for livelihood skills. Washington DC: World Bank Human Development Working Paper Series/Bonn: Institute for International Cooperation of the German Adult Education Association.

Oxenham, John and Aya Aoki (Forthcoming) Including the 900 Million+. Paper Prepared for the Education Sector Board of the World Bank.

Romain, Ralph I. and Lenor Armstrong (1987) Review of World Bank Operations in Nonformal Education and Training. World Bank Discussion Paper Report No EDT63.

Sandiford, P.J.; M. Montenegro Cassel and G. Sanchez (1995) The Impact of Women’s Literacy on Child Health and its Interaction with Access to Health Services. Population Studies, 49, 5-17.

UNDP (1976) The Experimental World Literacy Programme. Paris: UNESCO Press.

World Bank (2001) BELOISYA “Basic Education and Livelihood Opportunities for Illiterate and Semiliterate Young Adults - especially young women - in countries with low rates of enrolment in primary schools”. Proceedings of a workshop in N’djamena, Chad, March 15-19, 1999. Washington DC: World Bank Discussion Paper.


1 In introducing this term, the intention is not necessarily to urge governments and NGOs that provide what I call ABE to adopt it. When working in a country, development agencies should be prepared to use terms which are locally established, not insist on their own nomenclature. The main point of talking about ABE rather than ‘adult literacy education’ is the need to emphasize that other learning is also involved. ABE should be seen as a flexible term. ABE can be offered in quite formal evening schools - hence it need not be ‘nonformal’. The ‘other contents’ need not be confined to that which has economic utility, hence it need not be ‘functional literacy’.

2 There is no guarantee that the very poorest and the most disadvantaged groups in a community will be the main beneficiaries of adult basic education. Among the poor, self-selection will generally favor those with stronger personal and social resources. This is however not merely to be seen as a ‘problem’ because it is such persons who normally rise to leadership in work to improve the conditions of life of the poor.

3 As of 1998, Chad appeared to be the one exception as far as national statistics are concerned. Another exception would be literacy projects based in modern sector workplaces (e.g., South Africa today) where male enrolment exceeds that of females probably simply because males predominate in this workforce.

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