Literacy: Progress achieved by African countries

On September 8, we are celebrating International Literacy Day 

As we get ready to celebrate International Literacy Day, ADEA reviews the progress made by African countries to improve literacy

Students and their textbooks at a primary school in Cote d'Ivoire | CREDIT: GPE/Carine Durand

This is the 8th blog post in 2018 as part of the collaboration launched in 2017 between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE).

September 8 was proclaimed International Literacy Day at the 14th session of UNESCO’s General Conference on October 26, 1966, to enable governments, civil society, and stakeholders to highlight improvements in global literacy rates and to discuss persistent obstacles to literacy in the world.  Literacy is critical in order to achieve sustainable development goal (SDG) 4, which includes target 4.6: ensure that all youth achieve literacy and numeracy and provide adults without these skills the possibility of acquiring them.

The theme this year is "Literacy and Skills Development", focusing on aptitudes and skills required for employment, careers, and livelihoods, particularly technical and vocational skills, along with transferable skills and digital skills.

Has literacy really advanced significantly?

The international community recognizes literacy as an inalienable right and more; it is an “essential foundation for lifelong independent learning.”  

Despite this global commitment, along with earlier commitments, the data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that today, there are still 757 million adults in the world, including 115 million young people (15 to 24 years old), who cannot read or write a simple sentence.

The lowest national literacy rates are found in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. It is legitimate to wonder whether literacy has really advanced significantly, particularly in Africa.

Fortunately, progress in literacy is not just a quantitative development. It can also be measured through the efforts of literacy players to define a new vision, and in quality improvements in methods, content, and governance.

Aspects of progress achieved: the vision 

Up until the mid-1960s, literacy was usually taken to mean mastering instrumental knowledge, meaning reading, writing, and counting. The concept of literacy has changed over time to include other dimensions.

This vision arises from the need to link literacy/training to the learners' professional activities from the perspective of sustainable development. Analysis shows that literacy will play a direct or indirect role in the achievement of many Sustainable Development Goals.

Consequently, most African countries have worked to implement this new vision by incorporating ideological, political, economic, and social dimensions into literacy programs, while eliminating any form of discrimination based on race, religion, gender, age, or geography, as well as violent extremism.

This approach also gave rise to the concept of lifelong learning to enhance learners’ life skills, resilience and ability to cope with the challenges that arise in human existence.

Acquisition of knowledge and skills 

Lifelong learning requires a solid foundation to build on in order to develop successive levels of other skills. This is why instrumental knowledge must be the foundation on which to build other skills, including both technical and technological skills, along with new information and communication technologies (ICTs).

Each country adopted various strategies and educational innovations as part of the drive to improve literacy practices and achieve massive participation in literacy programs. These strategies and innovations varied according to the context and were also carried out in concert by groups of countries.

In the review of the ADEA Inter Country Quality Node on Literacy and National Languages (ICQN-LNL) conducted in Cotonou, Benin in August 2017, the 11 participating countries reported that they had undertaken several actions to improve literacy quality. Some of the improvements involve literacy strategies, content (curriculum reform), with consideration of emerging issues, gender, multilingualism, local knowledge, inclusive education (literacy for the visually and hearing impaired), etc. The practice of transfers and customized training are innovations that lead to more enthusiasm among learners. 

More specifically, adaptation of literacy training is a major factor in most countries’ changing paradigms. For example, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Togo have implemented a “Regional Educational Program for Pastoral Populations in Cross-Border Zones” (PREPP). 

The ambition of the program, which has been run by the Association for the Promotion of Livestock Breeding in Sahel and the Savannah (APESS) since 2014, is to save the pastoral communities from endemic illiteracy and to contribute to better access to employment for youth through the development of their technical and vocational skills, and to achieve peaceful transhumance in cross-border zones.

The use of NICTs is an emerging strategy for literacy that several countries are pursuing. Literacy training using mobile phones and tablets has been effective in several African countries (PREPP zone) for reaching mobile learners and those who are unable to attend courses in person. The Didier Drogba Foundation is working with ADEA and UNESCO to implement a similar project.

In the same vein, ten of the ICQN-LNL member countries have undertaken modernization of their Koranic schools as a strategy for stepping up the literacy training on offer.

Literacy governance

Eliminating illiteracy will require better organization of the stakeholders. Progress on this front will be reflected by the involvement of the different players in the negotiating, planning, execution, fundraising, and monitoring and assessment phases of literacy programs.

Some African countries have adopted a succession of strategies, from “hands-off” (the government delegates literacy organization to the private sector), to outsourcing, to “hands-on” (the government is solely responsible for literacy programs), to joint and simultaneous public and private sector action. Outsourcing is the strategy adopted by several countries. It enables the government and its technical and financial partners to come up with a functional division of labor in the design and execution of literacy programs.

The contribution of ADEA and GBA 

In Africa, building African networks, and recently the Global Book Alliance (GBA), testify to the determination to achieve a synergistic partnership in order to step up literacy progress significantly, particularly in low-income countries.

The Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), through its Inter Country Quality Node on Literacy and National Languages and its Working Group on Books and Learning Materials (WGBLM), plays an active role in the political dialogue and strengthening of African countries' technical capacities.

The general aim, of course, is to contribute to an overall improvement in access and the quality of literacy and numeracy programs for both youth and adults.