Making Adult Literacy Learning Sustainable in Rural Areas

To honour International Literacy Day, we are bringing you this article by former UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace researcher Sarah Hasaba that looks at adult literacy learning programmes provided by government and local, national and international organizations operating within rural communities in Uganda, Kenya and Vietnam. The aim of Hasaba’s research was to map out alternative approaches to help ensure these opportunities are sustainable for adult learners in their communities, and thus empower local sustainable development.

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“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society,” according to OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.

Many scholars agree that literacy is essential to human development as it offers a foundation for good health and nutrition, as well as for achieving socio-economic development and institutions of democracy. In today’s knowledge-based world, this is ever more true. Thus, the absence of literacy skills makes it difficult to attain fundamental needs, to uphold basic human rights, and advance a better quality of life.

When it comes to development processes and outcomes, in these times of ecological, resource and equitability awareness, environmental, economic and socio-political sustainability are part and parcel to truly advancing quality of life. Indeed, if sustainable development can be linked to “ongoing, enhanced human well-being, then it requires the full participation of the target community”. Hence it is clear that “the crucial role of language and literacy in truly sustainable development deserves careful attention”.

Of course, adult literacy learning is a type of education with specific programme design and policy considerations. To understand the present adult literacy learning opportunities offered in rural communities in developing countries, I undertook a comparative review in Uganda, Kenya and Vietnam. Thus, I hope to contribute to improved understanding of adult literacy learning opportunities so as to boost the sound implementation of programmes and policies that are responsive to local people’s struggles for survival, sustained livelihoods and better community life.

My research investigated any existing policies governing adult literacy learning programmes and how these can be strengthened. I also looked at what effect national and international funding have on the type of adult literacy learning outcomes in rural communities and to what extent national and international cooperation impact on the nature of such programmes.

Using a mixed method case study approach, with both qualitative and quantitative elements, I gathered information among adult literacy learners and literacy programme implementers. I also undertook a review of policy documents, literacy learning materials and any other information so as to further understand the programmes in the three countries.


Action Aid, an international development agency working in developing countries set an adult literacy benchmark for national governments to devote 3 percent of their national education budget on adult literacy learning and training, but this has yielded no positive results. Indeed, UNESCO in its Education for All 2011 Global Monitoring Report decried the limited resources committed to fighting illiteracy among the adult population in developing countries.

In all three countries, my interviews of literacy education officials revealed that funding for literacy learning is low. In Uganda, the central government has been investing about 3.2 billion Ugandan shillings (US$1,391,304) annually in adult literacy service provision. The division of the country into districts means that each district is only provided with 18 million Ugandan shillings (about US$6,767) annually for managing the adult literacy programme. In Kenya, education programmes receive 30 percent of the annual government budget, while the adult and continuing education programme receives less than 1 percent. In Vietnam, out of the annual US$100,000 from government for continuing education, only US$700 is spent on adult literacy programmes in the communes.

I also visited five community-based, one faith-based and two international non-governmental organizations (CBOs/FBOs/NGOs). The length of existence of these in the communities ranges from 9-31 years. Only one CBO is locally funded, the rest are from 50 to 100 percent donor-funded. The percentage of funds used in the local communities is between 10 and 80 percent of organisation resources. The government is responsible for contributing the highest amount of funds for these programmes. In the case of organisations, literacy is supported in conjunction with other project activities such as health and sanitation, environmental awareness, sources of income, etc. It is not possible to find organizations that strictly offer adult literacy education skills.

Expectations and challenges

As Uganda and Kenya are agricultural economies, many respondents said that they practice farming, followed by a range of other activities such as goat and pig rearing, poultry keeping, market vending, or building. In Vietnam, most respondents are engaged in fishing and aquaculture, though some practiced farming, particularly growing rice.

Learners’ expectations were in line with the literacy programme content. Reading and writing appeared to be the top objective for attending classes, with acquiring numeracy and business skills also mentioned by all learners. Some (especially in Uganda and Kenya) looked at the literacy programme as a chance to learn another language (English) and also help enable them to join formal school education at some stage to further their learning.

Among all learners, taking stock and record keeping stood out as top reasons for needing literacy skills. Some other reasons were keeping up-to-date with the latest information and being able to balance accounts. Building confidence and facilitating behavioural change were also mentioned as benefits, especially among learners in Uganda and Kenya. Learners also valued the fact that the programme is free, interesting and relates to everyday life.

In the communities where both the government and organizations operate, co-funding of literacy learning programmes has yielded positive results. Organizations tended to take on aspects of the programme not funded by government but were vital to achieving better learning outcomes for the learners for example, the remuneration of instructors (Uganda and Vietnam).

The other positive outcome from this symbiosis is that organizations had incorporated their development agendas into the existing government literacy programme (in Uganda and Vietnam) thus adding variety to the adult literacy programme content. Further, the presence of various organizations and their use of community members as staff had encouraged many local individuals to embrace their services (this was the case in Uganda, Kenya and Vietnam). These organizations had attempted to address some of the benchmarks of the UN Millennium Development Goals, especially in literacy/education, health and environment (Uganda and Vietnam).

Steps to sustaining literacy education

Despite the obvious value, my research revealed that the adult literacy education programmes do face challenges. These included a lack of adequate resources for things such as scholastic materials; a lack of enough trained teachers; a lack of classrooms; learners needing to walk long distances to class; a paucity of employment prospects upon completion of the programmes; no remuneration for instructors; missing of classes during rainy seasons (Uganda and Vietnam); no opportunity for further training, absenteeism and the programme not addressing the learners’ problems.

Based on the nature of existing programmes that I studied, I propose the following measures for boosting the probability that literacy learning can be made sustainable for the learners involved.

In majority of the classes I visited, the adult learners never really “graduate” from the programme due to lack of post-literacy opportunities (Uganda and Vietnam). This suggests that government and organizations should be encouraged to consider investing in vocational training centres. When learners acquire adequate literacy skills, they can enroll into short course programmes in order to improve on their skills for self development (Uganda and Vietnam) and help them achieve sustained livelihoods.

Another self-sustaining step would be for organizations that deal with advocacy issues to assist learners and instructors in developing a common voice to either lobby their representatives for services (Uganda and Kenya) or write project proposals through which funding can be sought to address pressing issues with literacy learning in their communities.

It would also be important that an inventory of all organizations be carried out in order to avoid duplication of services. Organizations should supplement one another in order to strengthen skill acquisition and the active utilization of their services by the rural communities. In the same way, collaboration between formal and non-formal education systems (Uganda) could be strengthened so that resources are shared and exchanged (Kenya and Vietnam). Further, illiteracy being a socio-political issue, organizations operating under the framework of international cooperation and development should impress upon national governments the need to set up an “adult literacy pool” where resources are deposited by all, governments and agencies, for implementing and managing of the adult literacy learning programmes.

To attract more adult learners, outstanding literacy classes should be recognized, especially during annual celebrations to mark International Literacy Day (September) and incentives offered in order to encourage other adult learners. To the same end, supporting local radio programmes on literacy learning and conducting literacy seminars/reviews in different communities could also encourage more individuals to seek these programmes.

The role of the global community is instrumental to boosting literacy levels or ending illiteracy, especially in developing countries like Uganda and Kenya. Literacy learning is an important component in the achievement of sustained livelihoods. Therefore, through international cooperation and development frameworks, national governments can be urged to commit more resources to literacy learning opportunities to enable learners to acquire adequate skills to work towards sustainability in their rural communities.

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Making Adult Literacy Learning Sustainable in Rural Communities by Sarah Hasaba is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


The author is a former Japan Society for the Promotion of Science-UNU postdoctoral research fellow at the UNU Institute for Sustainability and Peace.