Improving livelihoods for the poor: the role of literacy

The purpose of this briefing note is to raise the key issues that have emerged as different parts of DFID have considered the ways in which literacy and poverty interrelate. It highlights principles of good practice (drawing on recent experience), examines potential entry points and identifies challenges for DFID in giving greater priority to literacy in their commitment to poverty reduction. The note provides a very concise appraisal of the importance of literacy in people’s lives. The inability to read and write restricts the ability to follow signposts, understand medicine labels and machinery instructions, confirm commercial transactions, avoid being cheated, etc. People need access to information regarding health, education and the market economy, so that they can engage critically with the issues and institutions that affect their everyday lives. Reading, writing and numeracy skills provide the vital link that can widen opportunities to improve their livelihoods.

A study in Nepal led to the following conclusions. Men and women associated being literate with having social status, as well as functional skills. A literate person in their view ‘has knowledge’, can understand issues relevant to their own well-being, and can share this knowledge for the benefit of the community. He, or she, has a ‘voice’ in meetings, can access and analyse information, and has the ability to engage with outsiders and officials more effectively.

The note outlines a number of key principles :

  • Literacy tasks should be contextualised within people’s daily lives and aspirations.
  • Literacy initiatives should be integrated into other development activities.
  • The main starting-point for addressing literacy tasks should be what people already have, know and do –people are not blank slates.
  • Determined efforts have to be made to target specific groups of people (categorised according to age, gender or occupation) who otherwise will remain excluded.
  • In order to maximise returns, the key lies in responding appropriately to what and how people want to learn.

DFID conclude, therefore, that literacy has to be regarded not solely as an education matter (limited by funding agency agendas to a specific ministry, or treated as part of a second best, non-formal option for adults) – but rather as a cross-sectoral issue, necessitating the integration of new literacy approaches into other development policies and programmes, e.g. relating to small enterprise development, agriculture, health, legal rights, media and distance learning, etc.

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