S M Zakir Hossain

Bangladesh is one of the pioneer countries in practising the UNESCO Literacy Award-winning participatory learning approach Reflect. ActionAid Bangladesh has been using this approach since its piloting in 1993 and contextualized the approach as per the requirements of poor and marginalized people. One of the innovative additions to this approach is Lokokendra, the people’s organization for sustaining critical learning, empowerment and social change. S M Zakir Hossain is the Manager of Reflect Development Unit of ActionAid Bangladesh and is coordinating Reflect works in Asia.

Empowerment of Adult Learners in Bangladesh: the Journey through Reflect

Adult Education should not have any theoretical boundaries. Rather it should meet the specific development needs of the learners, ensuring their participation in community life. Participation in Adult Education should not be restricted on grounds of sex, race, geographical origin, culture, age, social status, experience, belief and prior educational standard.1 Education which also includes Adult Education has been seen as the foremost agent of empowerment. As Pomary (1992:21) says:

“No matter how we run away from it, the foremost agent of empowerment is education: Education is the only passport to liberation, to political and financial empowerment. Education contributes to sustainable development. It brings about a positive change in our lifestyles. It has the benefit of increasing earnings, improving health and raising productivity.”

The theoretical concept of empowerment was first traced back to the Brazilian humanitarian and educator, Paulo Freire (1973), when he suggested a plan for liberating the oppressed people of the world through education. Based on the political philosophy of Freire along with a fusion of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), ActionAid conceived a participatory learning and empowerment approach called Reflect. It has been developed through pilot projects in Bangladesh, Uganda and El Salvador in 1993 and is now used by over 500 organizations in over 70 countries worldwide. The organizations working with Reflect have won UNESCO literacy prizes in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008 and more recently in 2010. At the beginning REFLECT was used as an abbreviation which stands for “Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques” but nowadays it is known as a term of participatory approach for adult learning, empowerment and social change.

Reflect in Bangladesh

Since its inception in Bangladesh as one of the pilot countries, Reflect has been used extensively, mainly by ActionAid Bangladesh and its partner organizations. But more recently it is being used with different local names by a range of other non-governmental organisations in Bangladesh like CARE termed as EKATA,2 Stromme Foundation partners termed as Songlap,3 ASHRAI termed as Lahanti4 etc.

With the significant funding from DfID,5 ActionAid Bangladesh implemented Reflect through the first phase of funding which ran from 1996-1999, and during this time it linked to 36 partner organisations which implemented Reflect across the country. By the end of the first phase 49,263 participants had been graduated in Reflect circles. Measuring the literacy and empowerment achievements, a project review report suggested a scale up of the approach which was started in January 2000 as the second phase funded by the same donor, the Department for International Development (DfID) from the UK, and ended in December 2005. By the end of this second phase, more than 100,000 people had participated in Reflect, and the new innovation to this approach during this period was to add a yearlong post-literacy circle to the nine-month basic literacy circle, and this was followed by the formation of “Lokokendra”,6 a people’s organization, made up of 2-3 Reflect circles along with other members of the local community.7 Following the end of the DfiD funded project, ActionAid Bangladesh has been continuing to use Reflect as its programme approach and facilitating 413 Reflect Circles and 97 Lokokendras across the country.

Lokokendra (People’s Centre)














Lokokendra (People’s Centre), Source: S M Zakir Hossain

The Empowerment Process Through Reflect

The process of empowering the poor and marginalized with the Reflect approach commences by bringing “learners” to Reflect circles.8 The Reflect process generally involves a 24-month journey, and its programme contains circles in two stages,

i.e. basic circles and post circles. This process includes a three month pre-circle preparatory period (background study, baseline survey, participants’ selection, facilitators and staff recruitment and their training etc.), a nine-month basic circle period followed by a terminal evaluation, and a twelve-month post circle period. In the basic circle the participants acquire reading, writing, numeracy and also visual literacy along with vocal literacy. The aim of the post-circle activities is to make the Reflect participants literate to a sustainable level through consolidation and reinforcement of their learning so that they may develop permanent habits and practices of utilizing the skills attained from the nine months of circle time.

Action points in Reflect play a fundamental role in developing the participants’ problem solving skills as well as develop their awareness level. Such issues and or action points range from health and hygiene to more critical areas of economic and social deprivation and exploitation.

A wide range of participatory methodologies are used within the Reflect process to help create an open, democratic environment in which everyone is able to contribute. Visualisation tools developed by the practitioners of PRA are of particular importance and provide a structure for the process. These include maps, calendars, matrices, rivers, trees and other diagrams. However, many other participatory methods and processes are also used in Reflect, including theatre, role-play, song, dance, video and photography. New techniques are constantly being innovated.

The groups that we are covering through Reflect are rural and urban, extremely poor and marginalized people (male, female, children, and adolescents) which includes people with disabilities, the indigenous community, professional minority community (like cobbler, weaver, fishermen etc.), slum dwellers and others. It should be remembered that the actual duration of the above-mentioned 24 month journey of Reflect may vary in view of the participants’ needs and requirements.

Lokokendra-People’s Organization at Grassroots Level

Though it is often not explicitly stated, the underlying assumption of many people’s organisations, including Lokokendras, is to serve the interests of the socially excluded people. Bennett (2002) has developed a framework in which “empowerment” and “social inclusion” are conceived as complementary and mutually reinforcing approaches. Bennett describes empowerment as:

“the enhancement of assets and capabilities of diverse individuals and groups to engage, influence and hold accountable the institutions which affect them”, and social inclusion is defined as “the removal of institutional barriers and the enhancement of incentives to increase the access of diverse individuals and groups to assets and development opportunities.”

Reflect Phase-II had described the objectives of the Lokokendra as, “to provide a platform for the Reflect graduates and other neo-literates of the area to help practice knowledge and skills gained in Reflect circles and run other socio-cultural activities”.9 Later in 2002 a perceptible shift was visible in ActionAid’s own conceptualization of Lokokendra which is found in a document10 that stated:

“The vision is broader because it is believed that Lokokendra will lead to people’s organization, which will not only comprise all the components of continuing education, but will also lead all the advocacy related work, create a platform for the local people to demand justice and bargain for their rights with the local authority and power structure”.

With this vision the institutional structure of Lokokendra has been changed and includes new members from the poor and marginalized community in addition to the Reflect graduates.

Leadership Development Through Reflect

Empowerment cannot be bestowed by a third party. Rather those who would become empowered must claim it. So, the development agencies cannot empower women – what they can do is only facilitate the process of empowerment.11 ActionAid Bangladesh is facilitating the process of implementing Reflect at different levels, and certainly the whole Reflect process contributes to the empowerment of the poor and marginalized, especially of women. One of the three interrelated components of ActionAid’s Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) programming is empowerment which includes the interventions like facilitating awareness raising, the building of critical consciousness, and the organisation of rights holders.12 Following the HRBA programme approach, ActionAid organizes various training exercises, training of trainers on Reflect, PRA training, gender and rights training, Reflect evaluation framework training, issue based training, Lokokendra Management training, etc. Exchange visits, review and reflection workshops are organized, and a People’s Organizations Convention is held. These capacity building initiatives develop Reflect practitioners to facilitate Reflect centric activities since it is important to build local capacities for leadership and self-reliance.13

Promoting leadership of poor people, especially women, ActionAid Bangladesh initiated the Women’s Leadership Development Programme focusing on the members of the Lokokendras. In 2010, the Reflect Development Unit identified the potential leaders of the Lokokendras who desired to compete in the Union Parishad (UP)14 election 2011, and organized training for the selected leaders in cooperation with the Women’s Rights and Gender Equity Team of this organization.

One of the 21 elected UP members is Rokeya Khatun whose experience we would like to share. In an interview she had started her story saying “I didn’t know whether I should do this but I was thinking after a proposal made by my friends with whom I am participating in the development works at our community. In a discussion meeting on the UP Election 2011, members of the Bishwas Lokokendra15 proposed me to compete in the election. I was skeptical about this idea in the beginning but dreaming to be an elected leader after a couple of days.” She added that she had been enrolled in primary school but couldn’t continue her study due to poverty. However, she has zeal to know more, study more, and that was the reason she joined the Reflect circle in 2002.

She was bright from the beginning and always wanted to be aware of her rights. She didn’t like to depend on her husband and wished to contribute more to her family income. After being a Reflect graduate, she took a leading role in establishing their own organization, Lokokendra in 2005. Meanwhile, Rokeya received training on sewing and farming and started to grow vegetables in her field. She also learned how to make a profit and how to take care of her cows properly along with her ducks and hens. She managed to maximize her income in the family with a proper business plan which she learned from Lokokendra. In Lokokendra, she got involved in the development of her area, motivated to work for poverty alleviation, and she knew how to contribute to the economy for the society. Her leadership qualities also developed while working for her area.

Members and the Executive Committee of Bishwas Lokokendra encouraged Rokeya to participate in the UP Elections and committed themselves to help her in whichever way they could. In March, 2011, she decided to take on the challenge while the members of the Lokokendra helped her immensely. They, alongside her family, helped her with money and campaigning and supported her also in other ways. She had to spend 1,05,000 BDT (BanglaDeshi Taka) for the whole procedure which she gathered from her savings, mortgage, selling cows and goats, from relatives and with the help of Lokokendra members. All these efforts didn’t go in vain, and Rokeya Khatun was elected as a member of UP.

“I was very happy after winning the position. My fellow Lokokendra members and my family were also very happy seeing my success. I felt honored now because people from my area are coming to me for various kinds of work, asking for my opinion and respecting me.” While talking about her plans for the future, Rokeya Khatun said “I want to strengthen our Lokokendra. I want that more women join the Lokokendra. To develop society in our area, we need to empower women. We also need to make them aware of their rights.” Rokeya also has plans to alleviate poverty in her area. She mentioned “As an UP member, I want to work on various awareness programs. I wish to use the government fund properly, I would like to see that Vulnerable Group Development (VGD) and Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) cards are issued properly. Also I dream to establish the rights of the women in my area, stop child marriage, dowry and other pressing issues in my area. Forachieving these goals I will seek support from the Reflect Circle Source: S M Zakir Hossain concerned authorities as well as from the people.”

Reflect Circle





Reflect Circle
S M Zakir Hossain




There are initiatives of Lokokendras which could be labeled as “social mobilization”, like the recovery of Khas Land (land belong to the government and supposed to be distributed among poor landless farmers), free common use property such as water bodies and rivers from the illegal occupation by local influential “land grabbers”. There are success stories of organizing mass mobilizations and engaging local administrations (including police) in order to recover disputed land in favour of landless families, to punish perpetrators of violent maltreatment of women, and to prevent child marriage.16

The impact of these types of initiatives and success stories should be seen in the real context of the Lokokendra. When the Lokokendra members claim that “we have now courage to talk with the Borolok (rich and powerful) and Police”, this signifies not only confidence but also changes in power relations at the grassroots reality. It portrays a process of generating people’s power, a basis for demanding entitlement rights and potentials for a social movement for “creative transformation”17 towards a just society.18

Reflect Networking

It is important to consider the links that have been made between participants in different circles and Lokokendras to share their experiences and raise their strong voice against injustice and inequality. In view of this, Reflect practitioners formed forums and alliances at different levels like Reflect facilitators forums and spouse forums at the community level, Lokokendra forums at sub-district/ district level, the “Reflect Practitioners” Forum of Bangladesh”, the “People’s Organizations Forum” and the forum later called “Society for Participatory Education and Development (SPED)” at national level. SPED, a national Reflect Network (SPED), is an initiative for linking Reflect implementing organizations, and recently, in 2008, it has established the Reflect Research and Training Center (RRTC) in Dhaka with significant contributions from Lokokendras and Reflect Practitioners. This network is playing a vital role with ActionAid Bangladesh in organising the People’s Organizations Conventions that bring together adult learners and facilitators as representatives of People’s Organizations from across the country on an annual basis. SPED also organises training sessions, exchange visits, review-reflection workshops, studies and research, campaigns, and specific events such as the celebrations of International Literacy Day, Women’s Day, or World Food Day. SPED is linked with the Reflect Asia Network, the International Reflect Network (Circle of International Reflect Action and Communication-CIRAC) and the Asia South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE).

Major Lessons Learned19

  • The Reflect approach is heavily dependent on the skill of the circle facilitator. If he or she lacks such skills, the approach is not likely to achieve optimal outcomes. There may then arise the need to think about other pedagogical methods that can achieve the results with lower-skilled facilitators or the need to use a combination of pedagogical approaches.
  • Language is a related issue. While training on Reflect Literacy Steps and word generation is provided in Bengali, many of the ethnic groups have their own language, even though they may not have a separate script. For instance, the word for mother is “mai” in Bengali, “gogo” in Santali, “ayi” in Malla and so on. Which language is used can then make a difference to the literacy outcomes.
  • The basic and post circles have provided space for critical analysis, problem solving, as well as collective decision-making and action. Action has been taken to solve problems at the household level, such as violence; of community, such as verbal talaq (divorce) or child marriage, and of government, such as in relation to khas lands, the provision of clean water, and others. These are all worthwhile achievements.
  • The concept of Lokokendra emerged in order to create an institutional mechanism that could help sustain these achievements by providing a legitimate space and context for meeting, discussion and problem solving, as well as continuing education. Lokokendras established so far are fulfilling this expectation. They also ensure community support for women’s initiatives by involving men of the community, earlier part of the Spouse Forums.
  • The poor and marginalized people can innovate and initiate change to their lives. They are producing their own innovative materials, using those for education and awareness building, and negotiating with the government to gain access to resources. They can assert and fight for their entitlements, and, if necessary, support is extended to them. They are capable of securing a cooperative relationship with certain government departments in some areas and changing the mindset of these government officers.
  • Advocacy for good governance through Reflect can be proven quite effective. Reflect may emerge as a strategic investment at the grassroots with farreaching livelihood implications the poor and marginalized people.
  • Conceptual and other knowledge management is a requirement for the Reflect circles and Lokokendra to be effective in social mobilization and change. The multidisciplinary approach is required to enhance the critical consciousness of oppressed and marginalized people.
  • Facilitation of the conscientization process requires time, and adequate resources allocation is needed in order to ensure quality conceptual input and to achieve raised levels of awareness. Participatory and strategic monitoring and evaluation is essential to reach the desired goals.
  • Adult learners require their own organizations to sustain their literacy skills and development initiatives, and they need to prepare their organization development plan and implement the plan accordingly. However, there is a need to negotiate with local elites, people’s representatives and bureaucracy, and the design of people’s organizations like Lokokendra should be such that the transformational agenda is not shifted due to the involvement of actors with different agendas.
  • A key advantage of Lokokendra is the sense of unity and the strength in numbers, critical for making claims vis-a-vis the state. A cluster approach seems crucial for advocacy, and can help gain rights at the Union Parishad level. In their experience with Lokokendras, Reflect Implementing NGOs found that they have more voice in the Union when they are working with two Lokokendras, covering 6-7 villages, than if they would be related only to one. Each of

the NGO partners has recognised the importance of such clustering in one way or another, and this has resulted in the formation of village level, union level and sometimes sub-district level committees/forums.









S M Zakir Hossain




A study conducted by Nitya20 revealed that the Reflect circles clearly provided an opportunity to women to talk about their problems, discuss a range of subjects and take collective action on certain issues, and that Lokokendra is a continuation of this process. The mentioned report stated that Lokokendra cannot be expected to be different from the larger society and to some extent would reproduce existing social relations but there is an expectation that it would be better by degrees, gradually bringing about a process of change. We believe that the journey has just been started, and we need to work more since the numbers of Lokokendras are not significant considering the number of poor and marginalized communities in Bangladesh. There is reason to hope that we are not alone

– a number of organizations are replicating this model. So I want to conclude by reiterating the words stated by great educator Paulo Freire

“Although there is no denying the existence of real despair; or the historical, economic and social reasons behind it, I cannot imagine human existence and the necessary struggle to improve it without hope and without a dream.”


1 UNESCO, Records of the General Conference in note 5, “Content of Adult Education”, resolution 19C/ Annex I.III.9y 13, p.7.
2 EKATA stands for Empowerment, Knowledge And Transformative Action.
3 It is a Bengali word which means “dialogue”.
4 It is Santali word which means “comprehensive development”.
5 Department for International Development.
6 Lokokendra is a Bengali word which means “People’s Centre”.
7 Kate Newman, Reflect in Bangladesh: the future of Reflect across the Asia region and internationally, October 2006, p. 5-6.
8 The word “circles” is used instead of “classroom” to emphasize that this is a very different type of learning process to schooling. “Learners” in a Reflect circle are referred to as the participants. Usually one Reflect Circle is comprised by 20–25 participants.
9 Action Aid Bangladesh, Project Proposal: Reflect Phase II. Submitted to DFID-Bangladesh. Dhaka, 1999. P.37. 10 Action Aid Bangladesh, “What is Lokokendra ?” Briefing note. Dhaka. 2002.
11 B R Siwaldeputy, Empowerment of Women- Conceptual Framework, p.1.
12 ActionAid International, Action on Rights- HRBA Resource Book, November 2010, p.96.
13 Uphoff, N, M.J.Esman & A. Krishna. Reasons for Success: Learning From Instructive Experiences In Rural Development. Kumarian Press, Connecticut. USA, 1998, P. 61.
14 The lower tier of local government of Bangladesh.
15 Name of the Lokokendra situated the village of Harishpur of Jhinaidah district in Bangladesh.
16 Azizur Rahman Khan, Study on Reflect Programme and Lokokendra, December 2010, p.7.
17 The concept of creative transformation is about non-violent strategy for social change, neither legal reform to perpetuate the structural deprivation, nor violent revolution by authoritarian vanguardism; it is not yet popular in development discourse.
18 Ibid. 9.
19 Lessons learning are extracted from the recent studies and Reflect Annual Reports produced by ActionAid Bangladesh.
20 Dr. Nitya Rao, University of East Anglia, Promoting People’s Organization: The Lokokendra Experience, May 2005, p. 21.

Adult Education and Development


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