ABDVol.31 No.1

Literacy Development in Asia: Problems and Prospects
R. Govinda
 

Asia is a virtual land of paradoxes. Asia has been the cradle of several ancient civilizations in the world. But, today it has the largest number of illiterates in the world, around 71 %. Asia can boast of some of the fastest growing economies of the world, though around one-third of its population live below poverty line. Why has the Asian region been unable to break the barriers in moving towards a fully literate society and improve its development profile? Is it lack of resources or low levels of commitment? How do we go ahead from here? Does it demand a radical shift in the strategies adopted? Aren't there enough success stories to emulate from within the region? It is important to dwell on some of these questions as the world assesses the progress made during the post-Jomtien decade and plans for future action.
  The decade of the 1990s marked a unique period in the history of basic education in the world, largely propelled to action by the World Declaration on Education For All (EFA) adopted by more than 150 countries and all major international donor agencies at the beginning of the decade. The EFA Declaration gave a new framework for advocacy and action by broadening the vision incorporating literacy, primary education and continuing education activities in an integrated perspective. Following the commitments made, many countries surged forward in providing basic education for all. Yet, as the 21st century dawns, the education situation challenges world leaders with its unmitigated burden of illiteracy in several countries and inadequate progress in ensuring the participation of all children in basic education programmes. The balance sheet of educational development shared at the Dakar Forum on Education For All brings out this fact unequivocally. The substance of the Dakar Declaration is that the task of providing education for all is far from over. The challenge is even greater in the Asia-Pacific Region which presents a wide range of contexts and problems.

Literacy Trends

At the outset one can say that EFA efforts in the last decade have been instrumental in reducing levels of adult illiteracy in Asia. However, progress achieved in different parts of the region is a mixed bag of progress and despair. While the Central Asian region continued to maintain a high level of literacy and the East Asian countries showed significant progress, several countries of South Asia are far away from the goals of universal literacy.
  One of the most important disparities to note is the vast difference in the literacy levels of men and women. This is particularly alarming in the South Asian region which shows a large difference even for the age group 15-19. This indicates that male-female adult literacy gaps cannot be bridged without tackling the problem of girls' education. It also points to the need for addressing the underlying social and cultural factors in order to solve the problem of low literacy among women and low participation of girls in primary schooling.

Some Positive Signals

Though the quantitative indicators present a picture of slow progress and continued disparity among different countries, the 1990s also witnessed some unique and bold moves in the field of literacy.
 The first important feature is the emergence of voluntarism among the community members in support of literacy action. The shining example for this is the mass literacy campaign in different parts of India which brought out volunteers from all sections of the society as instructors, master trainers and organizers. Voluntary support could be seen in other countries also. In essence literacy programmes in the 1990s effectively demonstrated the need and value of a participatory approach involving the community.
 The second feature is that of collective action and entrepreneurship as the outcome of literacy and continuing education programmes. This can be seen in two ways. Firstly, literacy and continuing education projects were planned to result in self-sustaining productive activities through collective involvement of the community members. Secondly, as a corollary, most of the projects involved micro-credit and income generation activities within a cooperative framework.
 The third characteristic of the programmes in the last decade was the effort towards increased linkage between modern technology and adult education programmes. Though this is not uniformly visible, the goal has been to exploit the capacity of modern information technology for the benefit of the poor. On the whole, the focus of action in the nineties has been to directly link literacy programmes with poverty reduction and economic development. The post-Jomtien development also highlighted the need for better documentation and creation of a reliable information base on literacy and continuing education programmes. One can observe some significant steps taken by national and international agencies in this direction, though the subject demands a more comprehensive attention.
 The fourth characteristic is the increased attention being paid to better documentation and emphasis on shared learning. Several efforts are being made by UNESCO as well as many NGOs to link organizations across the region for enhanced interaction and mutual learning.

Challenges Ahead

The message from the EFA 2000 Assessment exercise in the Asia-Pacific region is quite clear: "The task is far from over. The world has to rededicate itself to the commitments made in Jomtien and continue the struggle to eradicate illiteracy and to ensure basic education for all." Both old and new challenges are to be faced in the decade to come in order to meet the goals of education for all by the year 2015, the new target set by the Dakar Declaration.
 Several of the old problems persist, demanding radically different strategies to tackle the underlying malaise. For instance, as highlighted by the Human Development Reports, literacy is a vital component of human development. But progress in literacy is closely linked, on the one hand to primary education development and on the other, to population growth and levels of poverty. Therefore, investment of adequate resources in the basic education sector becomes critical in view of its fundamental as well as instrumental value in promoting the overall development of the society. The analysis of investment profiles of different countries in the last decade does not show that the effort matches the magnitude of the problem in most cases.
 Another problem hindering the progress of literacy is the complex state of multi-ethnicity and multi-lingualism that characterizes many countries in the region. The traditional approach of giving literacy instruction in the dominant language of the country is unable to solve the problem of illiteracy demanding new approaches to development of literacy learning material. This is also important in order to maintain and nurture the rich cultural heritage and social diversity that is unique to Asia. Significant initiatives have been made in the recent years to address this issue which have to be further strengthened in the years to come.
 There has been a general sense of euphoria that the globalization and free market process will finally deliver the poor from their misery and therefore significantly improve their access to basic education. How well-founded is this? In reality, the global market place has been bountiful for a small minority with capital and skills. As the UNICEF Report on the "State of World's Children" points out, "The 200 richest people in the world, for instance, more than doubled their net worth between 1994 and 1998, to more than $1 trillion. Meanwhile, disparities continue to grow. In 1960, the income gap between the richest fifth of the world's population and the poorest fifth was 30 to1; in 1997 it was 74 to1." If inequalities keep increasing does it portend better educational opportunities for the poor? In fact, traditional micro-economies of the poorer sections are seriously threatened by the globalization process, disarming them of the small-scale income generation processes sustained hitherto by local economies. Literacy and continuing education programmes have to undergo drastic adaptation processes to meet this challenge.
 A common assumption underlying literacy programmes is that reading and writing form the basic framework of human communication. Developments in the area of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) have begun to challenge this assumption. Unless literacy programmes adapt themselves to the new paradigm of the ICT, the digital revolution is likely to add a new dimension to the expanding divide between the rich and the poor and inappropriately designed literacy programmes will themselves become instrumental in this process.
 Finally, one may note that unevenness of progress as well as increasing diversity and complexity of ground reality demands radically different strategies and renewed commitment to the concept of basic education for all. It should be recognized that the solution lies in enhanced social mobilization and more focused advocacy. This has to be coupled with new approaches to literacy learning processes keeping in view the modern technological developments. Historical evidence shows that movement for universal basic education in the developed world was not propelled by the findings of cost-benefit analysis or estimates of value addition to the human capital through years of schooling as the modern day economists and international agencies attempt to fine-tune the inputs and duration of schooling in the developing world. What is, therefore, needed is a revival of the 'human face' to the education endeavour and emphasis on social processes that will ensure a stable transformation of the socio-economic conditions in the poorer countries. Adult literacy programmes have a vital role to play in creating the space and ambiance for a meaningful social discourse that leads to universal basic education. In this effort, they also have to effectively link themselves with primary schooling programmes and education of out-of-school children.

R. Govinda, Senior Fellow and Head, School and Non-Formal Education Unit, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration.
He has been working at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi since 1987. Prior to that he taught at the Centre of Advanced Study in Education at the M. S. University of Baroda. He has been closely associated with the activities of UNESCO and ACCU and various other international agencies. He was also on the Faculty of the International Institute of Educational Planning, UNESCO, Paris, from 1993 to 1995. He has published extensively on various aspects of basic education.