This paper aims to assess what the experience of the last two or three decades has suggested for planning programmes of adult basic education and training (ABET) that aim to combat poverty and include the skills of literacy and numeracy as important, if not central, elements. The focus is on poverty reduction, not literacy, so that the paper does not examine findings on attainments in reading, writing and written numeracy. Dr John Oxenham has worked many years for the World Bank. He now lives in the United Kingdom and is still working on adult education.
Before addressing the assessment of effectiveness in poverty reduction, the paper briefly describes the evidence on which it bases itself and considers the quality of the studies to which it has had access. Then, using the Millennium Development Goals for reducing poverty as a guiding framework, it examines the contribution that ABET is possibly making to each goal. Then the paper turns to issues of strategy, instructional methods and instructors. Finally, it suggests why the world has learned less from experience than it might have done.
The basis of the paper comprises three main sources. The first is the published literature. The second source is the ‘grey’ documentation that governments and international, bilateral and non-governmental agencies feel able to make available to researchers. Such agencies also possess reports and evaluations that they deem too sensitive to release publicly, even if they list them in library holdings and archives.
The third source of evidence is the stream of reports and assessments of a number of major ABET projects that the World Bank has supported since 1977 in four countries, two in Africa, two in Asia. In none of these sources can this paper claim to be comprehensive. Apart from the likelihood that it has missed journal articles and other relevant publications, there is a strong probability that is has missed much in languages other than English. However, Torres (2003) and CONFINTEA V (2003) put these deficiencies into perspective, as both note the continuing scarcity of solid studies of the efficiency, outcomes and impact of ABET.
The documents that we do have tend to describe only intent, inputs and processes, and to omit outcomes. Some emphasise cases of success, but refrain from full and balanced appraisals. Some evaluations rely on qualitative, impressionistic approaches, and find quantities unnecessary. Others adopt quantitative approaches, but fail to identify their limitations and to analyse the quantities fully. Some prefer to couch modest quantitative gains in terms that tend to overstate them. An instance would be depicting an advance of two points from a score of six to a score of eight on a 20-point scale as a 30 per cent gain. There is an abundance of self-reporting, while its risks are ignored. Studies with baselines and longitudinal observations are few and very recent: Burchfield’s 2002 studies in Bolivia and Nepal stand out, even if some of the interpretations of the data seem questionable. Overall, few rock-solid conclusions emerge. Nevertheless, the trend is positive. The studies available may be straws in the wind, but the straws are growing more numerous and the wind is blowing in the right direction.
The thrust of the Millennium Development Goals for 2015 (MDG) is to reduce the complex of conditions that constitute the broad notion of the vicious cycle of poverty: low income, gender-based negative biases, poor nutrition, poor health, debilitated capacity to work, poor education, poor use of resources, high morbidity, high mortality. ABET should affect every one of these facets of poverty. The MDG thus offer a ready framework for examining whether ABET contributes to their attainment. The paper will then take each goal in turn in the order in which the United Nations has adopted them and assess what the available evidence has to say.
The reduction of extreme poverty and hunger is the very first of the eight Millennium Development Goals. Do ABET programmes help this reduction?
The first point clear from the evidence is that overwhelming majorities of those who enrol in ABET come from the poorer sections of society. They may not include many of the absolute poorest, but they do include the very poor and some of the poorest. That is to say, ABET programmes are self-targeting on the very people who should benefit from poverty reduction.
The second point concerns the first target of the first MDG, which is to halve the proportion of people whose income is less than US$1.00 per day. That means raising incomes. Does undertaking ABET enable poor people to raise their incomes? Valerio (2003) used a national household survey in Ghana to investigate the question. She concluded that, in Ghana at least, it did not. However, calculations from the World Bank suggest the contrary. Bank staff studied the rate of return on investment in ABET in Indonesia, Ghana and Bangladesh (World Bank 1986,16; 1999,11; 2001,49). The Indonesian study estimated an individual rate of return to investment of about 25 per cent; the Ghanaian study estimated a private rate of return of 43 per cent for females, and 24 per cent for males, along with a social rate of return of 18 per cent for females and 14 per cent for males; while the Bangladeshi study reckoned that the average private rate of return might be as high as 37 per cent. However uncertain these estimates, they suggest first that the investments are productive and, second, that what poor people learn from literacy programmes does help them to raise their incomes and move out of poverty.
Other studies come from eight countries. Only Burchfield’s (2002- A and B) studies in Bolivia and Nepal, World Education’s (2001) in Nepal, and Mia’s (2004) in Bangladesh had baseline data. All, relying on reports from the beneficiary learners rather than on strictly measured observations, tend to be positive. Four examples will be useful. Managers of SODEFITEX1 in Senegal estimated a six per cent increase in productivity among cotton farmers who had taken the corporation’s literacy course (Oxenham et al. 2002, 24 ff.). The Women’s Empowerment Program in Nepal rapidly enrolled some 130,000 women and organized savings, credit and investment schemes to the tune of US$1,600,000 in a little over two years (Ashe & Parrott 2001). Cawthera felt able to conclude on the basis of successive visits to literacy groups in Bangladesh over three years that the participants had experienced a sustained and beneficial impact on livelihoods, a lasting impact on agricultural practices and on nutrition, and a sustained increase in savings and investment a (Cawthera 2003,14-15). Similarly, in their evaluation of three REFLECT projects in Bangladesh, El Salvador and Uganda, Archer and Cottingham (1996, 63 ff.) were able to furnish examples from all three countries of how the educational process had stimulated participants to improve their uses of land, water, crops and money.
Quite apart from productivity in its normal sense is the effect that some mastery of written calculation engenders. Successful participants say that they can now handle money, especially paper money, more confidently. More important, they feel less vulnerable to being cheated in monetary transactions, since they can now record them. This is a key gain for people who are by necessity micro-entrepreneurs, for it helps them to manage their businesses on a sounder basis.2 On the other hand, Fiedrich and Jellema (2003) say that, when asked to give examples of how they avoid cheating, respondents are unable to do so. The researchers suggest that the respondents may only be repeating what they were promised by the ABET organisers and instructors.
Despite this doubt, the evidence available suggests that ABET can indeed help with poverty reduction – although that is not to argue that it constitutes a sufficient condition, let alone a panacea.
Studies from at least seven countries have looked at the question. Despite some inconsistencies, the balance of probability lies fairly strongly on the side of stimulating effects on school enrolments, perseverance and completion. Women who have taken literacy courses do tend to be somewhat more likely to enrol and keep their children in school, even if the margin of difference is small, as Valerio found in Ghana.
Stronger effects are found where forms of ‘Family Literacy’ are used to enable parents, especially mothers, to take a more supportive interest in their children’s schooling. Examples come from Turkey and South Africa (see Bekman 1998; Desmond 2004). The benefits for both children and mothers are strong and durable (see e.g. Brooks et al. 1996, 1997; Basic Skills Agency; 1998)
An important inference from these findings would run as follows:
If parental literacy greatly helps school attainment, then for effective pro-poor education we need effective adult literacy activity…It could be that effective adult literacy has an important part to play in making mainstream education both more effective and more pro-poor. (Cawthera 2003)
Most ABET programmes tend to enrol many more women than men. As noted above, these women are mostly poor. Does their participation in literacy courses help them take stronger roles in their families and communities in improving the quality of life? Moulton’s (1997) review suggests that ABET does tend to increase the confidence of individual women, and studies from ten countries provide some supporting data. For example, Burchfield’s studies in Nepal and Bolivia, cross-sectional and longitudinal, (1997, 2002) signal that participation in literacy programmes does tend to promote participation in community groups more rapidly than other factors. On the other hand, it does not assure such participation, since half and sometimes more of the learners do not join community groups or take greater part in local affairs.
The tenor of studies of women’s empowerment from the other countries is much the same (e.g. Nirantar 1997; Karlekar 2000); some women do seem to make worthwhile gains in confidence, but the gains are by no means universal. Neither are they negligible.
Studies from seven countries suggest that at least some of the graduates of literacy programmes do change habits that affect health and survival. The most interesting example comes from Nicaragua. It took place 10 years after the National Literacy Crusade of 1980. On measures of rates of infant mortality and child malnutrition, the study observed,
Not only was survival significantly higher among children of women in the adult education group compared with those of illiterate women, but also, within the adult education group, survival was better for the children of women born after the CNA, rather than before. (Sandiford et al., 1995, 15)
In consonance with this, Valerio inferred from the Ghana national household survey that women who participated in the functional literacy programme were indeed more likely to use the services of maternal clinics than unschooled women who had not enrolled.
On the other hand, Ghana also proffers some less positive evidence from another study, this one carried out through qualitative field observations (Korboe 1997). The evaluator found little difference between the nutritional and hygiene habits of people who had attended functional literacy classes and those who had not. Indeed, Korboe’s impressions of the impact of the national functional literacy programme were generally dim. He does mention two exceptions, however. First, men who had attended literacy classes did seem to know more about issues of family size and planning than men who had not. Second, women who had attended literacy classes did seem more aware of the nutritional value of indigenous vegetables and more prepared to use them than those who had not.
Overall, then, the evidence suggests a positive trend in favour of the two ‘health’ MDG, but the evidence is not conclusive.
As regards HIV/AIDS, the first target of the sixth MDG is to have halted and begun to reverse the spread of the disease by 2015. This makes Burchfield’s findings in Nepal particularly pertinent. Participation in the literacy programme had a strong effect on gains in information about preventing infection: the higher the participation, the greater the gain in knowledge (Burchfield et al. 2002, 60, Fig. 20). Unfortunately, no study seems to be available on whether these gains in information lead to beneficial changes in behaviour. Nor is there information about gains in information about malaria and other major killer diseases.
Quite apart from the MDG, current trends in decentralising government and public services, with the concomitant emphasis on good governance, accountability and democratisation, call for stronger participation in social and political affairs by larger proportions of the population. Observations from seven countries suggest that participation in ABET programmes does promote social participation, although with the usual variation: some participants will be prompted more strongly than others, while some may not be prompted at all. Grivel (1990, 64), evaluating the outcomes of adult basic education in four provinces of Burkina Faso, found many, but not all, of the newly literate undertaking roles in almost all the economic and governing bodies of their villages. Similarly, the SODEFITEX corporation in Senegal was pleased to find that the farmers – men and women – who had taken their literacy course, took up roles in managing the affairs and accounts of the producers’ cooperatives, and also began to take control of the marketing of their products (Oxenham et al. 2002, 27). In addition, many of them undertook to teach literacy classes of their own.
In less favourable conditions, Archer and Cottingham (1996) squarely faced the issue of the influence of existing cultural norms on the effects of adult education. From their study in Bangladesh, they warn that social change is gradual. Fiedrich (2003, 176 ff.) echoes this warning. Nonetheless, within that set of social constraints, the women’s groups did become more active in pursuing their own programmes. In contrast, the REFLECT programmes in El Salvador and Uganda yielded several instances of community participation and collective action.
Within groups with different experiences of basic adult education, Comings et al. (1997, 17) found that women who had completed a 9-month course, in comparison with neighbours who had completed only the first 6 months
are much more likely to be in a mothers’ group, be a member of a committee, live near a Community Health Volunteer, and speak Nepalese as either a first or daily language.
Here arises a suggestion of reciprocally reinforcing ‘interaction effects’ between pre-existing aspirations and educational experience. Similar reports come from the Women’s Empowerment Program, also in Nepal (Ashe and Parrott 2001). In sum, suitably organized and implemented literacy programmes do tend to engender stronger and more confident social and political participation by poor, unschooled people – particularly poor women. On the other hand, expectations for change should be realistic and evolutionary, not revolutionary.
The available evidence suggests that appropriately implemented ABET can contribute to reducing poverty, attaining universal primary completion, empowering women, increasing health, impeding the spread of HIV/AIDS and enhancing social participation. On these grounds, efforts to raise the quality and efficacy of ABET programmes would appear to be warranted. On the other hand, such efforts should not raise expectations of miraculously rapid transformations. Rather, three cautions need to be borne in mind.
First, the causal chain between information, attitudes and behaviour is uncertain. Knowing something does not necessarily connote agreeing with its implications, and accepting its implications does not necessarily stimulate changes in behaviour. That said, it remains true that imparting the required information is a first step towards helping adults change their behaviour.
Second, the available evidence suggests that only minorities of ABET participants change their attitudes and behaviour within a few years of their participation. The minorities can be as large as 30 to 40 per cent and thus worthwhile, or as small as 10 to 20 per cent, which might be disappointing. But it seems to be rare that half or more of a group or sample of participants show changes in attitudes or behaviour. It also seems to be the case that participants accept information and ideas more readily if they are wholly outside their existing scheme of knowledge and values. If the new material in some way contradicts what is already accepted, it is likely to meet resistance and slower acceptance.
Third, much that is learned through ABET will be wasted if the necessary supports to implement and sustain the skills and knowledge are lacking. These supports can be wider social acceptance, the presence of social and economic policies and their implementing agencies – in other words, the institutional environment – and the availability of the physical facilities for implementation, like roads, transportation, communication facilities – in other words, the infrastructural environment.
In short, ABET programmes need to be viewed as a kind of yeast, which can help gradually increasing numbers of people move out of poverty, provided all the necessary supporting conditions are satisfied. Conversely, of course, ABET can help raise the productivity of investments in institutions and infrastructure.
If ABET can indeed be helpful in promoting the Millennium Development Goals, what strategy would maximise its effectiveness? Here the phrase ‘Adult Basic Education and Training’ comes in useful, for it connotes a package that combines the skills of literacy and numeracy with other skills in, for example, family life, livelihoods, money management and governance. Having a package then raises the question whether each component attracts equal emphasis or whether one or more take priority over the others. A recent review suggests that, for most very poor unschooled adults, a strategy that Rogers (1997) calls ‘literacy second’ may be the most prudent.
‘Literacy second’ entails identifying the leading common interests of groups of people, arranging training in those interests and then identifying how literacy and numeracy can best further the training and the interests. Oxenham et al. (2002) used Rogers’ framework to divide a number of programmes from several countries into two main groups, ‘literacy-led’ and ‘livelihood-led’. Subject to the limitations of the data available and granting wide variation in outcomes, they reached three conclusions.
First, ‘livelihood-led’ programmes seemed to stand a stronger chance of success than the ‘literacy-led’. Demand for literacy is likely to be more powerful if concurrent training in livelihood skills demonstrates clearly that literacy and numeracy are indispensable to their full effectiveness: a real need for literacy makes itself felt.
Second, organisations more concerned with livelihoods and other aspects of development seemed to be better at designing and delivering effective combinations of livelihood and literacy than organisations focused mainly on education.
Third, groups that have formed for particular purposes and find that they need literacy and numeracy to achieve those purposes tend to more successful in developing all their skills.
These three conclusions suggest that a ‘literacy second’ strategy for ABET should encourage differentiated approaches for three categories of potential learners:
groups that already exist and have their own purposes
people who are not formally grouped, but who have clear interests in common
participants training in skills that require literacy for their optimal utilization
These three categories are likely to account for a majority of potential ABET enrolees. In addition, however, there may need to be provision for two more categories. The first should attract the closest attention, for it includes the most impoverished and marginalized people, who face the most intractable obstacles in their efforts to improve their lives and livelihoods. While they may well present the most difficult challenge in terms of framing and mounting appropriate courses and longer term supports, they are at the heart of the first Millennium Development Goal, for they are the people whose income is likely to be less than one dollar a day.
The second category could attract lesser priority. It includes potential ABET enrolees who are not affiliated to any particular group, nor interested in any particular training, but who would nevertheless like to learn how to read, write and calculate more efficiently for purposes of their own.
In addition to leading from interests, rather than from literacy, the strategy should take the perspective of ‘lifelong education’, for the simple reason that neither the interests in life or livelihood, nor the skills of literacy and numeracy can be adequately, let alone fully, developed through a single brief course. The ‘lifelong’ perspective would of course generate implications for organisation, staffing, capacity building and finance that are beyond the scope of this paper.
A number of educators have developed and advocated instructional approaches and methods to make ABET more effective in whatever objectives a particular programme adopts. Each of these methods proffers a rationale that is attractive and persuasive. However, the evidence available does not enable any conclusion on their relative effectiveness or suitability for particular learning groups. All appear relatively equal in terms of retention, graduation and outcomes.
For the future, as regards the skills of reading and writing more narrowly, better understanding of the neurological underpinnings of memory, learning and other cognitive processes may lead to the development and validation of more effective approaches and methods (see e.g. Royer et al. 2004; Abadzi 2003; Ardila 2000).
In contrast to its signals on methods, the evidence seems firm on instructors or facilitators. It confirms that the key to a successful learning group is an instructor who can engage her or his learners to spend sufficient time on task to ensure their mastery of the skills and knowledge in the curriculum. The ideal instructor would combine all the following qualities: reliability, competence in subject matter, methods and skills, rapport with the learners, and the ability to sustain interest and engagement.
However, a distinction is necessary between the usual literacy instructor and the usual instructor in other, more technical skills, e.g. agriculture or a trade. Most people who are literate can be trained to teach literacy effectively to others. Livelihood and other skills on the other hand tend to require more specialised instructors. Indeed, one of the problems of ABET programmes has been the inability of literacy instructors to impart ‘functional’ topics in either life or livelihood skills beyond rudimentary levels. Instructors in life or livelihood skills, on the other hand, can be trained to be good literacy instructors as well.
It would seem then that the ideal arrangement would have a group of learners served by at least a pair of instructors, each covering appropriate skills within a coordinated curriculum. Ensuring the complete dovetailing and complementarity between the skill sets would constitute a challenge. The practicability of such an arrangement would vary with locality, with urban locations being more favoured and the more inaccessible rural communities at risk of losing out. The implication once again is that the institutions concerned with life, livelihood and literacy education would need to highly flexible and resourceful.
As for training, the intimations seem to be that that recurrent training in brief sessions supports instructors better than initial training followed by irregular supervision.
As regards the issue whether ABET instructors should be voluntary or paid, many programmes have relied on volunteers to teach literacy groups and have succeeded in the short term. However, there is scarcely a programme that has not had to resort to at least rewards in kind to retain experienced instructors. Further, the current trend towards continuing and lifelong education virtually necessitates that instructors, both literacy and technical, should be paid, but not necessarily as full-time employees.
Thirty years have passed since UNESCO and UNDP published their joint evaluation of the Experimental World Literacy Programme with its work-oriented, selective and intensive approach that aimed to enable people to improve their incomes and living standards. In that period, many governments and other agencies have continued with ABET programmes, some, like India, with their own resources, some like Bangladesh, Ghana, Indonesia or Senegal, with combinations of their own and external resources, and some with almost total reliance on external resources, either borrowed or donated. Also in that period, and even before it, external agencies that have helped finance ABET programmes have routinely included funds for monitoring, evaluation and even some research. ADB, CIDA, DANIDA, FINNIDA, IIZ / DVV, ILO, NORAD, SDC, Sida, UKODA/DfID, UNESCO, UNICEF, USAID, the World Bank, are all examples, as indeed is the Government of India. In short, time, opportunity and finance have been working in favour of better monitoring, evaluation and grasp of what makes for really effective ABET. Yet, as many commentators have remarked, knowledge of good, let alone best, practice in ABET remains inconclusive. What are the reasons for the situation? This paper can offer only hypotheses on the basis of indirect inferences from reports and evaluations, as none of the agencies above have much firm evidence to explain the frustration of their official intentions.
The lack of money is not at the root of the lack of evidence from monitoring or evaluations. However, it very likely does explain the paucity of independent research and experiment, as funds tend to be tied to the evaluation of projects and not to be available for academic research and experiments. The explanations for the failures of monitoring and evaluation probably lie in two areas, attitudes and capacities. The word ‘probably’ is necessary, as the evidence for the argument can be only indirect: no study has directly addressed the question.
Four attitudes appear to underlie the underperformance of units expressly established to monitor and evaluate ABET. The relative force of any one of these attitudes vis à vis the other three may well differ from country to country, or even from organisation to organisation. Also, there is no evidence to help apportion weights between the four. The practical implication is simply that, if the hypothesis is valid, people who want to improve monitoring and evaluation will need to devise ways of neutralising the attitudes.
The first attitude could be termed ‘disinclination’. The collection of basic data is usually in the hands of group instructors. These people are usually not full-time employees, but part-timers and quite often volunteers, with numerous, probably onerous, other commitments. They probably do not welcome the chore of recording statistics on top of the preparations they have to make for their classes, and the clearing up that may be necessary after class, particularly as most classes tend to end either late in the evening or shortly before preparations for the evening meal. On another tack, most instructors believe in the intrinsic value of their efforts to help their neighbours, can give examples of the good they are doing, and see little need for further validation. Their views may well be shared by people at all levels in the hierarchy.
The second attitude may be ‘evaluphobia’, a fear of and antipathy to evaluation. There are traces of it in governments, where officials view evaluation as mere fault-finding in the interests of the evaluators’ jobs. In one country, 20 years passed before the government permitted a thorough impact evaluation – which turned out to be positive and helpful. On the non-governmental side, there is at least one instance of an organisation opposing an impact evaluation on the ground that it would undermine the good work of thousands of people who had voluntarily given time to helping their neighbours (Karlekar 2000). In sympathy, it can be noted that many evaluations are indeed less than cheerful.
The third attitude may be ‘territorialism’, a resentment of having one’s work inspected and assessed by outsiders – one’s territory invaded by aliens – who have little understanding of one’s aims or of the less than ideal conditions and hardships under which one labours. This resentment may be felt not only against foreigners imposed by external financiers, but also against evaluators hired from local universities or consulting firms.
The fourth attitude is ‘political correctness’. There is a correct view that to the fullest possible extent local people should monitor and evaluate ABET and recourse should be had to outsiders to the least possible extent. Further, where local evaluators are not immediately available, there should be efforts to recruit suitable people for training as monitors and evaluators, in other words, to build capacity. These correct views seem to have taken priority over the need for sound information. Many of the reports and studies available show that insufficiently expert local people have been engaged to do evaluations, simply because they were local. In some cases, their insufficiency of qualification was recognised, but they were engaged because they at least had some qualifications. In others, the status of the people engaged obscured the insufficiency of their expertise. The result has been a number of reports that yielded data that could not be fully trusted, analyses that failed to make full use of the data that could be trusted and so produced less information than had been hoped, and conclusions that could not be used to guide later planning and implementation. Such reports of course are never published and remain as part of the ‘grey’ literature, much of it inaccessible.
On the issue of building capacity, history shows successive efforts that produce new capacity that is then rapidly siphoned off into other projects or functions through promotion or transfer. This characteristic seems to hold true of both governments and non-governmental organisations. The priorities of institutions and individual careers tend to take precedence over the needs for good information for ABET.
In sum, the hypothesis is that these four attitudes have contributed to frustrating efforts – and finance – to develop better, more comprehensive, definitive and holistic understanding of what works best in ABET.
One inference from the hypothesis of ‘political correctness’ is of course that the capacities to undertake and manage good monitoring and evaluation are scarce and need not only to be formed and nurtured, but also to be multiplied, so that, when formed, they remain available. It may be as well to specify precisely what capacities are in question: they can be readily listed.
An up-to-date knowledge of the available options for sound, really informative evaluations – both qualitative and quantitative – to suit given circumstances
The capacity to design a water-tight study that addresses and takes account of all the possibilities of contamination, unclear or ambiguous questionnaires, multi-causality or co-linearity
The capacity to manage the implementation of a study, including training the required research assistants and ensuring that the observations are carried out correctly
The capacity to manage the data, to mobilise expertise to ensure that all the available tools of analysis are brought to bear in extracting good information from the data
The capacity to write up the analyses in terms that assist policy makers and educators in adjusting current and planning future programmes
The capacity to ensure that the product is disseminated to all the people to whom it could be useful, as well as to the adult education profession in general
Building these capacities and even multiplying them may be an easier task than converting the four attitudes to a stance that is more 100 welcoming to experimentation, research, monitoring and evaluation. It may even be more realistic to think in terms of circumvention rather than conversion. However that may be, one thing seems clear: if the straws of evidence that are at hand now could be multiplied to show more reliably and precisely just how the wind of ABET blows, resources would be swift to flow for better ABET programmes to enable much larger numbers of the poorest to work their way out of poverty.
1 Society for the Development of Textile Fibres, Senegal.
2 There is quite a lot of evidence that many unschooled people can do complex calculations mentally. Nonetheless, gaining the ability to do and record them on paper engenders added confidence.
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