Non-Formal Education for Achieving Adult Literacy in the E-9 Countries

The author is going to describe the achievements and challenges of the non-formal education for enhancing adult literacy in the nine high population (E-91) countries. Photo source: UNESCO Institute for lifelong learning
The author is going to describe the achievements and challenges of the non-formal education for enhancing adult literacy in the nine high population (E-91) countries. Photo source: UNESCO Institute for lifelong learning
Sameeo Sheesh
Written by Sameeo Sheesh

In this paper, the author is going to describe the achievements and  challenges of the non-formal education for enhancing adult literacy in the nine high population (E-91) countries. More than half of the world population as well as a lion share of adult illiterates are living in the E-9 countries. Hence, the non-formal education is playing a supporting role to bolster adult literacy in these countries.

This paper focuses on the post Education for All (EFA) era on the goal of adult literacy of these countries with a special emphasis on the UNESCO’s perspectives on the issues of literacy. The paper is organized as the following. The section II, UNESCO’s perspective on Education, highlights briefly the commitment of the UNESCO for the EFA and presents some initiatives that the UNESCO has already takes in response to this. Since the concept of literacy is not static, section III, UNESCO and Literacy, discusses about the evolving concepts of UNESCO on literacy. The following section IV, Adult Literacy and E-9 Countries, addresses the status of the adult literacy in the E-9 countries. The next section V, Literacy and Non-formal Education in the E-9 Countries, illustrates the necessity of the non-formal education for providing support on adult literacy programs in the E-9 countries, followed by the section VI, Non-Formal Education in the Three E-9 Countries (Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil), that describes the achievements and the challenges in three E-9 countries which were selected from three different continents. Lastly, the concluding section gives a gist of the whole discussion as well as mentions some areas for further study.

II. UNESCO’s Perspective on Education

UNESCO from its very beginning is considering education as a fundamental human right. Since education has got top priority in UNESCO that also reflected on their budget allocation, almost 50% of the UNESCO budget is absorbed in education. (UNESCO 2006a)

UNESCO and Education for All (EFA)

From the mid of the 20th century the realization for expanding the access education for all has been steadily enhancing. In 1989, the UNESCO along with UNICEF (United Nation Children’s Fund), UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and World bank formally agreed to jointly work with the idea of World Conference on Education for All (WCEFA). Next year, 1990, WCEFA was held in Jomtien and one decade after in 2000 it followed another conference in Dakar. The commitment to education for all was declared with strategic framework. The World Education Forum (Dakar 2000) agreed to achieve six goals by 2015. (UNESCO 2003) The six goals are as following:

  1. Expanding and improving comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children;
  2. Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly, girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to a complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality;
  3. Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programs;
  4. Achieving a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults;
  5. Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2015, and achieving gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuing girls’ full and equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality;
  6. Improving all aspects of the quality of education, and ensuing excellence of all so that recognized and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy, and essential life skills.

EFA is now one of the core goals for the UNESCO.  As a vital partner for achieving the EFA goal, the UNESCO is leading global efforts by mobilizing political will and coordinating efforts of all stakeholders in education including development partners, governments, NGOs and civil societies.  Regarding the EFA, some of the major activities of the UNESCO are to:

  • assist countries in formulating educational policies.
  • develop and disseminate materials such as best practices, manuals and teacher training packages designed to cover a wide range of issues, from sustainable development to peace education.
  • establish new trends and appropriate strategies to cope with emerging issues in education, such as AIDS.
  • direct and special attention to Africa, the least developed countries and nine high population countries (E-9) which are home to more than 70% of world illiterates and almost half of its out-of-school children.
  • develop innovative ways of providing education for people with special needs, living on the streets and in conflict and emergency zones.
  • broker partnerships between public, private and non-governmental actors to ensure better coordination of efforts and to sustain political momentum.

In the next section, this paper is going to highlight about the perspectives of the UNESCO on the issue of literacy.

III. UNESCO and Literacy

Hence, the concept of literacy of UNESCO is also evolved overtime. From the mid of the 20th century to now UNESCO developed their concepts of literacy in response to the contemporary world. The evolvement of the concept and the response of the UNESCO’s on literacy is going to discuss briefly in the following portion of this paper.

Literacy 3Rs (1950s)

In 1950s when UNESCO was founded, literacy was seen predominantly as the skills of reading and writing and arithmetic – the so-called three R’s. Promoting literacy was a matter of enabling individuals to acquire the skills of decoding and encoding language in written form. Adults were thus treated very much like children and the learning process reflected the practice of the school classroom: a hierarchical relationship between teachers and learners, little learner participation and a curriculum which may or may not have been relevant to daily life. Thus UNESCO’s role at this time was to enable as many people as possible to be initiated into reading and writing, with an emphasis on reading. This initiated the period of mass literacy campaigns, whose influence is still observable today.

Functional Literacy (1960s)

In the 1960s UNESCO moved from 3Rs to a functional view of literacy. Functional literacy promoted to response on economic demand with a focus on the reading and writing skills required to increase productivity, be it in agriculture, manufacturing or other jobs; it was often linked to vocational training. The Experimental World Literacy Program (EWLP), in which UNESCO was a prime mover, became the clearest manifestation of a functional approach to literacy. It was closely bound up with the needs of national economic development.

Adult literacy as consciousness (1970s)

The Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire was one of the most prominent proponents to advocate the concept of literacy as an instrument of consciousness. Friere experimented with new literacy approach and this approach focused on literacy as an educational process. It encourages people to ask questions and bolster action for change. In this approach the learners were no longer considered as beneficiaries, rather, they would be treated as a actors and subjects. Although Freire’s approach was initially seen as a literacy acquisition method, its impact moved literacy out of classroom and into the socio-political arena. UNESCO recognized these developments by awarding one of its literacy prizes to Freire in 1975. A further development of Freire’s thinking look shape as an active citizen in a democracy, to critique institutional practice, to claim rights and to challenge power structures.

Mass and Adult Literacy Efforts (1980s)

The further elaboration of Freire’s  literacy theory was practiced on 1980s.  A distinction was made between ‘autonomous’ and ‘ideological’ literacy. The autonomous literacy focused on the skill, which considered independent of values and context. On the other hand, an ideological literacy emphasized the social and political context. Literacy is one aspect of the way power operates in society and is institutionalized in modes of schooling and other established patterns of knowledge transmission. UNESCO has engaged little with this debate.

Multiple Literacies (1990s and 2000s)

During 1990s and 2000s the literacy got broader aspects. This approach emphasizes that literacy is always embedded in other social realities: work, family, religion, relationships with the state, and so on. Moreover, one of most salient aspects of the multiple literacies is  the linguistic dimension of literacy, fundamentally a language-based concept. In addition to this, multiple literacies in different languages are structured in terms of power relations, voice, empowerment and social participation.

Again, in the section II this paper mentioned that literacy is one of the core goals of the EFA (Education for All) and without literacy it is not possible to achieve EFA.  Hence, the UNESCO is also playing as a leading role the UN Literacy Decade (2003-2012). (UNESCO 2003) UNESCO recognized literacy as a human right and drew the attention that a significant proportion of the world population is still away from achieving this right. Literacy is also the key to EFA and plays a vital role for building a better society. Thus, UNESCO (2006b) highlights that- Literacy is:

  • a right still denied to nearly a fifth of the world’s adult population.
  • essential to achieve each of the EFA goals.
  • a societal and an individual phenomenon, with attention needed to both dimensions.
  • crucial for economic, social and political participation and development, especially in today’s knowledge societies.
  • key to enhancing human capabilities, with wide ranging benefits including critical thinking, improved health and family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention, children’s education, poverty reduction and active citizenship.

In the section, this paper will present the status of the adult illiterate population of the E-9 countries.

IV. Adult Illiteracy and E-9 Countries

At present, the great challenges for ensuring literacy for all are that there are about 875 million adult illiterates and 113 million out-of-school children in the world. Other relevant concerns are that more than 50% of the world population, about 57% of the school going children and almost 70% of the adult illiterate people lived in the nine world’s high-population countries (E-9). So, in 1993 an initiative was launched on the occasion of the EFA summit for the E-9 countries in 1993. (UNESCO 2001)
First, this section is going to demonstrate the trend of the population of the E-9 countries. The table 1 shows although the average population growth rate is declining, the E-9 countries continue to maintain their share of world’s population (more than 50%). The total population is forecasted for 2020 is about 4000 million, which is about 1.25 times higher than the present population.

Table 1

 E-9 total population (millions)As % of world’s populationAverage annual growth
Year  PeriodMillions%

Source: UNESCO (2001)

Now, this section addresses the issue of adult literacy, which is a serious concern. The figure 1 shows that more than 70% of the world adult literates are the citizens of the E-9 countries, as compared to the world and developing countries’ averages these were average 20.6% and 26.6%, respectively.  In number, in 2000 the adult illiterate population in the E-9 countries was 625 million. (UNESCO 2001). So, it is visible that the lion share of the adult illiterate population is the inhabitants of the E-9 countries.

Again, it is worthy to look at the country-wise illiteracy level. The figure 2 presents the distribution of the adult illiterates among the E-9 countries in 2000. It shows that more than 30% of the world adult illiterates live in India that it even higher than the adult illiterate population of the rest of the world. Next to India, the adult illiterate population in China is 17%. In addition to this, more than the one fifth of the world adult illiterates population are living in the rest of the seven countries of the E-9 countries. Therefore, it is needed to address the country-wise initiatives for the E-9 countries to ensure the literacy for all as the part of the EFA.

So, to ensure EFA as well as literacy for the nine high population countries (E-9 countries) is a major concern for the UNESCO. One of the endeavors to achieve this is to include the nongovernmental organizations. In the next section, this paper is going to highlight the issues of the non-formal education in the E-9 countries.

V. Adult Literacy and Non-formal Education in the E-9 Countries

First, this section presents the perception of UNESCO about the non-formal education. UNESCO (2001) mentioned that Non-formal Education may take place both within and outside educational institutions, and may cater to persons of all ages. Non-formal education constitutes learning opportunities for the vast majority of children, youth and adults in developing countries who are not reached by the formal education system.  Depending on country contexts, it may cover educational programs to impart adult literacy, basic education for out-of-school children, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture. Non-formal education programs do not necessarily follow the ‘ladder’ system, may have varying durations, and may or may not confer certification of the learning achieved. This plays a complementary or the supporting role to provide literacy for all specially to them whom the formal (public and private) schools cannot reach. For the E-9 countries since the population is high thus it often becomes difficult for both the public and private sectors.

However, non-formal education should not be seen as an alternative education system or a shortcut to the rapid education of a population. But it has to be recognized as providing a second chance or catch-up learning opportunities to those who missed formal schooling or failed to be attracted by the formal system. Also, as far as education remains in the heart of the poverty alleviation strategies, non-formal education appears to be particularly helpful in that it enables the rural or urban poor and other marginalized groups to acquire useful knowledge, attitudes and skills. Besides, non-formal education affords a wide array of learning opportunities directly associated with income driven activities. (UNESCO 2001)

Therefore, non-formal education programs play an important complementary and supplementary role to attaining the EFA goals. Today, most of experts as well as EFA partners agencies are convinced that it is impossible to achieve the EFA targets and goals without reinforcing the non-formal education system, especially in poor countries. (UNESCO 2001)

In the section, this paper is going to discuss about the success of adult literacy program along with its challenges in the three out of the nine countries.

VI. Adult literacy and Non-Formal Education in the Three E-9 Countries (Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil)

The author admits that the characteristics, achievements and challenges of the each nine high population country are different. However, this paper is going to present the achievements and challenges of three countries. These countries are Pakistan (from South Asia), Nigeria (Africa), Brazil (Latin America). These three countries are picked up from three different continents. Moreover, there remains inequality in economy or in education in these countries. For example, in 2004, the ratio of the richest 10% to the poorest 10% was 57.8% and the Gini Index2 was 5.8 in Brazil. At the same time, in Nigeria and Pakistan the inequality between the male and female are worthy to notice.3

For the discussion on the achievements and challenges on the adult literacy the author mainly points out two factors: One, the states of the adult literacy rate over the period; two, the equity in literacy.

Non-formal Education in Brazil

Brazil has shown its commitment on the literacy during the post EFA era. The government of Brazil has expanded its programs for the education of youths and adults specially target group were the people who had no access to school at their proper age. It was called as a second chance for the adult illiterates. This is huge joint effort and government of Brazil did include the non-governmental organizations for this programs. (UNESCO 2001) Now, this section is going to highlight some achievements of the Brazil in adult literacy along with its challenges.


During 1990s Brazil did admirably well in reducing the adult illiteracy rates. UNESCO (2001) reported that the illiteracy rate among adolescents aged 15-19 dropped from 12.1% in 1991 to 6% in 1996. Moreover, for individuals in the 20-24 age-groups, whose illiteracy rate fell from 12.2% to 7.1% over the same periods As a result of expansion of programs for the education of youths and adults, illiteracy rates are falling rapidly and the average schooling of the population has tended to increase. Between 1990 and 1996, average schooling years rose from 5.4% to 5.7%among the male population and from 4.9% to 6.0% among women.

Moreover, the adult illiteracy rate in Brazil is gradually declining over the period of time. Table 2 shows that in the early period of the last century the illiteracy rate was 64.9%, which declined to 14.7% at the last decade.  The table 2 also shows a declining trend on the adult illiteracy trend overtime.

Table 2: Trends in adult illiteracy (15 years and over) – absolute figures and illiteracy rate – Brazil, 1920-1996

YearAbsolute Figure%

Source: UNESCO (2001)

However, the regional inequality is still a problem in adult literacy. The regional concentration of illiteracy also reflects inter-regional socio-economic inequalities. In the 1990s, the pace of decline in illiteracy rates was not the same. Some of the challenges are described below.


To discuss about the challenges of the adult literacy program of Brazil, this paper first highlights some statistics to show the condition. Then, it will point out some existing problems in the initiatives of the adult literacy program.

Earlier it has been mentioned that the regional disparity to enrollment in adult literacy program is visible in Brazil. Table 3 shows that in the North region the enrollment rate is higher than the all other regions, whereas, in the Mid-west the enrollment rate is very low. The enrollment rate in the North region is more than double then the Northeast, South and Southeast regions.

Table 3: Number of students enrolled in adult literacy program by region, 1998

 Grand TotalEnrolled in Literacy Program
Brazil (National)2881231147006

UNESCO (2001)

Thus, it can be said that for the overall adult literacy rate Brazil is performing well, but, still it has several challenges in the equity issues on adult literacy. UNESCO (2001) also highlighted this and reported some recommendations for the non-formal education to overcome this, such as: increase available resources, expand the coverage, strengthen the qualification and permanent training of teachers, adjust programs to the concept of continuing education, with special emphasis on the needs related to the labor market and strengthening of citizenship, integration with cultural and sports activities, and promoting access to information and new technologies.

Non-formal Education in Nigeria

To attain the literacy goal of EFA, the Government of Nigeria established a National Commission for Mass Literacy, Adult and Non-Formal Education. As a complement to the effort of the Federal Government, each state established a mass literacy agency as part of the overall national effort to eradicate the illiteracy. The Commission monitors and evaluates the mass literacy program and facilitates communication between the commission and state agencies.

Before discussing the achievements and challenges of the non-formal adult literacy program, this section is going to highlight a brief historical overview on that of Nigeria. Itinerant Islamic scholars and traders, the Christian missions and the freed slaves from Freetown, Sierra Leone, at different points since the eleventh century, started adult literacy activities informally in Nigeria. The British colonial office recognized these efforts in its Memorandum on Education Policy in British Tropical Africa, published in 1925, which recommended the implementation of an adult education program in the African continent. In 1930, the colonial government in Nigeria accepted the recommendation and, in 1943, published a document on the subject. Actual implementation started in 1944, although with great limitations. (UNESCO 2001)


Table 4 indicates a increase in enrolment over the years 1991 to 1996. In 1991, a total of 546,256 males and females were enrolled in adult education program. UNESCO (2001) commented that more women are increasingly showing interest in non-formal and adult education programs; the proportion of enrolled women increased from 43.2 % in 1991 to 49% in 1996. (UNESCO 2001)

Regarding the equity in education the experience is the mixed. The table 4 also shows that a total of 3,985,987 male (54%) and 3,266,357 female (45%) were enrolled. The enrollment more males than that of females were observed. However, there was a steady rise in enrolment of women. So, it can be viewed that there was significant progress in female participation in the program.

Table 4: Mass Literacy Enrolments (1990-97)

YearMaleFemaleTotal%female enrolment

Source: UNESCO (2001)


UNESCO (2001) commented national population as a great problem to ensure the adult literacy for all. The adult component of the population of Nigeria that stood at 88.9 million in 1991 was close to 110 million by the year 2000. The implications of this growth in population for adult education programs were immense. Moreover, dropped out youths from schools are depending on non-formal education for acquiring literacy; it is also creating enormous pressure on the existing facilities. Thus, it is necessary to increases in the level of funding, further enrichment and review of the curriculum, considerable expansion and improvement of existing physical facilities, and the establishment of a more network for monitoring and inspection.

In addition to this, another challenge of adult education program in Nigeria in the foreseeable future is the ability of the program to attract the adult youths as well as the women in rural environment through the establishment of cottage and other small industries. It has already been mentioned that the there is an upward trend of female literacy rate. (UNESCO 2001) So, to create more employment opportunities are necessary.

Non-formal Education in Pakistan

In Pakistan there is not institutionalized literacy program. The Prime Minister’s Literacy Commission at the federal level and the Education Departments and non-governmental organizations at the provincial and local levels are running literacy programs. Baluchistan is the only province with a separate directorate of non-formal education, under the Social Welfare Department, running number of literacy program at provincial level. Moreover, adult literacy has not been given the requisite and desired attention and focus in Pakistan, neither in terms of programs and projects nor in terms of budgetary resources and finances. (UESCO 2001)


Even then Pakistan has achieved some success through the literacy program to eradicate illiteracy from selected areas. This Prime Minister’s Literacy Commission did target to literate 174,460 adults (both male and female). Some features of the project were as follows:

Opening of 3,460 face-to-face literacy centers and 200 television literacy centers in five

  • selected districts: Islamabad, Hafizabad, Karachi East, Quetta and Tehkal Bata, and Peshawar.
  • Implementation through non-governmental organizations and community groups withstrong motivational drive.

Under this project 138,025 (79%) adult illiterates were made literate against the target of 74,460. Out of these 120,082 (87%) were females and 17,943 (13%) males. (UNESCO 2001)

Moreover, one project was initiated in 1992 for female literacy through their knowledge and reading skills of the Holy Quran. The project wanted to find out whether females who are able to read/recite the Holy Quran could be made literate in Urdu with greater case and in a relatively short period of time. A special primer was introduced for this purpose. The project was trialed in five union councils in four districts surrounding Islamabad; 494 face-to-face centers were established at places provided by the community. Some 10,867 girls and women aged 10 and over were made literate through this project. (UNESCO 2001)

However, the estimated adult literacy rate is 45 per cent. The high illiteracy rate among rural women is one of the major constraints in achieving EFA goals and the overall development of the country. (UESCO 2001)


UNESCO (2001) reviewed that in Pakistan there remains a number of weaknesses and shortcomings that need to be addressed on a priority basis so as to achieve the literacy targets set at national and international levels. Such as:

  • Adult literacy has not been given needed priority in EFA programs. Only a few projects on adult literacy could be launched during the post-Jomtien period; their coverage was limited and restricted to not more than 10 per cent of the target group.
  • Resources earmarked for adult literacy program were amounted to barely 1 %of the education budget and funds could not be provided on time.
  • Coordination among the principal actors in the field of adult literacy remained weak.
  • Monitoring and evaluation mechanism at grassroots level are not strengthened enough, which adversely affected the internal efficiency and effectiveness of the literacy programs and projects.

VII. Conclusion

Thus, from the above discussion this paper can say that ensuring adult literacy is still a great challenge for the world and specially for the E-9 countries. Different endeavors have been taken to promote the adult literacy program. Hence, the non-formal education sector is playing a supporting role here and also achieved some success. However, there remain different challenges for these countries and the characteristics of challenges of each country are different.

This paper only focuses three out of the nine E-9 countries. Moreover, the author only highlights the overall literacy rate and equity as the parameters to measure the achievements and challenges. There are more scopes to do further research on this though using on more parameters as well as focusing on more countries.

1The E-9 countries are Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan.

2The Gini index is used to measure the income inquality. Here, 0 corresponds to perfect income equality (i.e. everyone has the same income) and 1 corresponds to perfect income inequality (i.e. one person has all the income, while everyone else has zero income).

3In 2005, the male and female (age 15+) literacy rate were 96.9% and 64.2% respectively in Nigeria. In Pakistan these were 63% and 36%. (Source:


UNESCO (2001). Literacy and Non-Formal Education in the E-9 Countries. UNESO Publishing, Paris.

UNESCO (2002). Literacy as Freedom. .accessed April 16, 2007

UNESCO (2003). UNESCO What it is What it does. Bureau of Public Information, UNESCO, France

UNECSO (2006a). Selected Achievements UNESCO 1946-2006. Americans for UNESCO, Washington DC

UNECSO (2006b). EFA Global Monitoring Report: Literacy for Life. UNESO Publishing, Paris.

About the author

Sameeo Sheesh

Sameeo Sheesh

Sameeo Sheesh is currently working as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences, Dhaka University in Bangladesh. He did his bachelor and Master in Economics from the University of Dhaka. Then, he did Master in Development Studies from BRAC University, Master in International Education from the George Washington University and MA in Educational Research and Evaluation from the University of Sussex. He is involved with social and cultural activities and study circles. He has a great knack for freehand writing and making presentation in seminars/workshops. He has four published books and a number of articles. He also directed a film named ‘Swapno’ (Dream).

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