David Archer

The 2008 EFA Global Monitoring Report recognises adult literacy as the most neglected of the EFA goals. It is neglected most obviously in respect of the financial allocations made by governments and donors. Since the last CONFINTEA meeting in 1997, there has been little or no investment in adult education across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Where funds are available for adult education they are most likely to find their way into adult literacy programmes but even these are desperately under-funded. David Archer is Head of the International Education Team of ActionAid.

Financing Adult Literacy


This shortage of financing creates a dangerous situation in which adult educators seek to convince politicians to invest, based on false promises of quick wins at low cost. The spectre of short-term literacy campaigns re-appears – with promises that mass literacy can be achieved within thirty days or six months. Most experienced practitioners now recognise that continuity of learning over at least two or three years is required to make a real impact (as recommended in the benchmarks) – but this knowledge is inconvenient in trying to bid for scarce resources.

The International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy put the likely cost of running a good quality adult literacy programme as somewhere be tween US $ 50 and $ 100 per learner per year, for at least three years. Many organisations claim they can run programmes cheaper, but to sustain an effective programme requires paying facilitators and ensur ing that they have good quality training and access to professional development. It does none of us any favours if we offer cheap alterna tives which do not achieve quality results that can be sustained.

The GCE Benchmarks also recommend that

"Governments should dedicate at least 3 % of their national edu cation sector budgets to adult literacy programmes as conceived in these benchmarks. Where governments deliver on this, interna tional donors should fill any remaining resource gaps (e.g. through including adult literacy in the Fast Track Initiative)."

This recommendation was based on the idea that governments should spend 6 % of their education budgets on adult education and half of that should go to basic literacy. It is clear that at present most governments are spending under 1 % of national education budgets on adults and often only a small fraction of 1 %. We need to popularise a reference point for governments, and the 6 % for adult education.3% for adult literacy seem to be figures that have most momentum.

In respect of donors, they have singularly failed to deliver on the re source promise made in Dakar in 2000 that any government with a viable plan to achieve education for all will not be allowed to fail for lack of resources. The promise was rapidly converted into one that focused resources only on universal primary schooling through the setting up of the EFA Fast Track Initiative in 2002. The reductionism of the EFA agenda was clearly driven by the World Bank, as indeed it had been after Jomtien. There is something grotesque in the very title of the EFA FTI – it occupies the full EFA space for mobilisation of donor resources and yet channels funds only into primary schooling.

Many people have been challenging the FTI over recent years to rec ognise this contradiction and we are finally making some progress. Burkina Faso and Benin have both had education sector plans endorsed by the FTI which include significant components of adult literacy. The Benin endorsement is particularly significant because it came after the Abuja meeting when the Call for Action was sent to the FTI together with letters lobbying them to act. This seems to have played some part in forcing the FTI to accept adult literacy as a component in plans that they fund. However this message has not gone out more generally and the FTI secretariat has still failed to communicate this publicly to countries coming up for endorsement. Nevertheless, as campaigners for adult education we should be get ting the message out loud and clear to all governments that FTI can support adult literacy … if national governments include adult literacy as a priority in their sector plans that are submitted to the FTI.

There is however a wider problem on financing of adult literacy that overshadows even the poor performance of the donors. That is the macro-economic policies of the IMF, which seek to maintain "stability" through unnecessarily restrictive policies, especially low inflation tar gets and low deficit targets, which prevent countries from increasing spending on education. Until recently, half the countries with an IMF loan agreement were subject to an explicit cap on their public sector wage bill. The largest group paid for out of this public sector wage bill are teachers (and health workers are the second largest group). If you have a cap, you have to freeze teacher salaries and you can not employ new teachers even if you have millions more children in your schools. And obviously you cannot even think of starting to pay adult literacy facilitators or adult education tutors. In the face of IMF policies it is almost impossible for countries to make significant new investment in adult literacy.

One of the root causes of the problem is the short-termism of the IMF – everything depends on 3 to 5 year "medium term expenditure frameworks" . If you are looking over such a timeframe everything you spend on education is pure consumption – money down the drain. If, however, you take a longer term view, over ten years, spending on education is not just consumption but rather a sound economic investment which will contribute massively to national development.

If we want to make the case for more investment in adult literacy we need to join forces with civil society campaigners who are challeng ing their Ministries of Finance to prevent the IMF from imposing their outdated ideology. It is for national citizens to demand accountability from their own governments around any agreement signed with the IMF – and this is not as hard as it sounds. It makes sense for us as education campaigners to link with HIV and health campaigners to make this wider case – because without a change in the big financ ing picture, there will always be a scarcity of resources for education … and when funding is in short supply, adult education tends to be the first victim.

We should use the build-up to CONFINTEA to make the case for new investment in adult education and to popularise simple reference points against which we can monitor the performance of governments and donors. Brazil, the host of CONFINTEA is one of the few countries that have recognised the importance of investing in adults, and we should use this as an example to inspire others.