Balaraba Aliyu

Committed to building new momentum on adult literacy, 60 par ticipants from 24 countries gathered in Abuja, Nigeria in February 2007 in a workshop organised jointly by ActionAid and the Federal Ministry of Education, Nigeria. They included ministers of education, permanent secretaries, directors and managers of national literacy programmes, United Nations officials, donors and civil society organi sations. The participants were all committed to "writing the wrongs" in the field of adult literacy – reversing decades of under-investment in the sector, and transforming policy and practice to develop effec tive programmes. They shared experiences of what works in adult literacy, critically analysed the 12 International Benchmarks for Adult Literacy, and identified a range of important priorities for national and international action. The process of the workshop was as important as the outcomes. It drew extensively on Reflect methodologies used in training and exchange workshops by practitioners in different parts of the world. This article outlines some of the methods that were used to actively engage the 60 participants, drawing out their knowledge and experience, analysing power relations and helping them to reach a strong consensus. Barbara Aliyu is a Technical Assistant to the MDG office in Nigeria, formerly of ActionAid.

The Process of the High-Level Workshop on Writing the Wrongs in Abuja


The specific objectives of the workshop were to:


  • make the case for adult literacy as integral to the achievement of the MDGs, helping to renew political will, break the cycle of under- funding and to attract new investments;
  • explore the use of the International Benchmarks for Adult Literacy produced in 2005 for developing a conducive policy framework for adult literacy and for designing effective programmes;
  • form a new global alliance across sectors to prioritise adult literacy and build new political momentum involving Ministry of Education/ Literacy Divisions, Finance and Planning, UN Agencies, civil society and donors.


Field Visits

Participants spent a day visiting adult literacy programmes in four dif ferent rural and peri-urban communities, talking with adult learners, facilitators and coordinators from government and NGO programmes. This provided a practical basis for the subsequent discussions.

Analysing Literacy Statistics – the Matrix

In order to problematise existing literacy statistics, each participant completed a giant matrix. It included current data from the GMR for all countries present. Participants were asked to look at the statistics for their country, indicate their level of confidence in them, estimate what might be the real figures and indicate the main groups who were illiterate (e.g. women, rural, indigenous, age groups etc.). The session revealed the need to properly understand the situation in order to target programmes effectively, because to make the case for investment in literacy it is crucial to ensure people know the full scale of the challenge.

Making the Case for Literacy – Role Play

Participants broke into groups to do a series of role-plays. Half of the participants were tasked with making the case for literacy in the following contexts:

  1. Intervening in parliament – making a short pitch to MPs
  2. Meeting with Minister of Finance / IMF – five minutes to impress
  3. Meeting with the Minister of Education / education donors
  4. Persuading a national conference on MDGs, with NGOs, policy- makers, donors and academics
  5. Briefing journalists / doing a TV interview

The remaining participants prepared counter-arguments for the five constituencies above, preparing possible arguments against literacy that might be used by that group.

Balancing Country-level Experiences and International Context

In order to ground discussion in real experiences a series of case studies were presented of national literacy programmes, including those from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Vietnam. These were complemented by presentations about the UN Literacy Decade, the Literacy for Empowerment (LIFE) programme, the work of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, the Global Campaign for Education and Pamoja.

Interactive Sessions on the Benchmarks

Participants were divided into groups, each of which created a graphic relating to one or more of the benchmarks. The groups then did a gallery walk to view, discuss and add to the various graphics. Discussion questions and answers were collected on a flipchart. All the groups explored the relevance of each benchmark to their context and looked at whether present provision met the benchmark and if not what needed to change.

Understanding Literacy (Benchmarks 1 and 2)

Tool: Participants drew a problem tree. The roots represented read ing, writing and numeracy, the trunk was the literacy learning proc ess and the fruits were the outcomes – active citizenship, improved health, gender equality etc.

Task: Participants added fruits and labelled the branches with ex amples of practical ways in which literacy led towards the different outcomes.

Governing Literacy Provision Partnerships (Benchmark 3)

Tool: A chapatti diagram was produced showing the links between the various actors in adult literacy at national and local level, including government ministries / NGOs / CSOs, etc. The importance of each actor was indicated by their size on the diagram.

Task: The first group made an image, to which the others added. Each individual also did a quick chapatti of the actual situation in his or her country and of the ideal.

Developing Baselines / Evaluating Literacy (Benchmark 4)

Tool: A matrix was developed with the rows representing different outcomes from literacy programmes highlighted in the benchmarks (gender equality, active citizenship, improved livelihoods, improved health, HIV etc.). Each of these was then analysed in a series of col umns, identifying indicators: issues around collecting baseline data; means of verification; issues around monitoring / evaluation; actors to be involved; and ideas for strategic research.

Task: Each group built on the matrix started by the first group, review ing what others had done, taking on different outcomes and complet ing the matrix for that outcome.

Recruiting and Training Facilitators (Benchmarks 5 and 6)

Tool: A body map was developed by the first group to illustrate the ideal of a perfect facilitator. Discussion focused on how to achieve or work towards this ideal. This was then supplemented by a river to track the journey of a facilitator from recruitment through initial training and onwards: identifying key moments / obstacles / external influences.

Task: Each group developed or added to the body map and river.

Field trip by participants of the Abuja Workshop: Reflect Circle near Abuja

Field trip by participants of the Abuja Workshop: Reflect Circle near Abuja,
Source: ActionAid

Organising Literacy Programmes (Benchmark 7)

Tool: An annual calendar and daily timetable was produced for a fictional community, showing the typical workloads of men / wom en/youth / old / poorest, etc. This was then supplemented with a flow diagram mapping the different steps involved in planning a literacy programme and who is involved in decisions at each stage.

Task: Each group embellished the graphics and then discussed the chal lenges in deciding when and where they would hold literacy classes.

Deciding Methodology / Language Issues (Benchmarks 8 and 9)

Tool: three separate ranking exercises were developed based around the following three key questions:

  • What sustains the motivation of learners?
  • What helps learners learn better?
  • What factors enable the literacy process to maximise the diverse empowerment outcomes?

Task: The first group developed an initial list and ranking and each subsequent group added criteria and did their own ranking based on personal scoring: each person had a limited number of stickers to indicate their priorities on each list.

Creating a Literate Environment (Benchmark 10)

Tool: The first group drew a map showing a remote rural area, starting with two individuals (woman and man) and showing their household and then building out to their village / the local town (including different key agencies, etc.) / the city / the capital.

Task: The participants documented the typical literate environ ment in different spheres on the map – what is there for people to read / when do people encounter literacy? Then, in a different colour they documented strategic interventions that could be taken to in crease the literate environment. What would be most effective for this woman / man? What are the power issues involved?

Nationalising the Benchmarks

In country or sub-regional groups the participants:

  • Developed an outline strategy for nationalising the Benchmarks;
  • Enumerated how they used the international benchmarks as a starting point for a new dialogue on literacy;
  • Indicated who they would target / advocate to and who would be their allies; and
  • Stated how they would deal with benchmarks that were sensitive in their context.

Participants were then asked to identify how they would jointly take action on adult literacy following the workshop in terms of:

  • Making the real scale of the challenge clear
  • Making the case for new investment
  • Using the benchmarks (drawing on the previous session)

The following are a summary of the outcomes of these sessions:

The Latin American participants indicated that they would national ise the benchmarks by:

  • Tuning the language, e.g. by using the term "educador/a" ("educator") instead of "facilitator";
  • Presenting the benchmarks to national and regional networks, including distributing them in the Assembly of the Latin American Education Campaign;
  • Presenting the benchmarks to government, parliament, and finance ministers, after debating and developing strategies with the various networks;
  • Diffusing/debating/advocating during the Global Week of Action in April;
  • Introducing further discussion and pluralism in the context of the Yo Sí Puedo Debate;
  • Bringing stakeholders together to discuss the difficulty of absence of data – the need to get reliable and valid quantitative and qualita tive data and look for feasible instruments that are acceptable.

ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) participants would:

  • Present the benchmarks to their respective ministers of education and directorates of adult literacy;
  • Hold consultative meetings of relevant stakeholders to enable them come up with their own priorities and adapt the benchmarks to the national context;
  • Identify partners to commit resources for implementation;
  • Target stakeholders such as the Ministry of Finance and other ministries with an interest in literacy;
  • Form alliances with parliamentarians, donors, NGOs, and universities that are sensitive to literacy issues.

South African participants planned to:

  • Develop an outline strategy for nationalising the benchmarks; 
  • Use the upcoming national strategy planning for a national literacy campaign as a space to inform national stakeholders of the importance of the benchmarks;
  • Help strategic partners to organise a national workshop on the benchmarks and their relevance for the national literacy campaign;
  • Use the launch of the literacy campaign to get civil society members onto the organising committee of the Presidential Literacy Commission;
  • Target: civil society, DoE, companies, universities, UNESCO National Commission, Sangoco, media;
  • Work with allies such as SARN, ALN, GCE, and ActionAid South Africa.

The Nigerian participants would:

  • Identify the gaps between existing practice and the benchmarks and develop strategies to bridge the gaps;
  • Target allies such as civil society groups, donors, NGOs, and the media;
  • Present the benchmarks and strategy to the Minister of Education, State and National Assemblies, the Budget Office and the Minis ters of Women's Affairs and Information;
  • Make the case for a national literacy survey;
  • Adopt a multi-sectoral approach by including adult literacy in all sectoral plans and budgets;
  • Declare adult literacy a national emergency requiring urgent and special intervention by governments at all levels;
  • Make a case for regular funding and payment of facilitators;
  • Make the case for new investment.

Field trip by participants of the Abuja Workshop: Participant in a Reflect circle near Abuja 

Field trip by participants of the Abuja Workshop: Participant in a Reflect circle near Abuja Source: ActionAid

Participants from Mozambique would:

  • Use the benchmarks to improve the National Strategic Plan of adult education (which runs from 2006 to 2011);
  • Secure funding through inclusion of literacy in the education sector fund;
  • Target poor financing of human resources and lack of teaching materials.

Participants from East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) would:

  • Use the benchmarks as a starting point for a new dialogue on literacy;
  • Adopt a joint approach with the East African Community;
  • Convene fora at national levels to secure a broad buy-in;
  • Target policy-makers, civil-society organisations, faith-based organisations, development agencies and partners;
  • Use the existing structures (EAC and AU) to raise awareness of the scale of the literacy challenge and ways forward;
  • Share research methodologies from Kenya on doing a literacy census;
  • Support Ministers dealing with adult education in lobbying Ministries of Education and Finance;
  • Create a Commission on Adult Education for East (and Southern) Africa;
  • Use UNESCO cluster offices to "sell" the benchmarks and create the Commission.

Participants from Asia (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Maldives, Vietnam) would:

  • Fit the benchmarks into existing policies, conduct a mapping exercise using the benchmarks, identify the gaps;
  • Come up with national strategies, especially linking to national planning cycles;
  • Explore regional cooperation;
  • Make alliances with sympathetic NGOs, UN agencies, donor agencies;
  • Target governments at local, state and federal levels, bureaucrats, politicians, policy-makers and ministers;
  • Tie the benchmarks in with the MDGs and include them in national development goals;
  • Formulate guidelines at the national level simplifying the benchmarks.


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