Rene Raya

As regional association representing the interests of far more than a hundred civil society organisations working in the field of adult learning, the Asia-South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) has a keen interest in contributing to the achievement of the goals of the global campaigns for education, such as “Education for All” (EFA) or the Millennium Development Goals, and monitoring the respective efforts of governments in the Asian-Pacific region. Knowing about the positive effects of literacy, they calculate the realistic costs required for reaching the EFA target in their region and contrast that with the current levels of educational expenditure. This exercise with numbers shows that EFA – Goal 4 could, indeed, be achieved, but only if a lot more national and international efforts were summoned.

Pursuing Adult Literacy: The Cost of Achieving EFA Goal 4

Goal 4
Achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education forall adults.

The Asia-South Pacific Association for Basic and Adult Education (ASPBAE) launched a study in 2008 to estimate the costs required to achieve the EFA Goal on adult literacy. The study aims to present clear and convincing evidence on the urgency, benefit and feasibility of addressing the challenge of illiteracy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which hosts the biggest concentration of adult illiterates.

ASPBAE referred to the international benchmarks established by Global Campaign on Education (GCE) and Action Aid (AA) and built on the costing model developed by Van Ravens and Aggio.1 The study also consulted the comprehen sive evaluation of literacy programs, undertaken by Oxenham and Burchfield,2 among others. Data for this study were culled mainly from the Global Monitoring Reports and from UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS). Information on literacy is based on official national reports which rely mostly on census data using a selfreporting method in determining literacy level. Additional data were sourced from national surveys to establish the links between literacy and other development indicators.

The GCE/AA benchmarks were used to establish the per learner cost of delivering quality literacy courses and include facilitator’s salary, group size, contact time and course duration. The study also referred to the recommended budget allocation of at least 3 % of the education budget (6 % for LIFE countries3) for adult literacy programs. The basic cost per learner was computed for each country in the Asia-Pacific region using the costing methodology developed by Van Ravens and Aggio, which utilized a factor of the per capita Gross National Income (GNI).

Unit Cost = 5.3 % of Per Capita GNP (for Asia and the Pacific)

This study further aimed to add new dimensions to the discourse on literacy costing.

First, the study assumes gender parity in the literacy goal and disaggregates the target adult illiterates by gender. Second, a higher cost is factored in for adult female learners to take into account the multiple barriers faced by female illiterates. Third, the study attempts to assess the capability of countries to cover the financial cost of addressing adult illiterates and achieving EFA Goal 4.

The 12 Adult Literacy Benchmarks4

Defining Literacy.
Literacy should be geared towards active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods, and gender equality.
Lifelong Learning.
Literacy should be seen as a continuous process that requires sustained learning and application.
Governing Literacy.
Governments have the lead responsibility in meeting the right to adult literacy and in providing leadership, policy frameworks, an enabling environment and resources.
There should be a sustained investment on evaluation, database building, and strategic research.
Facilitators’ salary.
Facilitators should be paid at least the equivalent of the minimum wage of a primary school teacher for all hours worked.
Facilitators’ Training.
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.
Group Size.
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).
Learners should be given an active choice about the language in which they learn.
Participatory Methods.
A wide range of participatory methods should be used in the learning process to ensure active engagement of learners and relevance to their lives.
Literate Environment.
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.
Cost per Learner.
A good quality literacy program 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).
Budget allocation.
Governments should dedicate at least 3 % of their national education sector budgets to adult literacy programs; for LIFE countries, the corresponding figure is at least 6 % for adult literacy programs.

How Much Does the Literacy Goal Cost in Asia-Pacific – Key Findings

While the literacy level has improved globally, the number of adult illiterates remains high at 774 million.5 Progress in reducing adult illiteracy has been quite slow and largely uneven. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) estimates that, given current trends, there will still be 725 million adult illiterates by 2015. This is way short of the EFA target of reducing adult illiteracy by half to just under 400 million. About two-thirds of the world’s adult illiterates are women. This has been the situation over the last two decades and is projected to remain the same by 2015.

Asia-Pacific is home to two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults with South and West Asia having the biggest concentration of adult illiterates estimated at 387.8 million or half of the world’s total. To meet the EFA target in the Asia Pacific region based on available data, a total of 255,666,575 adult illiterates (205,783,853 female and 49,882,723 male) must be reached and made literate. This effort will reduce adult illiteracy by half and achieve gender parity in literacy.

This costing study used a basic methodology that took the following steps:

  1. Estimate the number of adult illiterates that must be served in order to meet the EFA target on adult literacy.
  2. Determine the unit cost of implementing an appropriate adult literacy program for each country in the region.
  3. Generate the total cost per country based on the unit cost and the estimated number of illiterates that must be addressed.
  4. Compute the annual cost and compare these amounts with the national education budgets.
  5. Aggregate the cost of achieving EFA Goal 4 for Asia-Pacific and for LIFE countries in the region.

The per unit cost of a literacy course is computed based on instructor’s salary, instructional time, group size, working hours and the ratio of instructor’s salary to total cost. A premium cost is added for female learners to consider the multiple barriers faced by women. The study assumes a three-year course duration to ensure full literacy and to integrate an EFA Goal 3 component in the program.

The aggregate cost of achieving EFA Goal 4 for developing countries in Asia-Pacific is estimated at $45 billion. Spreading the cost over a 5 year period (2010 to 2014) will result in an annual outlay of only $9 billion, an amount that appears realistic and manageable for most countries in the region.

Goal 3
Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programmes.

Using the budget benchmark for adult literacy programs, the required annual outlays for several countries in the Asia-Pacific region fall within range of the recommended 3 % of education budget (6 % for LIFE countries) for adult literacy programs. With an average allocation currently of less than 1 % of education budgets to Adult Education and literacy, an increase in budgetary allocations for adult literacy to meet the benchmarks will have significant impact in several countries in the region including Indonesia, a LIFE country with more than 7.5 million adult illiterates.

Even with increased budgetary allocations for Adult Education following the benchmark, close to US$ 4.7 billion will still have to be generated additionally per year if current education budgets levels remain constant. This underscores the dire need for both an expansion in education budgets and in external financing for adult literacy. None of the countries where the literacy challenge is severe meet the international benchmark of 6 % of GDP allocations to education.

Cambodia for example will need $18 million annually, which is about 20 percent of its education budget. Even if it allocated 3 % of its education budgets to adult literacy, it will still need $15 million per year additionally. Lao PDR will need $6.2 million additionally per year. These amounts are well beyond both countries’ means.

For most LIFE countries, even if 6 % of education budgets were allotted to adult literacy, it will simply be insufficient to meet the cost of reaching the 2015 adult literacy targets. China, given the huge number of adult illiterates, will need $2.87 billion per year to ensure at least a 50 percent reduction in the number of adult illiterates. This is equivalent to 13.5 percent of its education budget. Given China’s track record and determination in addressing illiteracy, the country should be able to meet the EFA Goal 4 target.

South Asia will however face a tough challenge in mobilizing the resources needed to meet the EFA literacy goal. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and more likely Afghanistan, will need to allocate 15 to 30 percent of their education budgets for adult literacy programs. These countries will need a lot of political will and sustained external assistance to effectively address the literacy gap and achieve the EFA goal on adult literacy.

In fact, for countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan, even if they met the benchmark of 6 % GDP allocated to education, they will still need external assistance to meet the financing requirement to achieve the EFA adult literacy target by 2015.

The Benefits of Adult Literacy

Pursuing EFA Goal 4 is not necessarily an expensive venture. In fact, the benefits derived from improving the literacy situation far outweighs the cost that it will entail. Data from national surveys clearly show that literacy impacts on human capabilities, enhances productivity, broadens earning opportunities and improves personal well-being.

  • It contributes to engendering a healthy, equitable, gender-aware and democratic environment.
  • Literate individuals tend to earn significantly higher incomes and have more regular employment.
  • Literacy is critical to accessing information and knowledge and in communicating with others.
  • Literacy contributes to better health awareness and practices. Literate individuals are more familiar about family planning, HIV/AIDs, proper nutrition and other health concerns.
  • Literate females tend to marry at a later age and have fewer children compared to illiterate ones.
  • Literate females tend to be more mobile and participate more actively in making decisions about family and household matters.
  • Literate females are less vulnerable to spousal abuse and experience less cases of domestic violence compared to illiterate females.
  • Literacy promotes women’s empowerment.
  • Literacy is one of the most effective strategies to combat poverty. Illiteracy rates are highest in the countries with the greatest poverty. Similarly, poverty incidence is highest among households headed by illiterate individuals.

Pursuing adult literacy will require strong political will on the part of governments to strengthen policies, increase financial investments, upscale existing programs and fast track their implementation to reach out to adult illiterates, particularly female and disadvantaged learners.

This is not an impossible task. It is feasible, financially, as this costing study has shown, particularly if there is effective and sustained external assistance from donors to complement the national efforts.

Concluding Note

Adult literacy remains the most neglected among the six EFA goals. Addressing adult illiteracy to achieve EFA Goal 4 is a huge undertaking but not an impossible task. Governments must fulfill their commitment and allocate at least 6 percent of their budgets for education for Adult Education, half of which must be earmarked for adult literacy programs where this is required. Official Development Assistance (ODA) for adult literacy and education should be increased in the framework of the EFA goals and targets. Donors and international financial institutions should include Adult Education and literacy as part of their ODA package on education, ensuring significant increases in funding for adult literacy programs particularly those targeting disadvantaged women in remote areas.

In line with this, the EFA Fast Track Initiative (FTI) should include Adult Education, non-formal and literacy components, and should ensure efficient and prompt delivery of financing support.

In pursuing adult literacy, governments must consistently upgrade schooling access and quality, expand literacy programs for both youths and adults, and ensure an environment conducive to Lifelong Learning. There must be a clear gender bias to ensure that women are prioritized and targeted. Unless this is done, the disparity will remain and women will again be left behind with dire consequences in all aspects of life. It is imperative, therefore, to develop Adult Education and literacy programs that are flexible, participatory and appropriate to women to improve their life-skills, health and livelihood. These literacy programs will strengthen their participation and leadership in the public sphere, and ensure gender justice through equal access to Adult Education and Lifelong Learning processes.

The GMR 2008 noted that illiteracy rates are highest in the countries where poverty is at its worst, a link observed even down to the household level. Adult Education and learning is the glue that can hold all the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) together in addressing poverty and ensuring sustainable development. This is particularly relevant in Asia-Pacific where over half a billion people – more than half the world‘s poor – live in extreme poverty. Investing in literacy means taking an important step in fighting poverty.


ActionAid International and Global Campaign for Education (ActionAid and GCE). 2005. Writing the Wrongs: International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy.

Asian Pacific Bureau of Adult Education (ASPBAE). Education Watch Reports, 2007/2008.

Burchfield, S.A.; Hua, H.; Baral, D.; Rocha, V. 2002. A longitudinal study of the effect of integrated literacy and basic education programs on the participation of women in social and economic development in Nepal. Boston, MA: World Education/Washington, DC: United States Agency for International Development Office in Women in Development.

Oxenham, John. 2004. The Quality of Programmes and Policies regarding Literacy and Skills Development. A study commissioned for the 2005 EFA Monitoring Report: Literacy for Life. Oxenham.doc

Ravens, Jan van and Carlos Aggio. 2005. The Costs of Dakar Goal 4 for Developing and LIFE Countries. Commissioned paper for the 2006 edition of the EFA Global Monitoring Report.

UNESCO 2005. EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006. Education for All Literacy for Life. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO 2007. EFA Global Monitoring Report 2008. Education for All by 2015 Will we make it? Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO 2008. EFA Global Monitoring Report 2009. Overcoming inequality: why Governance matters. Paris, UNESCO.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). Global Age-specific Literacy Projections Model (GALP): Rationale, Methodology and Software. (A paper and software commissioned by the UIS and developed by Dr. Wolfgang Lutz and Dr. Sergei Scherbov). Montreal, July 2006.


1 Ravens, Jan van and Carlos Aggio (a). The Costs of Dakar Goal 4 for Developing and LIFE Countries (Commissioned paper for the 2006 edition of the EFA Global Monitoring Report). 30 September 2005.
2 Oxenham, John. 2004. The Quality of Programmes and Policies regarding Literacy and Skills Development. A study commissioned for the 2005 EFA Monitoring Report: Literacy for Life. Burchfield, S.A.; Hua, H.; Baral, D.; Rocha, V. 2002. A longitudinal study of the effect of integrated literacy and basic education programs on the participation of woman in social and economic development in Nepal. Boston, MA: World Education/Washington, DC: United States Agency for International Development Office in Woman in Development.
3 UNESCO’s Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) is a global strategic framework for the implementation of the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012) designed to meet the Education for All (EFA) goals particularly on adult literacy. There are 35 LIFE countries where the literacy rate is less than 50 percent or where the adult population without literacy skills is more than 10 million. Nine of these countries are in the Asia-Pacific region: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea.
4 The benchmarks were developed by GCE and ActionAid International published in an advocacy material called “Writing the Wrongs.”
5 Unless otherwise specified, data on adult literacy are taken from the Global Monitoring Report 2008.

Adult Education and Development


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