Improving literacy in Africa

To mark International Literacy Day, we look into the current situation in Africa

On International Literacy Day, we stress the need to improve literacy to achieve the higher goal of better meeting demand for education for children and adults.

A student works on his assignment. Glenview Number 2 Primary School, Zimbabwe. CREDIT: GPE/ Carine Durand

This is the eleventh blog post in a series of joint articles by the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA). 

There is a need to improve literacy to achieve the higher goal of better meeting the demand for education for children and adults. Training structures at all levels need to ensure there is always a built-in link between literacy/training and students' professional activities, including the different elements of their environment.

The type of literacy targeted is literacy in line with Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goal 4 to ensure inclusive and quality education and promote lifelong learning for all. Literacy also needs to comply with the targets of the African Union's Agenda 2063, one of the main thrusts of which is to make education a priority sector for the continent's development.

In addition to the beneficial effects of literacy for individuals, literacy programs need to act as vehicles to build universal values and a springboard for African cultural renaissance to advance continental integration.

Which aspects of literacy need improving?

Evaluating the implementation of the different literacy programs across Africa and worldwide has found that program effectiveness indicators tie in with a number of internal and external factors.

One of the major aspects for consideration is the vision for literacy itself, which needs to be more inclusive of and responsive to other areas of life to improve the guarantee of adjustment to globalization, rapid change and new challenges. From this angle, then, literacy could be viewed as needing to mainstream all the goals of the sustainable development agenda for 2030.

Learning needs to interactively cater for ideological, political, economic and social aspects and exclude all forms of discrimination based on race, creed, gender, age and geographical area.

Such measures call for teamwork among the different stakeholders in the shape of African governments, institutions working on literacy, civil society, the private sector, local communities, businesses, and technical and financial partners.

Last but not least, the new vision for literacy should mainstream "lifelong learning" with a particular emphasis on the key role that education in general plays in sowing the seeds for the acquisition of life skills and qualitative societal change in terms of social justice, living together in peace, and economic growth.

Lifelong learning requires a solid foundation (acquired through literacy) on which to base the building blocks for the other skills levels.

That is why instrumental knowledge needs to form the bedrock on which to better build the other skills.

Which factors can help improve literacy?

A number of technical and political factors and strategies can be identified, including:

  • Reform the curricula. The new curricula should be rooted more in African culture and values, and social unity (ruling out any outbreaks of violence and terrorism) while onboarding technological change; these curricula should be developed taking a bottom-up approach based on the needs, realities and aspirations of the African countries and their communities.
  • Use technologies as ways to rapidly adjust to new challenges in life.
  • Expand the range of training courses and pathways designed to give learners an array of ways to contribute to society.
  • Systematic post-literacy learning so that reading and writing are seen as part of an ongoing process and an effective way to prevent relapse into illiteracy. Development of a literate environment calls for effective implementation of a good book policy and the promotion of national languages.
  • Language is clearly a key factor in improving the quality of learning. People learn better and faster in their language of fluency. Language is also recognized as a factor for national social cohesion, and regional and continental integration.
  • Improve the living and working conditions of literacy staff to stimulate their enthusiasm for the job and prevent brain drain; and build these players' capacities to guarantee the quality of training on the ground.
  • Gender mainstreaming and positive discrimination strategies in support of women and other specific underprivileged groups, especially in rural areas, in the different literacy programs.
  • Monitor the training processes, accreditation of learning outcomes and certification of learning, including proficiency in statistical data on literacy.
  • Power up the public-private partnership with the promotion of new methods and successful private initiatives.
  • Politically committed governments and better governance of literacy led by African Heads of State. This could help solve literacy program funding issues. On this point, note the African nations' pledge to the regional conference on literacy in Bamako, Mali (September 2007) to earmark at least 3% of each government's budget for adult literacy.
  • Innovation: developing and sharing best practices and successful experiences is an important factor. This includes:
    • Family learning support programs
    • Use of interactive whiteboards for literacy learning (e.g. in Burkina Faso) and mobile phone-based literacy (e.g. Côte d'Ivoire and many other countries)
    • Development of programs to digitize textbooks and other teaching documents, and the approved movement from one education program to another (e.g. South Africa)
    • Domestic funding initiatives and employment or self-employment initiatives, as in the case of Senegal with the youth employment taxes, business plan financial assistance, and the creation of a national employment observatory in Mali.

A new vision for literacy

Improving literacy calls for sustained partnership momentum between experts, government, civil society, institutions, technical and financial partners, and the beneficiaries themselves.

This needs to be based on a new and clear vision of literacy in our changing world. The principle behind this improvement is the "contextualization" of literacy. This means listening to individuals' growing real needs and legitimate expectations while ensuring that they tie in with the visions and values accepted at continental level, if not worldwide.

This principle should guide the choice of literacy learning content, approaches, child and adult education methods, literacy media, and teaching materials. It should also drive the stakeholders to organize themselves to ensure better governance of literacy learning.