Literacy Programs Aren't Helping the Poor

April 2005

By Abraham M. George  

Policy makers around the world have decided that literacy is what the poor need. That's simply doing a disservice to them. Literacy hasn't brought any real benefit or change in the lives of the social underclass.

There is no doubt about a close linkage between illiteracy and poverty. Illiterate people find it difficult to get out of poverty. Without being sufficiently literate, one can't fully enjoy social or cultural life. As Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, points out, the capacity to read and write deeply influences one's quality of life.

The trouble is that while societies increasingly emphasize information, knowledge and communication as essential ingredients of education, poor people are offered a much lower standard to achieve. A person is considered literate if he can read, write and understand a simple sentence relating to his everyday life. Using this definition, there are still nearly 1 billion adults who are illiterate, according to the United Nations. In addition, more than 100 million children don't attend primary schools today.

Even among the so-called literate, especially the poor, there are those who have attended only a few primary grades in rural schools that offer little by way of education.

Literacy Surveys
Data on literacy is usually collected from household surveys during a national population census. There are problems with such surveys, because the very poor are proud to label themselves as literate even if they have had a grade or two of schooling. And those doing the surveys are just as eager to count the respondents as literate to please government officials who want to publicize any progress. The net result is a significant overcount of the truly literate.

To validate published official records, The George Foundation (a nongovernmental organization carrying out poverty eradication programs in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu state in India ) recently completed a house-to-house survey of several thousand people in 17 villages. Those surveyed were asked to read and respond to a simple question written in their local language: How old are you? Less than 15 percent of the people among the ``lower'' social class or ``dalits'' were able to read the question, while barely 40 percent of the ``upper'' classes responded correctly. If this survey is any indication of actual rural literacy, it is hard to believe the government's claim of 65 percent adult literacy in all of India , when 700 million people live in the rural sector.

Wild Claims
To make matters worse, even senior officials in government and international agencies often make wild claims about the progress being made in the fight against illiteracy.

For example, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in his address at the launch of the UN Literacy Decade in February 2003, pointed out that as a result of concerted effort wherein women teachers traveled on bicycles to remote areas, an entire district in Tamil Nadu (usually consisting of 2 million or more people) ``was declared fully literate.'' The fact is that only one small district claims to have close to 90 percent literacy rate, while the overall literacy rate for the entire state is below 75 percent.

UN Action Plan
A UN General Assembly resolution adopted in 2003 on the ``International Plan of Action for the Decade'' called for policy changes at national levels to link literacy promotion with strategies for poverty reduction, health care and other important social goals. It also emphasized the need for flexible programs, capacity building, research, community participation and monitoring. While all these are essential ingredients for success in the fight against illiteracy, it isn't clear how the new policy will be implemented.

The starting point for any realistic program is a clear understanding of the present state of affairs. With nearly two- thirds of the people in the world living in rural areas, it is rural schools that are most important in the literacy effort. Unfortunately, most rural schools in practically every developing country are of substandard quality.

Rural Schools
Quality education is hardly ever associated with the poor; it is only for those who can afford it. Bright, motivated children are lost by their early years of schooling in an unchallenging environment. Yet they will be the literate adults of tomorrow.

In a country like India , most rural schools are government- run, and only a few offer anything resembling quality education. On any given day, many primary schools are short teachers, and students from a couple of grades are combined into a single room for classes. Most teachers aren't properly trained and have very little motivation or commitment to the profession. Illiterate families in rural communities aren't involved in the education of their children, and only a minority of parents send their children to middle school. The education children receive in rural primary schools hardly prepares them for further study, employment, or effective community participation. Yet, they are classified as literate.

The Problems
To compound the problems caused by a scarcity of good teachers, there are many other difficulties to overcome.

Children from poor families go to school hungry; a majority of them suffer from malnutrition. A significant number are regularly sick. They don't receive periodic vision or hearing checkups. Many schools don't have toilets that offer sufficient privacy, discouraging girls from attending classes for the entire day. Most classrooms are unventilated and overcrowded, roofs leak on rainy days, books and paper are in short supply, and blackboards are nonexistent or worn out.

It is hard to see how even a good teacher can be motivated under these circumstances. Every rural school can perform well if it has committed teachers and at least the minimum in facilities. For quality education, the investment priority should be for trained teachers, not in pushing expensive high-tech tools on rural institutions in the name of bridging the ``digital divide.''

Changing the Focus
All the gadgetry in the world can't equal the impact that a skilled and dedicated teacher has on a child, even in the most rural setting. Until the policy focus turns to attracting college graduates to the teaching and to rural government schools, we can't expect a real improvement in children's education.

Significant reduction in illiteracy, as currently defined, may be possible within the next decade or two. But the real question to be answered is this: Is literacy an adequate goal for the poor?

The goal should be to ensure that all children receive a good education -- from grade school until high school -- in a motivating environment. Without proper education, as opposed to literacy, today's children may not have a future in an increasingly competitive global market.

Originally printed in Bloomberg News


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