Julia Betts

In December 2000, the Department for International Development, United Kingdom, held a conference in Kathmandu together with education, health, social development and livelihoods advisers from Asia, and staff of the World Bank and UNAIDS. This was one of a number of conferences addressing the question of how literacy can and must help to combat poverty and improve standards of living in the age of globalization. Dr Julia Betts works for the Education Group, DFID ­India, in New Delhi.

Literacies and Livelihoods: the DFID1 Kathmandu Conference

In an increasingly globalised world, being able to access and use information, critically engage with issues and institutions relevant to one’s life, and having the confidence and space in which to make one’s voice heard, are valuable assets for anybody. Through its scope for enhancing these sorts of capabilities and practices, literacy has shown that it is a powerful aspect of the development response to poverty, vulnerability and isolation.

Yet while much literacy work takes place implicitly within different ­development ‘sectors’ - micro-finance, for example, or agricultural ­extension work - ‘literacy provision’ has largely been confined to the education sectors of funding agencies. And such literacy programmes have in the past been criticised for their limited impact through high dropout rates, low enrolment and completion rates and accordingly low rates of return.

However, if adult literacy does have the capacity to enhance quality of life for those living in difficult circumstances across the globe, then clearly it forms a key part of the development agenda. With recent developments in literacy theory (the New Literacy studies, Street 1993, 2000), questions are increasingly being raised surrounding literacy policy and practice. How can provision really respond to the daily realities of the poor - to their needs and practices, hopes and aspirations? How can it avoid stigmatising those who have not had the opportunity to learn to read and write? How can literacy be made more relevant, accessible, equitable, extending to the very hardest to reach?

The DFID Kathmandu Conference

The recognition of the need to unravel these questions led to a cross-sectoral conference held in Kathmandu in December 2000. The meeting was attended by education, health, social development by DFID and Nepal and livelihoods advisors from across Asia, as well as representatives from bodies such as the World Bank and UNAIDS. In a rich cross-sectoral debate, the conference reflected on past experience (especially but not limited to DFID’s experience in Asia) and explored some of the lessons learned. It aimed to address specific issues of conceptualisation, design, implementation and take-up, and to seek new and broader understandings for approaching and conceptualising literacy.

A major part of the argument in the Kathmandu conference about ‘limited returns’ from literacy initiatives held that programmes were too often ‘decontextualised from people’s lives’. In searching for ways to redress this, participants noted that many of the lessons learned from best practice in literacy programmes and projects cohere with the underlying principles of the sustainable livelihoods approach to development. The sustainable livelihoods approach views people as having access to certain assets, or poverty-reducing factors, which gain their meaning through the prevailing social, institutional and organisational environment. This environment also influences the livelihood strategies - the ways of combining and using assets - that are open to people as they pursue their own defined livelihood objectives. The six main principles of the sustainable livelihoods approach - people-centred, holistic, dynamic, building on strengths, sustainable, generating micro-macro links - are linked to a framework, which provides a conceptual tool for understanding the context in which people live.

This thinking has implications for literacy policy and practice locally, nationally and internationally. The Kathmandu conference noted some of the ways in which lessons from experience, linked to the sustainable livelihoods principles, could potentially benefit future literacy work:

  • Listening to the voices. A wide body of evidence indicates that people’s own defined literacy and communication needs and aspirations are closely bound up with their envisioned livelihood opportunities and strategies, whether these are market opportunities, access to information or ‘voice’. Accordingly, the body of research and evaluations of literacy work in recent years have shown that literacy initiatives generally work far better when they form part of a holistic approach to development, rather than as stand-alone approaches. The reification of ‘literacy’ should be avoided if we are to escape the mistakes of the past. This is not to advocate ‘literacy comes second’ necessarily, but rather a view of literacy as a mechanism for helping people attain their own articulated aims and aspirations.
  • Building on strengths. The number of people with no reading and writing skills at all is relatively low compared with the number who have made some gains either via schooling or their own private learning. The increasing body of ethnographic studies of literacy and communication practices has shown how those people classified by dominant voices as ‘illiterate’ in fact have their own complex social practices of literacy, and their own networks of support (Fingeret 1983; Barton and Hamilton 1998; Street 1993, 2000;). The main starting-point for literacy work should therefore be what people ­already have, know and do, rather than the assumption that people are ‘unknowing’ blank slates.
  • Lives and context are dynamic. People do not exist in static boxes; lives and livelihoods are complex, shifting and fluid. Accordingly, literacy and access to information needs are constantly changing. Literacy work therefore needs to be flexible and responsive within other livelihoods programmes, to reflect these varying needs and aspirations in an increasingly globalised world.
  • Responding to demand.In aiming to maximise returns, the key lies in responding appropriately to what and how people want to learn. This may include such diverse elements as reading the Bible, signing payment cheques or gaining ‘empowerment’ or voice. There is thus a role for ‘literacy first’ work under the principle of ‘demand-driven’ development; however, experience has shown that if high attrition and low outcomes are to be avoided in these kinds of initiatives, then creative, flexible and often innovative responses are required.
  • Sustainability.‘One-shot’, one size fits all campaigns have largely failed to deliver. Long-term commitments are required - which means taking a more embedded, locally-owned view of programmes and projects.

Literacy therefore becomes not only an educational matter - a crucial factor in the worlds of funding agencies and their traditionally sectoral approaches to development - but rather a cross-cutting issue, which can enhance other development plans and programmes.

If synergies do exist between literacy research and sustainable livelihoods principles, what added value can be derived from taking an explicitly livelihoods view of literacy work? The answer may lie in reconceptualisation - by linking the experiences and findings of literacy research to the principles of the approach, funding agencies such as DFID can find an opportunity for cohesion and systematisation in their policy and practice. Thus literacy work can be grounded much more deeply in the perceptions and practices of the poor - their varied needs and understandings, their motivations and existing capabilities.

Tensions and Constraints

Yet the conference warned against concluding that all literacy work must draw neatly on these principles, or fit comfortably into the framework. The sustainable livelihoods principles should not be viewed as another ‘dogma’ for literacy. Rather, they may provide a useful resource for shaping our wider understandings and for contextualising literacy within the livelihood assets, strategies and context of the poor. Participants observed that the resonance of these principles with the New Literacies studies (Street 1993, 2000) lies partly in the fluidity of the ­approach - applied to different situations, a livelihoods analysis can reveal different realities and thus different ways of thinking about how literacy and communication are integral to people’s lives. The approach is a tool to help shape thinking and to recognise complexity, including the roles of issues such as gender constraints and HIV / AIDS - rather than drawing a definitive map of where literacy always ‘fits’.

Moreover, tensions inevitably exist within and between policymaking bodies and practitioners regarding the development of strategy and policy. Understandings of both ‘literacy’ and ‘livelihoods’ are often limited to narrow, technicist conceptions - the term ‘livelihoods’ for instance is often seen as a synonym for ‘income-generation’. There are tensions between paradigms of ‘literacy’ linked to economic development - reinforced by the political impetus for funding agencies to produce demonstrable, quantified ‘outcomes’ in poverty reduction - and approaches that can recognise the diversity of people’s livelihood and literacy needs and aspirations, and which have the capacity to be genuinely responsive to these. In illustration, the original title of the Kathmandu conference was ‘literacy for livelihoods’ - but after debate and discussion it was found necessary to change this to ‘literacy and livelihoods’, when consultation within and outside DFID revealed the danger of reverting to old-style ‘functional’ or ‘work-orientated’ views of literacy. The debate continues - does giving a title to a strategic approach run the risk of creating yet another ubiquitous ‘brand’ for literacy?

Different Approaches

The Kathmandu conference suggested that for funding agencies such as DFID, taking a more holistic, flexible and responsive approach to literacy work will imply greater communication and co-operation across development ‘sectors’, enhanced flexibility of design and approach, and innovative and more adaptable monitoring and evaluation procedures. It will require a greater emphasis on listening and questioning. It means avoiding central directives but rather building the rich and varied experience from within countries into policy work - learning from the ground up, making few assumptions, and standing willing to make a commitment to people’s lives in the long term.

More information

www.livelihoods.org - for information on Sustainable Livelihoods approaches and practice. There is a report on the Kathmandu conference, including those papers given, and a discussion area on literacy, under the Literacy Post-It Board.

Kathmandu conference report - available from DFID education offices in Asia, or contact Julia Betts (betts@dfid.gov.uk)


Barton, D. and Hamilton, M. (1998) Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One ­Community London and New York: Routledge

Fingeret, A. (1983) ‘Social Networks: A New Perspective on Independence and Illiterate Adults’ In: Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 33 No. 3 pp133-46

Street, B. (Ed.) (1993) Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Street, B. (Ed.) (2000) Literacy and Development: Ethnographic Perspectives. London: Routledge


1 Department for International Development

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