Denzil Saldanha

The International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy were presented and accepted by participants from 24 countries gathered in Abuja, Nigeria at the Workshop on Adult Literacy in February 2007. Apart from rep resentatives of governments, the participants included United Nations officials, donors and civil society organisations. The benchmarks were preceded in 2004-05 by a survey of 67 programmes in 35 countries, conducted by the Global Campaign for Education and ActionAid. The benchmarks were verified by 142 respondents in 47 countries; they have been distributed to over 100 countries and translated into several languages. In November 2007, the benchmarks were also presented at a session of the Sub-Regional Conference in Support of Global Literacy, sponsored by UNESCO and the Government of India (GOI) in New Delhi. Though a formal acceptance was not sought, they ap peared to receive a wide range of support accompanied by contex tualisation within the countries of the region. The author is Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India.

India: Contextualising the Benchmarks and Indicators for Adult Education1

The benchmarks serve as broad parameters and critical reference points for literacy and adult education programmes. They are meant to be general guidelines for adult education interventions, in given contexts, and also suggest possible learning and other development outcomes that are built into the process of literacy learning and hence emerge from it. They are, in a way, a digest of some of the best practices within adult education. In addition, the benchmarks could provide some directions for accountability of agencies involved in facilitating adult education. However, a word of caution is necessary. The benchmarks are not seen by their formulators as a weapon for conditionality in grants to deserving organisations. Such organisa tions and programmes would do well to provide a rationale for why particular benchmarks are not observed and new/alternative ones are formulated in their proposals. The benchmarks are essentially a logical/thematic organisation of potentially fruitful intervention strate gies. They need to be prioritised through the very important process of contextualising them within particular regional and national contexts with all their variations.2

I have tried to comment on and contextualise the benchmarks from the perspective of my experience of the literacy campaigns and adult education in the Indian context3 and of the Reflect approach to adult education and development in India and Bangladesh.4 I have also benefited from a reading of recent appraisals of Reflect in South Af rica, Bangladesh, Malawi, Tanzania and Vietnam.5 From the late 1980s the National Literacy Mission in India adopted the literacy campaign approach. This approach represented a concerted effort to eliminate illiteracy, in a defined region, within a limited period of time and with a high degree of voluntary commitment. The Reflect approach draws on the ideas of Paulo Freire and Participatory Rural Appraisal and uses visual representations as a transition from orality within contextual ised experiences to a relevant literacy, accompanied by organisation and collective action on social issues, during and after the teaching/ learning process.

The Nature of Adult Education

The benchmarks generally tend to focus on input and process indi cators within a generalised context. It would be useful, in addition, if certain outcomes that emerge from the process and that are built into it were also operationalised. This would need to be done as part of specific contextualisations of indicators, which initially can only be pitched at a broad, generic level. Benchmark 1 touches on out comes when it refers to the goals of literacy programmes: reading, writing and numeracy skills and their uses through active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods and gender equality. As early as 1988, a document on the National Literacy Mission6 suggested that the objectives of "functional literacy", apart from literacy and numeracy, would be the facilitation of skills to improve economic status and general well-being, imbibing various values, and importantly, social awareness of the causes of deprivation and organisation for partici pation in development. These factors might possibly be seen as an operationalisation of "active citizenship" because they contribute to the democratisation of civil society.

It is important to underscore the significance of organisation-building in the very process of literacy acquisition. Mobilisation followed by organisation contributes to the social character of learning, to the empowerment that comes from collective solidarity, which is a major weapon in the armoury of the weak. Literacy as an isolated commu nicative process for marginalised communities tends to be irrelevant, given the conflicting priorities for investment of time and labour that emerge from the struggle for survival. When articulated with organisa tion and collective action (as symbols of power) for enhanced quality of livelihood (as representative of the economy), literacy acquisition acquires a holistic three-dimensional meaning. One might see traces of these elements in some of the literacy campaigns in India, in some of the efforts promoted by the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samity (BGVS) and in the Reflect approach promoted by ActionAid in India, Bangladesh and elsewhere.7 Mobilisations towards organisation-building, especially those that use folk cultural forms, provide an important link and transition from the culture of orality to the symbolism implicit in literacy. They contribute towards a critical awareness and a collective motivation for literacy acquisition. To some degree, these mobilisa tions have been found to attenuate the conflicting interests based on the heterogeneity of communities – class, caste, gender, religion, and ethnicity – by fostering unanimity of purpose. The organisational forms that emerge nurture the formation of a critical mass; a demand base for redressal of grievances and for equitable distribution. The need for cultural mobilizations towards people's organisation-building is a major omission in this benchmark.

Benchmark 2 views literacy as a continuous process. This is in keeping with the understanding of adult education as a process of lifelong learning. In this context, the experience in India of creating a literacy phase (about two years), a post-literacy phase (one year) to sustain a fragile literacy and to cover the non-enrolled in the earlier phase, and the continuing education phase (five years) to provide learning with a wider development relevance, might be considered an artificial compartmentalisation of what needs to be a continuous learning process. This segregation has been implemented in the past primarily for financial and managerial reasons. However, breaks in financial flows and consequently in learning have resulted in major setbacks to the learning process and a relapse into illiteracy for some. The recent Life Long Awareness Programme (LEAP) accepted by the National Literacy Mission Authority8 and endorsed by the Working Group on Adult Education towards the Eleventh Plan9 is an attempt to correct this artificial segregation.

Roles and Responsibilities

Benchmark 3 affirms the lead responsibility of governments to ensure the right to adult literacy and to provide policy, an enabling environment and resources, and ensure synergies between different actors in adult education – different ministries and their programmes and civil society organisations. The need for decentralisation of fi nances and decision-making over curriculum, methods and materials is also emphasised. Decentralisation is closely related to processes of contextualisation, participation, knowledge-based empowerment and a spirit of ownership, and consequently, the sustainability of in terventions. Strategies can be evolved locally within the parameters of broad guidelines. Some capacity-building would be required before finances and academic/pedagogical components were devolved.10

Research and Evaluation

Benchmark 4 relates to data, strategic research, monitoring and evaluation. Emphasis is rightly placed on the practical application of learning outcomes and on the broad goals defined in Benchmark 1. In practice, literacy programmes tend to view the outcomes of the learn ing process as a matter of either/or – EITHER literacy and numeracy OR wider developmental and organisational objectives. It is almost as if the benefits of development programmes needed to be earned by the citizens of a democratic welfare state as a result of literacy acquisition and not as an interrelated birthright of citizenship. Both aspects need to be viewed as an intimate and interrelated part of the very process of basic education. It may be noted in the context of a certain obsession with quantification, that not all aspects of literacy intervention are amenable to quantification. Much can be gained and learnt from certain aspects that are at best qualitatively described. Quite often, strategy documents indicate goals and objectives with out attention to the processes that could result in such outcomes.

Research-based assessments to make sure that the right processes are in place should be built into the process itself. The benchmarks could serve as a significant reference point in this context.

Facilitators / Instructors

The question of payment to facilitators as covered in Benchmark 5 is a matter of some debate. Literacy campaigns in India have gained significantly from the voluntary contributions of labour of the facilitators/instructors for their part-time and leisure-time services. This contribution has resulted in savings in the costs of programmes and, more importantly, in the spirit of voluntarism that is a significant feature of a people's movement approach. Facilitators have gained in experience and social recognition within their communities and sometimes through certification for the possibility of employment and candidature in local self-governing bodies. On the other hand, sustaining voluntary participation over an extended period of time can pose a problem and there is a need to uphold the principle of due remuneration for time and services rendered. Besides, good quality adult education comes with a price. The suggestion of parity with the minimum wage of a primary school teacher, depending on hours of work, needs to be duly considered.

Benchmark 6 discusses the very significant need for academic investment in the facilitator through different modes: training, ex-changes, professional development through distance education. This is the least that programmes can do for instructors, resulting in added value in terms of the quality of intervention and the development of human resources. There is a need for greater investment as well as research into the factors that go into the training of facilitators, the eventual fulcrum of the entire adult education process. The Bench mark rightly emphasises the need for local facilitators.

India: Saving scheme

India: Saving scheme
Source: ActionAid

Organisation of the Process

The proportions of facilitators to learners and of trainers to learner groups (1:30 and 1:15 / 10, respectively) are discussed in Benchmark 7, as are the number of support visits (one per month) and the schedule of learning (twice a week for at least two years). It may be noted that the Indian experience suggests that there has also been fruitful learning through one-to-one contact. This has often been through first generation, formally-educated children teaching their non-literate parents. The number of learning contacts that are suggested in this benchmark appear to be too infrequent. Experi ence and cognitive learning processes of adults suggest that much can be gained by intensive teaching/learning contacts, if necessary reducing the overall learning time. The frequency of contacts helps to strengthen the rather nebulous relation between phonetics, codi fied symbols, object referents and life experiences and reduces the possibility of lapses in memory resulting from the weakening of as sociations between the elements that constitute literacy. Residential and intensive teaching/learning sessions interspersed with other educational and practical activities (say for a period of three weeks) with some follow-up have been found to contribute greatly to adult and adolescent learning.11

Benchmark 8 underlines the need for a choice of language by learn ers in multilingual contexts. The possibility of bilingual learning, ap parently as a link to the "dominant" regional/national language, is also suggested. This calls for a decentralisation of educational initiatives, especially as regards pedagogy and materials, which is the subject of the next two benchmarks.

The need for participatory methods in the learning and training proc esses is the subject of Benchmark 9. This is about fostering learner/ trainee involvement and contextual relevance. One has observed that the use of techniques such as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) that engage the learners in producing visual representations serve as a useful pedagogical device in the transition from orality to the symbolic systems of literacy (Saldanha and others, 1999 and 2000).

Benchmark 10 relates to the production of teaching/learning materials from multiple sources, with government playing a major facilitat ing role. Materials prepared by learners and facilitators themselves, as suggested, can reinforce learning to a great extent through the owner ship implicit in the process. The role of the media and the setting-up of libraries, have been important parts of creating a learning environment. The contribution of the BGVS in creating a library movement in parts of India through publications and their diffusion is noteworthy (Saldanha 2003). The arena of media and publications offers a potentially signifi cant space for public-private partnership in adult education.


Investment in adult education programmes is the subject of the next two benchmarks. Benchmark 11 suggests that a good quality literacy programme should cost between US $ 50 and US $ 100 per learner per year for at least three years. The Report of the Sub-Group on Adult Education for the Eleventh Plan12 proposes to increase the per learner cost to the range of Rs. 300 to Rs. 500, according to the approach adopted. It states that :

"The estimated average cost per learner is US $ 47 in Africa, US $ 30 in Asia and US $ 61 in Latin America. When cost is computed for successful learners or completers, the respective averages are US $ 68, US $ 32 and US $ 83. In comparison, the per-learner cost in India would to be less than US $ 11. This is also far below the unit cost in primary education which is Rs. 3000" .13

The relatively low cost in the Indian context is partly a function of the voluntary labour of a large number of facilitators. However, there is undoubtedly a need for greater investment to ensure quality adult education.

Benchmark 12 discusses government investment in adult education. It suggests that it should be at least 3 % of national educational sector budgets, which opens up the possibility of international donors meeting any resource gaps, including through the Fast Track Initiative. This benchmark underlines the accountability of government as the primary agency for educational investment. It might be appropriate to view this benchmark in the context of investment in the education sector as a justifiable proportion of total budgets or of GNP for a more meaningful indicator of government commitment.

Given the process of evolving the benchmarks and sharing the out comes, as briefly mentioned at the outset, a significant value is that they serve as a global consensus and commitment to a general ap proach to adult education, to the extent that this is possible. They thus constitute a potential instrument for advocacy within and across nations.


Archer David, "The International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy," Beijing, UNLD Confer ence, July 2007.

Coakley Prue, The REFLECT Participatory Approach: Developing Positive Change, A Case-Study of the Use of REFLECT by Vukuzenzele REFLECT Community Organisa tion, Orange Farm, South Africa, 2005.

Fransman Jude, Reading between the Lines: A Comparative Study of Policy and Practice in Tanzania and Vietnam in Light of the International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy, ActionAid, February 2007.

Global Campaign for Education and ActionAid, Writing the Wrongs: International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy, November 2005.

Government of India, Ministry of Human Resource Development, National Literacy Mission, New Delhi, January 1988.

Report of the Sub Group on Adult Education for the Eleventh Plan, New Delhi, 2007.

Macpherson Ian, Literacy, Empowerment and their Interface: A Review of Reflect in South Africa, ActionAid UK, June 2007.

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Saldanha D., "Literacy Campaigns in Maharashtra and Goa: Issues, Trends and Direc tions" , Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 20, May 20, 1995.

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"Cultural Communication in Literacy Campaigns: Social Relational Contexts, Processes and Hegemonic Organisation", Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 28, No. 20, May 15, 1993. Also published in Daswani C. and Shah S. (Eds.), Adult Education in India, New Delhi, UNESCO, 2000.

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"Literacy–Communication, Urbanisation-Development: Uneven Development in India", in Rogers A. (Ed.), Urban Literacy: Communication, Identity and Learning in Develop ment Contexts, Hamburg, UNESCO, 2005.

Education of Adolescents for Developments in India: The Case of Doosra Dashak, Jaipur, Rawat Publications, 2007.

"Decentralizing Partnerships for Literacy and Adult Education: The Indian Experience", Paris, UNESCO, 2008 (a manuscript).

Saldanha D. and others, Evaluation Study of Reflect in Bangladesh: A Participatory, Collaborative Review, Dhaka, ActionAid Bangladesh, August 1999. (A monograph).

The Reflect Approach to Adult Education in India: Process and Policy Implications, Mum bai, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and DFID, May 2000 (a monograph).


1Based on a paper presented at the Session on Responding to the Challenges: Generic Benchmarks and Indicators for Literacy, at the Sub-Regional Conference in Support of Global Literacy, sponsored by UNESCO and the Government of India (GOI), New Delhi, November 29-30, 2007.
2 Fransman, J. (2007) .
3 Saldanha D. (1995, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2007) .
4 Saldanha and others, (1999 and 2000 .
5 Coakley, (2005); Newman, (2006); Macpherson, (2007); Mageza and Kafakoma, (2007); Fransman, (2007).

6 GOI, January (1988), p.14.
7 Saldanha, (2003); Saldanha and others, (1999, 2000; and the other references cited above) .
8 NLM, 2006.
9 GOI 2007.
10 For further discussion of this issue see Saldanha, 2008, submitted for publication to UNESCO.
11 Saldanha, 2007.

12 GOI, 2007.
13 GOI 2007, p.13.


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