Camilla Croso / Claudia Vóvio / Vera Masagão

Education is key to the development of inclusive and democratic societies, working towards the common good. It can and must fos ter human development, active citizenship and the strengthening of cultural identities. Education is crucial to people's relationship to their local environment and to the broader global context, politicizing their place in the world and creating enabling environments for social mobilization, without which change is not possible. Nevertheless, an examination of the current situation in Latin America shows us that the right to education is still denied to millions of citizens. The authors are members of the latin american campaign for the right to education (Campaña Latinoamericana por el Derecho a la Educación).

Latin America: Literacy, Adult Education and the International Literacy Benchmarks

Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 800 million people above the age of 15 are illiterate. Out of the 1.6 billion people that find them selves in poverty, more than half are illiterate. In Latin America, nearly 35 million people over the age of 15 cannot read or write; an average of 10 %. This average doubles in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, trebles in Guatemala, reaches 50 % in Haiti and falls to around 4 % in Cuba, Argentina and Uruguay. This quantitative dimension of illiteracy sheds light on the social and educational reality of the region, showing us how far we are from reaching Education for All by 2015.

If we compare adult illiteracy (population over 15 years of age) and youth illiteracy (population between 15 and 24 years), we observe a considerably lower rate in the latter. In Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela, the illiteracy rate of the population over 15 years of age (30.9 %, 13 %, 8.1 % and 7 %, respectively) is almost double the rate of those aged 15-24 (17 %, 5.8 %, 3.9 % and

3.7 %, respectively). In countries such as Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia, the number of people over 15 years of age who cannot read or write is almost 14 times larger than among those aged 15-24. The continuing high number of illiterate adults shows the challenge public policies still face in guaranteeing the right to education for all and in overcoming this enormous social debt produced over many years.

The decrease in illiteracy levels within the young population is related to progress in democratizing access to primary education, the expan sion of education systems, and the establishment of legal frameworks that expand compulsory schooling. Some 91.3 % of the 15-19 year olds in the region have completed primary education. However, there are still 4.5 million people in this age group who have not completed this level of education, and 42.9 % of these young people are from Brazil and Mexico, the two most populous countries in the region. The countries that are furthest from guaranteeing the completion of primary education are El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guate mala.

The social phenomenon of illiteracy reflects the complex relation ship between the educational and social context of Latin American countries. It is directly related to social and economic inequalities, to the prevalent economic model of development in our countries, to the political culture in the region, to broader historical processes and to the quality of the education offered in the schools of this continent. Illiteracy and the difficulties of accessing and completing educational processes are essentially related to patterns of unequal power distribution.

Current Plans and Processes in Latin America

Latin America has an extensive and rich background in adult educa tion and, in particular, in adult literacy. The legacy of Paulo Freire, Emilia Ferreiro and other prominent figures in adult education and literacy, dates back decades. The Popular Education legacy in Latin America influenced community organizations, social movements, national and regional processes of learning, participative political cultures and scaled up to the policy level. This scaling up took place both because social actors rotate in their roles, participating in social movements in one moment and assuming public servant responsi bilities in the next, and because within the Popular Education move ment, bridges were built between the non-formal and formal sectors of education, acknowledging the importance of both areas and the possibility of integrating Popular Education principles into formal sec tor processes of teaching and learning.

In terms of adult education public policies and plans, Latin America has accumulated vast experience. Even before the Jomtien Confer ence took place in 1990, giving rise to the important concept of learn ing needs, adult education policies were leveraged by the Proyecto Principal de Educación en América Latina y el Caribe (1980-2000) as well as by the REDALF ( Red de Alfabetización – Literacy Network), created in 1985 as one of the Project's initiatives.

More recently, there has been a profusion of international, regional and national plans, policies and campaigns on adult education, often giving rise to juxtaposition of goals and targets. One initiative that has had little impact in Latin America is LIFE, UNESCO´s Literacy Initiative for Empowerment, a global framework for the implementa tion of the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012), in order to meet the Education for All goals by 2015. Out of the 35 countries tar geted by the initiative, only two are from this region: Haiti and Brazil. Some international and regional frameworks have been influential in Latin America, particularly the Education for All framework (and its regional expression known as PRELAC, approved by Ministers of Education in 2002 as a way forward to meet the Dakar goals) and the Ibero-American Plan for Literacy and Basic Education of Youth and Adults (2007-2015), approved in November 2006 during the XVI Ibero-American Summit in Montevideo, Uruguay.

There are similarities and distinctions between the two, but it is impor tant to say that the Ibero-American Plan sought coherence in relation to the EFA framework, so that it could be in tune with this broader international initiative and its regional expression through PRELAC. Two main distinctions, as pinpointed by Rosa Maria Torres (2007), are worth mentioning: (a) while EFA is an international initiative involving all Latin American countries, the Ibero-American Plan, led by Spain, includes 23 countries, leaving out those which use English or French as official languages; and (b) while the EFA framework aims to reduce illiteracy to half by 2015, the Ibero-American Plan aims to end illiteracy by the same year and (very importantly) to guarantee that all young people and adults complete basic education by then.

In the midst of these regional and international frameworks, a growlingly influential initiative was developed by the Cuban Latin American and Caribbean Pedagogical Institute (Instituto Pedagógico Latinoamericano y Caribeño-IPLAC), known worldwide by the Yo sí Puedo (Yes, I can) literacy methodology. The Yo sí Puedo initiative began in 2003 and has been adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, by 12 Latin American countries (Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, the Do minican Republic, Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela). It is based on a methodology that creates correspondence between letters and numbers and uses mass means of communication, such as radio and television, as key learning vehicles. It also contemplates a post-literacy programme, known as Yo sí puedo seguir (Yes, I can continue). Some countries that have adopted the initiative on a large scale, such as Venezuela, have declared themselves "illiteracy-free territories", although inde pendent evaluations that confirm results and impacts are still not available. Such evaluations must inquire into and debate what is considered literate or illiterate and in what ways this perception is captured.

The International Benchmarks in the Latin American context

In November 2005, one year before the Montevideo Summit that gave rise to the Ibero-American Plan, ActionAid International and the Glo bal Campaign for Education launched the International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy, based on a broad study involving analysis of 67 literacy programmes in 35 countries. These benchmarks were devel oped with the intention of serving as guidelines or starting points for policy dialogue among a broad range of social actors. Importantly, the document is explicit in stating that the benchmarks "are not intended as a blueprint" and that there is a broad consensus that "the success of any literacy programme depends on flexibility to respond to unique local needs and circumstances".

Interestingly enough, the 2006 Concept Paper, which gave rise to the Ibero-American Plan, also listed a number of so-called "key elements that may characterize the programmes that are part of the Plan". There are many similarities between the 12 Adult Literacy Benchmarks and the key elements identified in the Concept Paper of the Ibero-Amer ican Plan. A comparative analysis helps to highlight their respective strengths, pointing to interesting recommendations and to possible ways forward in the process of adapting the International Adult Lit eracy Benchmarks for the Latin American context. The following table compares key elements of the two:

Literacy course in Guatemala  

Literacy course in Guatemala
Source: ActionAid


Table 1: Comparative framework of the International Adult Literacy Benchmarks and the Ibero-American Plan for Literacy and Adult Education

  BenchmarksIbero-American Plan
Purpose of
1. Literacy is about the acquisition
and use of reading, writing and
numeracy skills, and thereby the
development of active citizenship,
improved health and livelihoods, and
gender equality. The goals of literacy
programmes should reflect this
Clear, significant and
socially valid objectives
that satisfy basic learning
needs; participative and
active methodology.
Literacy and
Post Literacy
2. Literacy should be seen as a
continuous process that requires
sustained learning and application.
There are no magic lines to cross
from illiteracy into literacy. All policies
and programmes should be defined
to encourage sustained participation
and celebrate progressive achievement
rather than focusing on one-off
provision with a single end point.
Include literacy initiatives
within processes that offer
broader and more diversified
formation opportunities
Actors and
3. Governments have the lead
responsibility in meeting the right to
adult literacy and in providing leadership,
policy frameworks, an enabling
environment and resources. They
– ensure cooperation across all
   relevant ministries and links to all
   relevant development programmes,
– work in systematic collaboration
   with experienced civil society
– ensure links between all these
   agencies, especially at the local
   level, and
– ensure relevance to the issues in
   learners’ lives by promoting the
   decentralisation of budgets and of
   decision-making over curriculum,
   methods and materials.
Clear frameworks for collaboration
and coordination
of Central government
with local authorities and
civil society with experience
in the theme.
Follow up
and evaluation
4. It is important to invest in ongoing
feedback and evaluation mechanisms,
data systematization and
strategic research. The focus of
evaluations should be on the practical
application of what has been
learnt and the impact on active
citizenship, improved health and
livelihoods, and gender equality.
Invest in mechanisms of
follow-up and evaluation.
Remuneration 5. To retain facilitators it is important
that they should be paid at least the
equivalent of the minimum wage of a
primary school teacher for all hours
worked (including time for training,
preparation and follow-up).


6. Facilitators should be local people
who receive substantial initial training
and regular refresher training, as
well as having ongoing opportunities
for exchanges with other facilitators.
Governments should put in place
a framework for the professional
development of the adult literacy sector,
including for trainers / supervisors
– with full opportunities for facilitators
across the country to access this (e.g.
through distance education).
Technical professionalization
of facilitators
and supervisors and of
volunteers who, in special
circumstances, may
participate in this Plan.

Modality of

Length of
7. There should be a ratio of at least
one facilitator to 30 learners and at
least one trainer/supervisor to 15
learner groups (1 to 10 in remote
areas), ensuring a minimum of one
support visit per month.

Programmes should have timetables
that flexibly respond to the daily lives
of learners but which provide for
regular and sustained contact (e.g.
twice a week for at least two years).

See above.
Student to facilitator/
groups to supervisor ratio
that can assure personal
treatment and quality

Modular and flexible
education that takes into
account labour and family
context of the economically
active young population.

Establish a length of programme
and study which
is regular and sufficient to
ensure effective learning.
Interculturality 8. In multi-lingual contexts it is
important at all stages that learners
should be given an active choice
about the language in which they
learn. Active efforts should be made
to encourage and sustain bilingual
Multicultural policies that
attend to the cultural context
of the person, as well
as his/ her mother tongue.
Method 9. A wide range of participatory
methods should be used in the
learning process to ensure active
engagement of learners and relevance
to their lives. These same
participatory methods and processes
should be used at all levels of training
of trainers and facilitators.
(See first point in this
column, which mentions
participatory methods.)
 10. Governments should take
responsibility for stimulating the market
for production and distribution
of a wide variety of materials suitable
for new readers, for example by
working with publishers / newspaper
producers. They should balance this
with funding for the local production
of materials, especially by learners,
facilitators and trainers.
Development and dissemination
of learning materials
which are motivating,
pertinent and in varied
formats and media, appropriate
to each context.
Cost of programme 11. A good quality literacy programme
that respects all these
Benchmarks is likely to cost between
US$50 and US$100 per learner per
year for at least three years (two
years initial learning + ensuring
further learning opportunities are
available for all).
12. Governments should dedicate
at least 3 % of their national education
sector budgets to adult literacy
programmes as conceived in these
Benchmarks. Where governments
deliver on this, international donors
should fill any remaining resource
Literate environment Foresee specific components
of fostering and
promotion of reading.
Develop diversified curriculums
and processes
according to the different
demands and situation of
learners. It is especially
important to distinguish
in terms of age – between
the active and non-active
population, since their
needs and expectations
are different- gender and
cultural specificity.


Despite not including government investment among the "key ele ments that may characterize the programmes" of the Ibero-American Plan, its Concept Paper does mention the issue. It says that the financial sustainability of the Plan will come through the sustained political will of Heads of State in investing in literacy and proposes that, as agreed in the 1997 Hamburg Declaration, these should al locate, "at least 3 % of national education investment to literacy and adult education programmes". It also says that when these resources are not sufficient, so-called international cooperation must comple ment them.

It is worth noting that the Literacy Benchmarks and the Ibero-Amer ican Plan touch upon similar dimensions when thinking of common parameters for literacy programmes and, in this sense, they validate each other as "guidelines or starting points for policy dialogue", which is a key ambition of the Literacy Benchmarks. In order to better understand the potential of these comparative elements (similarities and distinctions) it is important to bear in mind the context in which each was developed. Whereas the Ibero-American Plan was devel oped through inter-governmental cooperation, the Benchmarks were developed in the context of a civil society initiative and campaign, challenging the limits imposed by mainstream policy.

The Literacy Benchmarks are bolder in that they are explicit in point ing out State responsibility and in referring to costs and needs for investment. They also mention remuneration of literacy educators and facilitators. This is a sensitive issue, often not openly debated, and one which is crucial if literacy is to be prioritized as a key State policy and above all, as a constitutional right. The benchmarks are also more specific in terms of monitoring and evaluation, teacher training of professionals and minimum length of programmes.

An interesting aspect of the Ibero-American Plan is that it places lit eracy within the broader perspective of Adult Education and even of Basic Education. Its Concept Paper states that:

"it is necessary to point out that the sustainability of literacy strat egies is intimately linked to public policies geared towards the strengthening of good-quality, free basic education that guarantees to all children, youth and adults the learning to which they have a right. This is the only way to avoid the reproduction of illiteracy."

In fact, this Plan sets as a goal not only achieving 100 % literacy levels by 2015 but also achieving universal basic education of young people and adults.

From a Latin American perspective, the regionalization of the Literacy Benchmarks – a key challenge which was addressed at the High Level Workshop on Adult Literacy (Abuja, Nigeria) in February 2007, in order to further their potential as policy instruments – should involve confronting the literacy challenge within the broader context of Adult Education and Basic Education as a whole. More than literacy pro grammes, the challenge we face is how to guarantee quality Adult Education, within a Basic Education perspective, to the adult popula tion who did not have the opportunity to attend school at the regular age.

The fostering of literate environments, mentioned in the Ibero-Amer ican Plan, is another key aspect when thinking the regionalization of the benchmarks, and in fact, another element discussed at length at the above-mentioned Abuja meeting. This is related to processes that must be developed prior and in parallel to literacy programmes, adult education and in fact any level of education and not as a post-literacy strat egy whose sole ob jective is to sustain literacy skills, as is often argued. Liter ate environments have to do with cre ating an a-priori con text in which citizens have the conditions to participate in a relevant, concrete and meaningful way in literate cultures.

Literacy course in Mexico

Literacy course in Mexico, Source: ActionAid


Another element when thinking about the regionalization of the benchmarks has to do with allowing more space for intra-regional contextualization. The notion of relevance, flexibility and sensitiv ity to context should gain more emphasis when discussing learn ing materials and curriculum, considering specific learning needs and diversity of learners, particularly their different age groups, prior learning experience and cultural background, as pointed out in the Ibero-American Plan. Similarly, flexibility is also important when con sidering the background of facilitators and the teacher to student ratio.

Confintea VI: Debating Challenges and Ways Forward

The CONFINTEA VI process already in progress, which includes a re gional conference in Mexico in September 2008 and the international meeting in Brazil in May 2009, presents an excellent opportunity to further debate and to consolidate policy recommendations in the field of Adult Literacy and Education.

In this scenario, the benchmarks are an important contribution to fos tering debate, together with the other frameworks operating in Latin America and the region's extensive prior experience in the field. The opportunity is timely, considering the profusion of literacy campaigns and programmes now under way in this part of the world. On what assumptions do these campaigns stand? What is their understanding of literacy? How do they relate to broader Adult Education policies? It is necessary to place at the centre of the agenda and the debate what it is we actually want to achieve. When Alice asks for direc tions in Alice in Wonderland , the rabbit replies that this depends on where she wants to go. Programmes and policies are a response to this basic question: what do we want to achieve? It is clear by now that processes geared only at reducing illiteracy in statistics can be very misleading, because they are usually based on short-term, cost effective strategies that have this as a single end. On the other hand, guaranteeing that all citizens have access to literate cultures and have their right to relevant learning experiences effectively implemented involves much more complex, long-term and inter-sectoral strategies. It requires solid investment and determined political will. It is this vi sion that is in dispute and must be explicitly spelt out if we are to see change in the full implementation of the right of adults to education.


Latin American Campaign for the Right to Education: Literacy Highlight , September 2007.

Educación para Todos y Plan Iberoamericano: Una visión y un plan integrados de educación básica de jóvenes y adultos, Rosa María Torres, Instituto Fronesis, 2007.

Situación Educativa de América Latina y el Caribe: garantizando la Educación de Calidad para Todos, UNESCO, 2007.

Writing the Wrongs: International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy, ActionAid International and Global Campaign for Education, November 2006.

Iberoamérica: Territorio Libre de Analfabetismo. Bases para la elaboración de un Plan Iberoamericano de Alfabetización y Educación de personas Jóvenes y Adultas. Documento Base, 2006.

Informe sobre Tendencias Sociales y Educativas en América Latina, Proyecto SITEAL, Néstor López (coordinador), 2006.

Pochmann, M et al. (2004). Atlas da Exclusão Social: a Exclusão no Mundo. V.4. SãoPaulo: Cortez.


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