Literacy Alone is Not Enough

Wednesday, 2 September, 2009 - 10:22

We set up vast mass literacy campaigns and back-to-school government adult education departments all geared to giving people a second chance at literacy and the chance to get qualifications equivalent to Grade 9. But is this really what the nine million illiterate South Africans want from adult basic education?

We would be appalled if someone waved a magic wand and took away our literacy. We cannot understand how others may not recognise the value of literacy.

But not everyone wants to be literate – or not enough to take time away from the daily earn-your-living challenge. When one literacy promoter invited poor rural women walking along an Ndwedwe road to join adult literacy classes, she was amazed to be told, “Yes, we will come to your school. How much will you pay us?”

It’s a point. Why should illiterate people struggle to learn to read and write? Don’t they have more pressing struggles to face, like getting food into supper dishes?

We set up vast mass literacy campaigns and back-to-school government adult education departments all geared to giving people a second chance at literacy and the chance to get qualifications equivalent to Grade 9. But is this really what the nine million illiterate South Africans want from adult basic education?

The drop-out rate from literacy and adult basic education classes is high and educators will sadly tell you that “they vote with their feet”. Literacy is not enough to help with daily needs and challenges.

So adult educators plead for help to “start income-generating projects”. They know that adult learners want ways to change their lives quickly. Reading and writing will not do it. Literacy classes need development projects, to provide income and the promise of making money on a larger scale as the projects and the literacy skills grow.

It is possible to live a full life without literacy, and millions of people do just that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that adult literacy is not important. But it is more important to us who live in a literacy-based society than it is for those who live in an oral community.

Literacy alone will not help people to move out of poverty. Literacy learning should be linked with income development.

The majority of rural literacy learners are women aged between 25 and 50. Most of these drop out after achieving mother-tongue literacy. Topics of vital interest to literacy members will keep the drop-out rate down. Action projects that improve learner livelihoods or resolve local problems will attract more class members and keep more of the learners in class.

Clear income-generating solutions are needed – projects or small businesses to link with literacy learning. Learners can create small-scale development projects that use local markets, such as community gardens, intensive vegetable cropping, making shoes and sandals, making ethnic and traditional garments and accessories, bicycle repairs, spaza shops and mobile shops, school catering, concrete block-making, basic electrical installation, basic building, silk-screening T-shirts, cleaning and mending hospital laundry, cleaning office windows, hairdressing and school furniture repair.

Micro-enterprise projects need literacy and numeracy, to keep records of activities, decisions and sales, to manage stock and money, and record orders and contracts. Even planning a project means you need to write. This engagement with practical literacy and numeracy, as part of small business, helps to prevent relapse to semi-literacy.

But choosing an income-generating project to help literacy learners needs a strong business sense. People should not spend their hopes, time and money in a productive project which does not find a good market.

If the development project starts first, there should be a parallel and integrated literacy and numeracy programme for under-educated members. This will be a way of ensuring the success of the project, as it maintains group ownership of the project (the educated elite cannot control the project), and the educators will be able to use related material for the literacy learning.

Literacy people should start with small projects in which they learn to plan, to work together and to make and save money. Later on, when a level of income development experience has been reached, and levels of literacy are higher, more complex projects with a bigger return should be introduced, for example, a rural literacy group which runs two successful vegetable tunnels can move on to making and selling concrete blocks – a much larger project with better returns.

Our best official answer to poverty so far has been Sector Education and Training Authority (Seta) learnerships and department of labour-sponsored short skills courses. But skills training is only one of six important and mutually supportive strategies to implement income generation through micro-enterprise:

  • Community commitment;
  • Skills training;
  • Small business management training (must be in mother-tongue);
  • Business seed capital;
  • Expertise to provide ongoing business support;
  • Basic literacy and numeracy.

What is the way forward? We need a structure operating from community level to national level to stimulate and support micro-development initiatives with adult literacy. At present much of this work is being done by NGOs – they have useful models to share but they cannot cope with the large-scale need for this support.

This would be a positive role for the new ministry of rural development and land affairs, but this strategy should also operate in urban settlement areas.

We need community development workers, taken from each target community and trained to provide adult basic education with literacy and HIV and AIDS education, to start savings clubs and to stimulate interest in micro-development projects. They would also provide small business support.

Perhaps the further education and training colleges could offer basic training in community development skills, small business development and literacy teaching. These literacy/development workers may be useful employees for local government bodies wanting to implement local economic development.

The universities could offer courses for development managers, who would implement basic community development through the municipalities. This micro business and literacy development initiative would need a strong and responsive budget to provide input costs and project support.

Yet not much of this thinking is heard in policy circles. We are firmly convinced that employment for all will be the answer to poverty, in spite of the fact that numbers are against us. More than half of South Africa’s working-age population are either unemployed or not economically active. Small enterprise development would appeal to many.

There are two mass adult literacy campaigns operating in South Africa at the moment, Kha Ri Gude and Masifundisane (KwaZulu-Natal). They only offer literacy and numeracy.

Provincial education departments run small adult classes. The ministerial committee on adult education comments that change is needed here, but only in passing refers to non-formal adult education, without mentioning community development education. The committee’s report also fails to cover the non-formal education capacity-building challenge. Unesco explains that non-formal education is any organised and sustained educational activity that does not correspond exactly to the definition of formal education. It may cover adult literacy, life skills, work-skills, small enterprise education, AIDS education and many other learning areas for adults.

The Department of Labour is funding English and Numeracy ABET classes. A different approach is needed to make a major difference to people’s lives in the face of the increasing scarcity of employment. Our greatest problem is our tendency to provide a kind of adult literacy that mimics school education.

We need to think “outside the box”.

There are some departments (agriculture, water affairs and social development) that are providing funding for development projects, but not for the non-formal education and literacy work which should support these initiatives.

The truth is we have not provided a full poverty alleviation programme. Dedicated micro-development support is essential to reduce poverty and to grow capacity for further development. This should be linked to a functional literacy and numeracy programme. Literacy alone is not enough. And micro-enterprise needs basic adult literacy.

Pat Dean is director of the 43-year-old NGO Operation Upgrade of South Africa, which works for social change through adult literacy and adult basic education. Operation Upgrade was the 2008 UNESCO Literacy Award winner for its rural programme of adult literacy, HIV and AIDS education, food security and livelihood development, in rural KwaZulu-Natal. This article was first published in The Mercury newspaper on 3 August; it is republished here with permission from the author.

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