Literacy and Adult Education in Bangladesh: Concept, Trends, Status and The Future

Allocation to adult education rarely exceeded one percent of the total education; Photo source:
Allocation to adult education rarely exceeded one percent of the total education; Photo source:
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This paper examines the literacy scenario firmly rooted in the historical context. Secondly, it reviews the international and national policy commitments to literacy and adult education in view of evolving conceptualization of literacy, learning and education for adults. Thirdly, it examines the current understanding of literacy and AE in Bangladesh, the trends in practices and interventions ensuing from the predominant concepts. Fourthly, it attempts to anchor the Bangladeshi experience of AE within international development. Finally, it proposes an agenda for action around ALE in Bangladesh, drawing from international experiences and commitments.

I. Literacy: Historical Context and Evolving Conceptualisation

While reading and writing have been around for thousands of years, it has been the privilege of a select minority until the middle of this century. Only since the Second World War, when decolonization took place on a massive scale, literacy has been proclaimed as an inalienable right of man, and gradually universal literacy has been included on national and international agenda.

The radical expansion of formal education for children in developing countries at that time was supplemented by the provision of adult literacy to those beyond the normal school age. However, one trend from that time remains the same today – allocation to adult education rarely exceeded one percent of the total education budget, thus making it less than a priority. Literacy was seen from a strictly utilitarian perspective – as a precondition for economic development. Just as ‘schooling’ automatically meant ‘education’ for children, the synonym for ‘adult education’ was ‘literacy’ (Jennings, 1990).

UNESCO during ’50s, promoted the idea of a ‘fundamental education’, which was reflected in UNESCO’s statement in 1958, ‘a literate person is one who can, with understanding, both read and write a short simple statement on his or her everyday life. While the international community agreed to ‘eradicate illiteracy’, the Cold War weakened the interest for a worldwide campaign for universal literacy (EFA GMR, 2006). Only a few successful but isolated national campaigns took place (e.g. Cuba in 1961).

However, the mass campaigns had dubious success in promoting literacy, which led to the promotion of human capital models of education in the 70’s. Interrelationship between literacy and development was highlighted and the idea of functional literacy was conceived. In 1978, a definition of functional literacy was adopted by UNESCO’s General Conference, ‘A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community’s development.’ Functional literacy still is the dominant concept in designing literacy programmes in many of the developing countries.

The historical concept of literacy took a radical turn in the 70’s, when the Latin American concept of ‘conscientization’ gained wide spread recognition and popularity. Paulo Freire, the main proponent of this theory, played an instrumental role in successful application of it in some Latin American countries. This promoted the idea that literacy should not be limited only to the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, rather should play an essential role in the liberation of man.

Further down the road, in the 1980’s, scope of literacy encompassed the emerging trends of globalisation, addressing the new technologies. While the conceptual clarifications abounded during these times, the policy commitments to literacy started to dwindle and primary education was strengthened at the expense of adult learning.

II. International and National Policy Commitments in the Recent Decades

The World Declaration of Education for All (EFA) made at the World Conference of Education at Jomtien in 1990 expanded the scope and vision of basic education to include adults and non-formal education, prioritizing thereby, the concerns of this section of society. The conference was also successful in mobilizing the international community and national governments to endorse this vision and commit to achieving the EFA goals – a commitment that has repeatedly been reaffirmed in subsequent international, regional, and national EFA deliberations. Declarations of other international conferences held after Jomtien, like the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA V) have highlighted adult learning and literacy, in an even more focused manner.

Despite this, ten years after Jomtien, the EFA Assessment (2000) and the outcome documents of the World Education Forum in Dakar (2000) have highlighted the marginalization of adult literacy and non-formal education. More recently UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report (GMR) 2006 – “Literacy for Life”- has emphasized that literacy is a critical but the most neglected EFA goal. In fact, cynics have re-elaborated and appended EFA to the original ‘Education for All’ to mean and qualify as ‘Except For Adults’.. The Dakar conference recognized that given the existing literacy situation in a large number of countries, particularly’ low-literacy countries’ the EFA goals could not be achieved by ignoring adults and non-formal/continuing education. The GMR 2006 has also renewed the international communities’ attention to the literacy challenge.

After the Dakar Framework for Action was drawn up and the Millennium Development Goals were declared (incorporating only two of the six EFA goals), the international community stepped up its diplomatic efforts to come up with globally coherent development initiatives. While UNESCO was the first to propose a global framework for action, the mandate later moved to the World Bank, which convened and hosted a “Fast Track Initiative” (FTI) on education. The FTI openly used the EFA banner at its inception but later focused solely on Universal Primary Education (UPE). With the understandable pressure to extend the cycle of basic education in schools and to expand secondary education, the disparities that exist between schooling and other forms of basic education may well become further accentuated. This situation, compounded by the overriding influence of the MDGs in development discourse, the lack of strong national and international champions and campaigns for literacy, and the absence of a well-articulated economic case for the non-schooling/institutional elements of EFA, means that convincing governments and donors to build an inclusive learning system remains difficult, if not impossible (Packer 2007).

Against this unpromising backdrop some efforts are being made to widen active interest in a broad-based approach to EFA. UNESCO recognizes nine EFA “Flagship” Initiatives, described as multi-partner collaborative mechanisms in support of EFA goals (literacy among them). The UN Literacy Decade (UNLD) is nearly half way through its mandate. UNESCO has also created a ten-year framework of collaborative action, the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE), which is the key operational mechanism for achieving the goals and purposes of UNLD in countries with a literacy rate of less than 50% or an adult population of more than 10 million without literacy competencies. However, to date there is relatively limited evidence or evaluation of the efficacy of these mechanisms.

It is a recognized fact that a number of the countries lagging behind in meeting EFA commitments to adult learning. Post-Jomtien, many South Asian countries had prioritized adult literacy and non-formal education, especially ‘targeting’ women. In some countries policy frameworks were changed, institutional arrangements reformed and new programs launched. However, despite some successes, including reaching out to women, the commitment to adult education in the region has by and large given way to an almost exclusive focus on primary education. Adult literacy programs have languished and adult education cadres have become demoralized by the marginalization and lack of direction that has come to characterize this sector.

Now the pertinent question arises, is Bangladesh following these global and regional trends? A review of the key policy and programme documents, starting from the Constitution to the more recent and operational documents such as PRSP and NPA II (National Plan of Action) also attest to the initial euphoria and then the gradual weakening of commitment to adult literacy and education. New policies, national plans and programmes in the education sector have been introduced post-Jomtien. In fact spurts in planning and policy formulation activities are evident immediately after Jomtien (1990) and around the time of Dakar (2000). A new NFE programme was introduced and the Directorate of Non-formal Education was created soon after Jomtien and in 2000 the National Parliament of Bangladesh adopted the Education Policy. This is evident that international processes influence national ones and that major international events are important in creating a momentum, providing a direction and ensuring that major international commitments get translated into national ones. A proactive international environment has created the possibilities for such changes.

The Constitution of Bangladesh enjoins upon the state “to secure to its citizens the provision of basic necessities of life, education, among others” and “to adopt effective measures for ….. establishing universal system of education and extending free and compulsory to all children ….. and removing illiteracy.” It is however, the Compulsory Primary Educational Act (1990), which gives tangibility and legal mandate to this constitutional vision but clearly promotes literacy through formal primary education.

Adult literacy with special focus on livelihood improvement skill, income generation and sustainable development has received attention in the strategies for achieving MDGs. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) of Bangladesh titled ‘Unlocking the Potentials’ recognised the requirement of skilled manpower to achieve MDGs. However, this is a core indication of market dictating the literacy requirements, rather than from strong human rights based approach. The budget allocations actually failed to prove a strong commitment to the domain of adult education. With more than 6% of global adult illiterates residing in the country, the allocations (Public Expenditure on L/NFE is 3.70% of the education sector) seem woefully inadequate.

III. Understanding Literacy and Adult Education in National Context

The concept of literacy has evolved tremendously over time. Various schools of thoughts have contributed to defining the scope of literacy and the journey from a solely skill-driven and closed and dichotomous definition of literacy to the wider spectrum and gamut of lifelong learning. Within the conceptual landscape of literacy and adult education, the understanding of the national policy and program needs to be anchored to explain the current trend and status of literacy and AE programmes and interventions.

In the 90’s, UNESCO distinguished between literacy as a skill and literacy as a set of culturally and socially determined practices, and later endorsed efforts to promote the acquisition of literacy – newly conceived as ‘basic learning needs’ – on a continuum including formal and non-formal education, extended to people of all ages (EFA GMR, 2006). While the value of lifelong learning gained momentum, especially in the developed countries, very few countries in the global South picked up on those clarifications. Hamburg Declaration in 1997 (as an outcome of International Conference on Adult Education known as CONFINTEA V) posited literacy within the broader framework of lifelong learning, but this attempt at breaking down insular compartmentalisations among literacy, numeracy, life skills to lead to a holistic understanding of adult education is still to provide the bulwark of programme design in the developing countries. In fact, making a quick scan of Bangladeshi definitions and scope of literacy shows that the national definition is still based on the 50’s and 60’s understanding of functional literacy.

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) considers a person as literate if s/he can “read and write a letter in any language.” On the basis of this criterion, literacy rate in Bangladesh was accepted to be 25.8% in 1974, immediately after promulgation of Compulsory Primary Education Act, 1974. The number of male adult literates was 37.2% and that of females was 13.2%. The rate increased to 35.3 percent in 1991, with 47.6 million illiterate adults. It rose to 47.5 percent in 2001 (BBS, 2003) and national literacy (7+ population) rate had increased to 51.9% in 2005 (BBS, HIES 2005, 2007). However, the big gap here is that, the rate is based on household declaration, rather than direct assessment of literacy.

‘Education Watch’, a leading civil society initiative to supplement the government efforts to reach EFA goals, found the literacy rates of population of different age groups quite interesting, when it used the direct assessment method. The initial finding was quite lower than the government statistics, and caused uproar. However, with its impeccable research design, the Education Watch statistics became the authoritative figures quoted. The recent finding suggests that the adolescent population of age-group 15-19 years has the highest rate of literacy (63.8%), while the next age-group (11-14 years) has literacy rate of 56.2% and the next age-group (20-24 years) has literacy rate of 51.6 %. (Education Watch, CAMPE, 2007). There has been an uneasy reconciliation between the Education Watch Statistics and the Government Statistics.

IV . NFE Framework for Literacy and Adult Education: A Quick Scan

In 2006, the Government of Bangladesh adopted the Non-Formal Education Framework. National NFE Policy Framework (2006) defines literacy as the ability to read, understand, interpret, communicate, and compute in verbal and written forms in varying contexts. It involves a continuum of learning that enables individuals to develop their potentials and knowledge-base and to participate fully in community affairs and wider social and developmental context.

The objectives of the NFE Policy Framework are (i) to introduce a system and a national framework for non-formal education (with all the required flexibilities in-built) as supplementary and complementary to formal education, (ii) to institute a framework of equivalence for non-formal education compared to formal education, and (iii) to vocationalise non-formal education keeping in view the literacy levels of the NFE output.

In the framework, a scope for “life skills” development has been designed as an educational program for children and adults age-groups 15+ years covering literacy, numeracy, life skills for youths and adults, vocational education, livelihood skills training program, equivalency program, quality of life promotion program, and special work skills at basic, middle, and self learning levels. The age-group includes the disadvantaged young and adults who may not necessarily follow the “ladder” system of education but can pursue courses of varying duration for self or wage employment within country or abroad.

While the NFE Framework is a definite improvement over the previously dominating and archaic notions of skill based literacy, it still has to go a considerable way to update and synchronise itself with the notions of lifelong learning that is the order of the day.

V. Literacy and Adult Education Programmes and Interventions

A. Govt. Initiatives: In the eighties, Mass Education Programme was launched by the government. In two phases, it lasted from 1980 to 1985. It had a highly ambitious target of removing illiteracy from 40 million youths and adults. As with most campaigns, it started off with great fanfare, but lost steam on the way. The first phase had a target of 10 million people, but the evaluation committee found that only 0.7 million have been made literate (UNESCO, as cited in Jennings, 1990). Even that figure seemed exaggerated, as only 40% of the tested neo-literates could demonstrate comfortably their new skills. These findings did not seem palatable and resulted in the abolition of the Mass Education Wing of the Directorate of Primary and Mass Education. For a while, the issue of adult literacy seemed to rest with the NGOs.

However, EFA goals in 1990 renewed the government efforts. EFA activities started in Bangladesh in 1991 with the Integrated Non-Formal Education Project. A full-fledged directorate of Non-formal Education was established at the time and throughout the Nineties they implemented four major programmes1. The programmes used essentially three approaches – Centre based approach, Total Literacy Movement and Primer Distribution approach2. The programmes covered wide and overlapping age groups – within the year range of 11-45 years. The duration of the programmes varied from 9 to 24 months. But most programmes ran for an average of 9-10 months. 22.89 million learners were to be reached through these programmes.

The government had set up a separate Primary and Mass Education Division in 1992, renamed as Ministry of PME in 2003. A separate Directorate of Non-formal Education (DNFE) was established in 1995 to steer the Literacy and NFE towards achieving the goal. Bangladesh made a commitment at the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA V), Hamburg, 1997 to eradicate illiteracy in 10 years, by 2006, in the context of Hamburg Declaration on Adult Learning, 1997. As a follow-up, the Government started implementation of a massive basic literacy project, named Total Literacy Movement (TLM), from 1997 to make literate 22.889 million 11-45 year-old illiterates into literate persons. Directorate of NFE had an elaborate organisation structure for planning, implementation, technical support, and administration and finance, but lacked professional staff competence at almost all levels to manage the projects of NFE. DNFE developed Primers for basic literacy and post-literacy to be adopted by the implementing partner NGOs. The Primer for post-literacy was found not suitable for the learners who were neo-literate having been in basic literacy course. Both TLM and DNFE were discontinued from 2003 for reasons of administrative convenience and a more autonomous Bureau of Non-Formal Education (BNFE) was created in 2005 after a two year vacuum from the abrupt discontinuation.

BNFE was established as the national agency for NFE to facilitate a coordinated sub-sector approach, to provide technical support and also to implement development projects. The Bureau has full authority in the matter of NFE oversight and management in the country. The Bureau also serves as the executive agency, on behalf of the government, for projects funded by development partners. The government provides annual allocation from its own budget to meet the operational expenses for running the Bureau and its affairs. A district level structure is developed in each of the 64 districts for NFE management. According to the EFA MDA Report, currently the following projects are within the auspices of BNFE –

• PLCEHD-1 Project: started in 2001, went into operation in 2003. The project operates in rural areas of 32 districts, has a target population of 1.36 million 11-45 year old neo-literates (graduates of basic literacy program), amended to include primary school dropouts, now due for completion in 2008.

• PLCEHD-2 project was approved, went into operation in 2002 and is projected to complete in 2011. It has a target population of 1.6 million neo-literates of age-group 11-45 with an approved cost of 601.4 million Taka (GoB component) and 4954.04 million Taka as Project Aid.

• PLCEHD-3 is a pilot project to be implemented for age-group 11-45 years population who have dropped out of schools and / or graduated from TLM. It has a budget of 1.53 million Taka to cover 96,000 target population.

There are great expectations around PLCEHD-2, as it is to incorporate the learning from the first phase that completed this year.

B. NGO Initiatives: Bangladesh has a large number of NGOs that run different adult education programmes. Some implement the Government programme but others, especially the larger NGOs, design and develop their own material and training programmes independently.

There are 1048 NGOs engaged in managing education program in the country. A recent study shows that on the basis of education programs, number of centres and learners and gender, the NGOs run 6,574 centres, attended to by 145,470 learners, with females being 119,277 by number and 82 by percentage. NGO programs take 33 learners per centre and aim for 70 percent female participation (GOB, 2008).

NGOs have their own curriculum, teaching learning, training and supplementary materials. They also have developed and use 45 different curriculum, which have the official primary education curriculum at its core. It creates difficulties if a learner wishes or is obliged to move to another NGO program because of the differences in the curriculum contents.

At one time more than 500 NGOs had worked as implementing partners of the DNFE projects. With the closure of DNFE many of them have gone out of existence; reportedly many new ones have come up (CAMPE, 2007). As the Government literacy program became inactive NGO programs also reduced in size or scope. In fact there has been a lull adult literacy program as NGOs have gone more for primary education. It is also due to the easier funding opportunities around UPE rather than literacy.

According to a case study commissioned by UNESCO and prepared by ASPBAE, there was lack of trust, understanding, mutual respect with a genuine partnership spirit between DNFE and the implementing NGOs. Following the NFE basic literacy programme for youth and adults, implementation of the Post-literacy and Continuing Education for Human Development Project did not start as scheduled. On the ground of inefficiency and malpractice of DNFE the Government decided to abolish the institution. A review found that many NGOs had no organizational or management capability and prior experience in implementing NFE. So, the collaboration between the government department (DNFE) and the implementing NGOs was determined more by convenience and opaque practices rather than by objective criteria based on competency and qualification.

One of the key insights from the experience of NGO and government programmes seems to be not enough investment in establishing more permanent CE centres. This constitutes the difference between the government and NGO programmes – as the ASPBAE study, which took government initiative and Dhaka Ahsania Mission (DAM) programme for adult literacy as case studies, points out “The implementing NGOs of the government project establish temporary centres, whereas NGOs (like DAM) establishes permanent centres with community participation to run not only literacy but also other community development activities, as per felt-needs of the community. This makes difference in sustainability of PLCE activities, the local community in the DAM project being more involved in planning and management. DAM emphasises, as a policy, building community-based institution to run post-literacy and continuing education for community development with focus on poverty alleviation and improvement of women’s status’.

VI. Agenda for Future Action for Literacy and Adult Education

A lot of flowery rhetoric has been put forward in support of adult education, while substantial resources and tangible commitments to back those empty promises have been precious few. It is time to move from rhetoric to action.

To be galvanized into action, it is important to summarise the state of adult education. During the Mid-term assessment of CONFINTEA 5 in 2003, ASPBAE and civil society organizations in the Asia Pacific assailed the state of adult education policy and practice and observed:

Adult Education:


▪ suffers low status and priority
▪ is poorly funded
▪ is narrowly defined
▪ is of poor quality
▪ is everyone’s responsibility hence no one’s
▪ suffers a dearth of information and analysis

Source: Asia Pacific Civil Society Perspectives on Progress in Implementing CONFINTEA 5: A Discussion Paper, ASPBAE 2003

Ironically, these observations made five years ago, still ring true in the context of a specific country of the region, Bangladesh.

What can bring about a decisive change in finally securing the right of adult to lifelong learning? Some recommendations with rationale are put forward for consideration on four cornerstones of a holistic framework.

A. Policy and Institutional Mechanisms

* Government of Bangladesh can commit to put in place, national adult education legislation and policy which guarantee the right of all adults to literacy and education within the framework of lifelong learning; where and when needed, government should be supported in its efforts to strengthen their legislative and policy base for lifelong learning. The NFE Policy Framework can be updated and ratified as a concrete first step.

* Government commits to developing adult literacy and adult education plans and targets as part of its EFA and education sector wide plans (post PEDP II) , and over-all poverty eradication plan, such as the new phase of PRSP. These must be fully costed and resourced.

* CSOs should be accorded a legitimate space for participation in the policy processes to promote adult education in a truly collaborative manner.

* National level multi-stakeholder structures can be convened involving – all relevant government ministries, donors, CSOs, learners, adult education facilitators, university departments, the private sector – to mobilise the necessary political and public support to sustain adult literacy and adult education in the framework of lifelong learning.

B. Adequate Financing

CONFINTEA 5 in 1997 reiterated the call for governments to invest 6% of their GNP on education, and an equitable share of these be allocated to adult education. In the Asia Pacific region, very few countries meet this benchmark in education budgetary allocations – and as a consequence, adult education provisioning dismally suffers. Bangladesh only allocates around 3% of its education budget for NFE. Despite an overwhelming number of illiterate adults, state investment in literacy programmes has dropped off sharply in the last two decades.

The “Fast Track Initiative” (FTI) on education, the only multi-lateral funding mechanism for reaching the EFA goals focuses solely on the UPE targets of EFA. While FTI claims that it is not averse to supporting adult literacy if these are considered in the education sector-wide plans, the absence of reference to adult literacy in the FTI appraisal guidelines sends a signal to governments that adult literacy does not attract funding priority.

Several myths are used to justify poor investments in adult literacy: It is argued that literacy rates will climb upwards automatically as the older, poorly educated generations pass on and are replaced by successor generations who have benefited from Universal Primary Education. This approach is flawed on a number of counts: It relies on overly optimistic projections for UPE. Even in better performing primary education systems, a significant number of children – mostly the poorest and most vulnerable – drop out before acquiring functional literacy skills. And with very poor quality education, even attending school does not guarantee literacy. Moreover, waiting for UPE to eliminate illiteracy means waiting for decades before all adults become literate and the existing illiterate adults head towards extinction. This is a gross violation of the rights of hundreds of millions of adults and represents unacceptable costs to society.

Another common but unsubstantiated myth fuelling poor investments is that adult literacy programmes are a waste of scarce resources because they do not deliver sustainable skills and the return on investment is much lower compared to primary education. Research evidence points to the contrary. Adults spending a year in a basic education course outperform primary school children from Grades 3 and 4 in standardized tests .Thus, adult basic education seems to be cost effective depending on relative costs (Oxenham and Aoki, as cited in EFA GMR ‘06).

Significant financial investments are needed to meet diverse and complex basic learning needs and secure the education rights of all citizens. These clearly will have to be generated internally through increased state investments in literacy and through external aid.

As a result,

* Budget /Finance targets for adult literacy and education need to be agreed upon. GOB should allocate 6% of GNP to education and at least 6% of the Education Budget for adult education. At least half of which (3% of national education budget) to be allocated for adult literacy programmes.

* The indivisibility of the EFA goals must be kept in mind while allocating resources.

* ODA for adult literacy and education be increased in the framework of the EFA goals and targets. Donors should mobilize resources in accordance with indicative standards : at least 15% of ODA should be allocated to education; with at least 60% of this allocated to basic education including adult literacy and life skill programs for adult and youth. Aid should become more responsive, transparent, participatory and untied – without conditionalities. The EFA Fast Track Initiative (FTI) should include adult education and literacy components, and ensure efficient and prompt delivery of financing support. Should Bangladesh apply for FTI, it should include adult literacy in its plan.

C. Assessment and Monitoring

Developing inclusive and just policies and translating them into efficient programs, is difficult, if not impossible, without an accurate assessment of reality on the ground. Indicative of the low priority accorded adult education, the data and statistical base for this sector is very poor. During a reorganization of the BNFE, no Management Information System (MIS) has been created and hence collection, analysis, storage, and retrieval of data are not done centrally at the BNFE. At present data are collected project-wise, and there is no arrangement for data dissemination. There is sparse information on both the demand and supply sides of adult learning: the numbers of adult learners participating in adult learning activities, their demographic and socio-economic profile, or their differentiated learning needs and achievements, for instance. The scale and quality of adult education provisioning of different government ministries and of non-state actors in adult education – CSOs, NGOs, unions, corporate and business entities – remains largely untracked. Monitoring quality and learning achievement outcomes for adult education and learning activities are essential to ensure high-quality adult learning. Likewise, these are essential for certification and accreditation of learning activities, aiding in smooth pathways between the formal and non-formal systems of learning at different levels for learners and enhancing their employment opportunities.

In the field of adult literacy, assessment is dominated by indirect and blunt instruments such as the ‘self-reporting’ method, which consistently overstates level of literacy. Education Watch findings demonstrated this convincingly. This type of inaccurate data distorts the degree of challenge and dilutes due priority. Glaring data gaps also exist.

Even when literacy surveys are undertaken, their frequency is so low that recent information is hard to get. The prohibitive cost of literacy surveys is cited as the reason for the irregularity of this undertaking, but coordination and synchronisation among various household surveys can help accumulate necessary information within reasonable budgets.

Under these circumstances,

* GOB should commit to establishing credible, relevant and more timely data collection and appropriate assessment mechanisms for adult literacy and education, covering all diverse learning needs and contexts, with full stakeholder participation; the international community is urged to fully support these efforts financially and with demand-driven, context-based capacity-building support.

D. Quality Programming

In the Asia Pacific, several assessments of adult literacy programmes have shown that poor quality adult literacy programmes discourage sustained participation of adults in literacy and ongoing adult education programmes. Adult educators are typically low paid and poorly trained. Limited staff development opportunities and low compensation provide no incentives for sustained, quality teaching. Cost-per-learner assumptions are often extremely low, premised on the frequent dependence on ‘volunteers’ and community contributions and on the logic that non-formal systems, particularly for adults, do not require infrastructure such as the buildings and other equipment and materials that are deemed necessary for formal schooling (although even these are also being slowly eroded down to a skeletal minimum). Literacy and post-literacy education curricula are often irrelevant to the highly diverse realities and contexts of different learners, dull and the materials for such programmes are often of poor quality. Bangladesh is no exception.

While the focus is supposedly on the learners, in reality adult literacy programmes lose their social credibility since the learners do not find the package relevant to their lives nor do those who complete the courses find their lives transformed as promised. Creative, appealing and relevant learning materials to inspire continued learning and a sustained reading habit are wanting. The literacy and education infrastructure linked to people’s lifelong needs – community learning centres, libraries and reading rooms – remain largely absent.

Adult education and learning opportunities that serve to promote critical thinking, understanding of human rights, tolerance, social awareness, greater civic consciousness, and responsibility are sparse. This, despite the growing consciousness that economic systems cannot be sustained unless good governance and peace based on justice are ensured.

Beset with all these flaws, the poorly designed programs perpetuate the myths of the futility of adult education and create a vicious cycle, where myopic policies are formulated through defective assessments, which in turn lead to inadequately financed programs unresponsive to the learners’ needs.

In this context,

* Government should commit to setting in place adult literacy and adult education programs of good quality. The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) -ActionAid Benchmarks on Quality Adult Literacy endorsed by government representatives, CSOs, and donors participating in the 2007 Abuja High-level Workshop on Adult Literacy provide a useful starting point for quality standards in adult literacy. These should be considered for setting appropriate quality of programming.

* Government and the international community can shore up investments in research, teaching, scholarship and professional development in adult education. Universities and institutes of higher learning to become full and responsible partners, sharing their distinct and substantial competencies with adult education communities, non-governmental organizations, public and private bodies, UNESCO and other intergovernmental organizations in the full implementation of lifelong learning.

* Government should commit to sustaining strong inter-agency coordination mechanisms at the national level for planning, implementation and monitoring of quality adult education and learning programmes. CSOs should be well-represented in these spaces and sufficiently resourced to play their role as fully functional partners.

* Government should undertake a ‘Literacy Audit’ and ensure that all official transactions and communications be simplified to prevent exclusion to semi-literate populations while at the same time attending to improving their literacy levels.

VII. Towards a Holistic conceptualization and Implementation of Literacy programs within a Framework of Life long Learning

As seen from the previous sections, the quest for removing illiteracy from Bangladesh has not been entirely successful. It has been an uphill battle to address the massive scale of challenge with limited resources. However, one thing is clear, the narrow and backdated classification of literacy, alienated from the continuum of lifelong learning, has played a regressive role in the design and implementation of successful programmes. As realized and mandated a decade earlier in the Hamburg Declaration, literacy has a catalytical role to play in the broad spectrum of adult education, but a philistine and reductionist view of literacy as the only component of lifelong learning will have limited utility in fulfilling the needs of a growing population in challenging times. On one hand, context of adult literacy needed to be redefined and linked to contemporary emerging issues like climate change, migration, knowledge-based society, renovation of ethnic identities and globalization. Given these contexts, adult literacy may include such topics as global warming, ecological literacy, ecological pedagogy and others that grapple with the realities of climate change. Literacy may also have strong forward linkage with employment and food security. On the other hand, it is also noted that there is a tendency to underestimate the value and empowerment implicit in access to literacy and in learning to read, write and calculate (in written form). It is not helpful to include everything that the poor need to learn, as literacy does not only eradicate poverty but helps people to cope better with their lives. So, mixing up literacy with other competencies may blur or weaken the advocacy for proper funding of adult literacy as the basis for adult education. A right balance in setting the scope for literacy needs to be struck keeping these two opposing views in mind, but one thing is critical, to anchor this within a holistic and lifelong learning framework, away from the dichotomous understanding of literacy dominated by a magic line to cross between literacy and illiteracy. The programmes to achieve the literacy and life skills goals should be designed keeping this conceptual framework in mind. Only then a collaborative participatory and empowering mechanism for successful promotion of literacy can be achieved.

1 NFE 1- 4.

2 Approaches followed in Bangladesh:

1. Centre based approach: Implementation through NGOs. NGOs decided through a selection criteria;

2. Total Literacy Movement: Implemented by literacy committees formed by the district commissioner with the DNFE providing technical and logistical support;

3. Primer distribution approach: Through this approach DNFE provided learning materials (two basic and one advanced primer for self learning) to NGOs and other philanthropic organizations who wanted to include literacy in their work.


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