All posts by Alex Grey

Alexandra Grey was a legal researcher and advocacy trainer at a Chinese not-for-profit in Beijing from 2010-2013, continuing there after a stint with AusAID's Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. Back home (Australia), she has lectured in law and policy since 2010 and was a practising commercial solicitor before she moved into the NGO and academic arenas. Alexandra has studied Chinese (Mandarin) and Linguistics at postgraduate levels and is now a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University.

We do aid, not English!

Over a few years of involvement in the aid sector in Asia, I became aware that aid workers turn their noses up at ‘English work’. Managers from my Australian government volunteering program encouraged us not to be sucked in to being human dictionaries while on NGO postings. In China, where I was, the USA’s Peace Corps strategy of sending volunteers ‘only’ to teach English was the subject of bristling critique: ‘How linguistically imperialist!’, we thought.

However, our local colleagues at NGOs and so called ‘development-sector’ government agencies often made requests of us native English speakers: to speak English with them, proofread and draft reports, apply for grants, translate the organisation’s website, help with overseas university applications and tutor their friends’ children. This sparked complaints like ‘I feel like I’m here mostly to translate’ and ‘I’m doing proofreading and admin tasks which I don’t see as capacity building’.

It is frustrating to move overseas and find you are expected to provide little but ‘white face time’ or ‘foreigner cache’ in your job. (It’s worth noting native speakers are not all Caucasian, despite the assumption that this is the case in many countries where English is an ideal). But is English language aid underrated?

Discounting ‘English work’ doesn’t happen because aid workers are haughty. These people have professional training in fields like environmental science or public health and believe they were hired to contribute in those areas. Moreover, many native English speakers recognize that they have no professional language teaching experience. Most aid workers are conscientious global citizens, wary of being language imperialists. But these ‘good reasons’ are misconceived, I argue.

Wrong skills

Without teaching training, you are a less-than-ideal candidate to teach, no question. But in the regions I’m talking about, learners seldom get to select from a smorgasbord of English-speaking trained teachers and native English-speaking non-teachers. Even the Peace Corps receive some teacher training and teach in impoverished areas where TESOL staff-members are otherwise in short supply. Moreover, in all Second Language Acquisition (SLA), important learning is done beyond the classroom and after childhood: for instance, between aid workers and their adult colleagues. Psychologist Vygotsky showed peer group learning with ‘more knowledgeable others’ was a productive part of language acquisition, with no teacher needed. Modelling grammatical and pragmatically-appropriate language provides useful input for learners. In short, helping colleagues with their English tasks or even just conversing can be valuable for their language learning and is within any English speaker’s ability.


In many countries, people see access to a native English speaker as a boon. Why not give communities what they think would assist their upward mobility? The contribution to informal, out-of-classroom English learning these native speakers provide is something their colleagues and communities may find even more valuable than the specific aid project, especially as the expense, scarcity and systemic preference given to children’s classes make formal language learning inaccessible to many adolescents and adults who want it.

As Kamwangamalu notes of Africa – and I’ve found this in China, too – ‘stakeholders reject their own indigenous languages […] because they consider them insignificant and of no practical value in the linguistic marketplace’ (Kamwangamalu 2013). In this, local stakeholders are not wrong; English is indisputably of great value in many markets. Many (including me) would say this is evidence of linguistic hegemony and non-native English speakers are complicit in their own linguistic domination by prioritising English, embracing the coloniser’s model of the world. Even so, is it an incoming English speaker’s place to decide to attack hegemony by refusing to help people proofread?

Often, English is the language of power and funding, particularly for international aid, and non-elites may well perceive English as a resource monopolized by elites to preserve their status. For instance, Ghanaians ‘expressed the view that using the vernacular as an instructional medium was a subtle strategy employed by the elite to perpetuate communities’ marginalization from mainstream society’ (Mfum-Mensah 2005, p. 80).

Whether or not we oppose English’s dominance ideologically, it is beneficial to proofread co-workers’ donor reports, make templates for the office and attend events to speak for the organisation or those it assists, in English. The more co-workers are included in these activities, the better. That oft-encountered request to help a friend-of-a-friend with a personal English task should likewise be accepted, because language competencies can function as collective resources. Indeed, many linguists now advocate studying ‘actual linguistic, communicative, semiotic resources’ rather than ‘languages’ (Blommaert, 2010, p. 102). English resources can benefit networks rather than merely individuals. In expanding the networks around English resources, inequality and elitism is reduced.

Both national politics and international development are ‘Fields’ (Bourdieu, 1991). English is both economically and symbolically valuable in these Fields. Native English speakers – especially professionals doing aid volunteering – have an ability to use professional-register English at less expense (a Bourdieuian ‘Habitus’).  So it’s efficient for them to do tasks requiring professional English. Importantly, this is not short term efficiency at the expense of long term efficiency; helping out with English tasks now doesn’t preclude co-workers’ language acquisition in the longer term. Rather, it can play a part in their improvement so the ‘cost’ of professional English for colleagues will decrease over time. English-speaking aid workers, in doing ‘English work’, can improve their hosts’ access to material support and their ability to be heard in international forums.

The benefit of mobility of individuals, of organisations and across community networks is hard to weigh against the detriment of linguistic imperialism, but this weighing up should not be shirked, and nor should the ‘English work’ involved.

This article first appeared on Language on the Move.



Blommaert, J. (2010). The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. Cambridge, Polity.

Kamwangamalu, N. M. (2013). “Effects of policy on English-medium instruction in Africa.” World Englishes 32(3): 325-337.

Mfum-Mensah, O. (2005). “The impact of colonial and postcolonial Ghanian language policies on vernacular use in two northern Ghanaian communities.” Comparative Education 41(1): 71-85.

Literacy in Development: the flaws with using literacy rates to inform development policy (part 3)

Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.

This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?

Do literacy rates measure what we think they do?

Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.

Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.

Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?

How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?

There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)

Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would  index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development.  This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which

“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)

That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.

However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.

Literacy t-shirt
And does anyone care if your parent can?

Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.

More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort.  Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.

Literacy in Development: China’s ethnic minorities (part 2)

Outside of China, people are agape at the prospect of learning to write Chinese: “So hard! Too hard.” Back in Australia, I know first generation migrants who speak Chinese at home but have never learnt to write, they gape along with everyone else. But for all the jaw-dropping, these people can read and write another major language: English. What about the people inside China for whom ‘Chinese’ is a foreign language? They are a significant minority, and, on the Chinese scale, a minority still means millions of people. ‘Chinese’ is usually loosely used when we should say ‘Mandarin’, which is just one of more than 50 distinct languages of the different ethnic groups in China. Mandarin is based on the language of Beijing, has official status, and is the language of the dominant ethnicity, the Han. But it’s by no means the first language of the rural poor in China’s vast and less-developed western and southern provinces. For many of these people, writing Mandarin characters is just as daunting as it is for us, as many of these other Chinese languages are not written in characters, or not written at all.

The widespread assumption is that people need to be literate for development to progress, and that getting kids to attend school is the way to deliver literacy to a community. But the more I looked into this issue within China, the more I found literacy, schooling, development and ethnic identity to be uneasily and unsuccessfully linked.

In a cross-post series with the China Beat, I’m discussing the benefit to development work which can come from understanding that literacy is not a set of skills independently learnt regardless of context. In Part 1, I explain what literacy means to linguists and make the point that, unless the linguistic understanding informs literacy campaigns they may have limited success or perpetuate development as a form of dominance. This post brings that argument into the Middle Kingdom.

China is the world’s second largest economy yet sees itself as developing (as fellow whydev writer Pip Brandt noted). This seems fair enough when you’re here: there is a serious and obvious disparity in development between China’s East and West regions. It’s very clear to the Chinese government, so redressing the development imbalance is a government priority.

For the non-Sinophile reader, some necessary background facts:

  • Language and education policies are centrally controlled in China. putonghua (literally, ‘common language’), known in English as Mandarin, has been the national language since the 1950s. It’s also called han yu (‘Han Language’).
  • Han Chinese comprise 92 percent of the population. But, China has 55 other officially recognised ethnic minority groups, who occupy about 50 percent of the Chinese territory, which are the country’s least-developed areas.
  • Education is a development focus as illiteracy rates for most minority-language children are significantly higher than their Han counterparts.
  • Officially, Mandarin is the language of instruction only from Grade 3 in minority regions but discrimination against both minority cultures and their languages exists, in classrooms, in school administration, and beyond. Plus, there’s a strong centripetal force in China: ‘harmonious’ nation-building is an inescapable urge prevailing against ethnic diversity.
A New York Times map of China’s ethnic minorities

Despite international evidence  of a positive correlation between progress in first language literacy and in second language literacy, many minority children in China do not get to develop first-language  literacy. Many academics report that bilingual education in China is falling short in practice, despite legal requirements for bilingual primary schooling in minority areas. Practical constraints including shortages of minority language teaching resources and bilingual teachers are key reasons, though there is often an undertow of unhelpful opinions on the worthlessness of minority languages. This is affecting children’s individual  progression –  most have to pass written exams in Mandarin to enter university, and cannot do so, which limits employment and social mobility – but lack of either minority language or Mandarin literacy is also affecting their community’s human capital and development overall. This also affects the literacy and attitude to schooling of younger generations, as is becoming apparent in the current crop of youngsters: illiteracy is increasing in many areas.

It helps to break down China’s minority-language communities into three categories (following University of Maryland’s Minglang Zhou):

  • Category 1 – those that had functional writing systems broadly used before 1949 and have had regular bilingual education since: I call these the Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled group;
  • Category 2 – those that had functional writing systems narrowly used before 1949 but have had only occasional bilingual education since: Kind of Bi-Literate, Kind of Bi-Schooled;
  • Category 3 – those that had no fully functional writing systems before 1949 and have been educated almost entirely in Mandarin since: the Mando-Only group.

Case studies from all three categories illustrate how cultural identity factors can work against literacy.

 “Literacy cannot require that the reading of the word be done in the colonizer’s language”

So wrote Paulo Freire, a radical educator from Brazil, the proponent of  a global movement called Emancipatory Literacy.  It appears that Freirian ideas on colonisation through language have not impacted on Chinese literacy policy. Studies of the Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled group and the Kind of Bi group reveal interplays between literacy and development that suggest literacy is not an autonomous, functional instrument (backing up linguistic theory). For instance, Zhou’s 2000 data shows Tibetans (Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled) have very high Mandarin illiteracy rates (69.39%:). In contrast, in other Bi-Literate, Bi-Schooled areas, illiteracy rates are below or on par with the Han (at 21.53%). What is different for Tibetans? Bilingual schooling has not been as consistent in Tibet, and the ability of the minority to use its language in official settings or to assert its culture has been comparatively restricted. Many Tibetans now speak English as their second language (but not as many read and write it). This enables them to trade with tourists and promote political causes to a wider audience than Mandarin Chinese would. They also continue to speak and write Tibetan because it is unique and special to them.

The academics Wang and Phillion report that

“few texts [in schools in Chinese minority-language regions] discuss minority experiences or concerns; none addresses struggles with poverty or economic and education inequalities”.

They give an example of a learn-to-read book whose story is about the Tibetan minority being thankful for the support of the Han, who are responsible for them.  Wang and Phillion’s criticism of such learn-to-read materials probably strikes a chord (a pretty clanging one at that) for readers coming from or working with minority communities:

“The dominant ideology, as a result, is reproduced and instilled in minority students. Han knowledge, Han culture, and Mandarin Chinese represent advancement, science, and truth; minority knowledge, culture, and language, on the other hand, are represented as backward, unscientific, and not worth learning”.

I suggest literacy in both Tibetan and English is a conscious act of maintaining non-Han culture, which explaisn this minority language community’s comparatively low Mandarin literacy rates, and the broader school attrition rates in the region, as schooling, with its Mandarin instruction, is associated with the Central Government.

The Kind of Bi category has the highest census-reported Mandarin illiteracy rates. Why, given that schooling is in Mandarin in these communities? Many of these communities have a traditional script and a missionary-introduced alphabet script, using the former in cultural rituals and elite circles, and the latter in religious activities. For instance, in Muslim North-West China, written Arabic is used for religious practices. These scripts are not associated with the school domain. My analysis is that, when bilingual schooling doesn’t happen in practice this causes students to learn in their second language without the advantage of first language-to-second language transfer years, and second language literacy is hindered (along with other basic skills which are the content of those early years’ classes, classes not fully comprehensible to Mandarin learners). In these Kind of Bi-Literate communities, schooling isn’t building upon pre-existing literacy at all. It is analogous to the lower-class students in the developed world, whose formal literacy is often below average: poverty itself doesn’t make children unable to learn to read and write.  Instead, the issue is the lack of correspondence between their home life and school literacy practices.

In contrast to the groups above, the data on most Mando-Only  communities shows a reduction in Mandarin illiteracy, supporting my hypothesis that those for whom literacy in another language or script is not a feature of their cultural identity are more receptive to Mandarin literacy, because literacy does not play as strongly into identity.

As I noted with the Tibetan example, focusing on schooled literacy to deliver development outcomes may run into troubles problem when school itself  is perceived as culture-imposing, and this  is an issue not only in areas of obvious cultural clash like Tibet. Singapore recently reformed the teaching of Mandarin reading and writing skills. In this context, the Singaporean Minister for Chinese Language said,

“We started the wrong way…We had teachers who were teaching in completely-Chinese schools. And they did not want to use any English to teach English-speaking children Chinese and that turned them off completely”.

This is a dramatic testimony to the negative effects on literacy when schooling ignores home languages. In rural China, the home language is not prestigious, unlike English in Singapore. In more stable but under-developed areas of China, discrimination against minority-language groups may be felt in small doses but on many fronts. One can imagine that students taught in government-sanctioned Mandarin being turned off literacy even more quickly than the Singaporeans. Further, poor experiences with Mandarin literacy can cause students to generalise and reject all literacy, even in their community’s language, as literacy is so closely associated with school, and school with unwelcome authority and suppression of identity.  Not learning becomes  passive resistance against the powerful, though it is self-defeating as those without literacy, or education, will struggle to achieve their own power and voice in China.


Through the lens of China, we can see more clearly how literacy can affirm or undermine cultural identity for minorities. Many of China’s least-developed communities understand literacy as a social practice and in terms of identity construction, however, national policy is underpinned by an understanding of literacy as functional and autonomous of context and community. If literacy is being used as a key instrument of development, but social realities are not integrated into education policy, development is less successful and the benefits of development less equally shared. Perhaps more support for minority language in China will help even up the development, as the Government wants, rather than entrench diversity, as the Government fears.


[This is an  edited version of a cross-post. The full piece is on The China Beat]

Literacy in development: economics and social sciences converge, uneasily (part 1)

Intuitively, lots of policy-makers assume literacy is crucial for development, but it’s an increasingly interesting site of convergence between two major disciplines underpinning development work: economics and ethnographic social science, because the inadequacy of a simplistic understanding of literacy is more and more apparent.

The topic piqued my interest during some recent academic research, and I’d like to give people a window into the debate. I’ll follow up with an analysis of how literacy is under-utilised in development policy, using China as a case study, in a second post in this series (that one’s more punchy, less scholarly, trust me). We’d love your case studies or comments on literacy-related development work too.

Education, and particularly literacy, is a central preoccupation in domestic governments’ approaches to poverty and regional development, in international relations and for the international agencies like UNESCO and UNDP. But the place of literacy within development is under-theorised. Let’s review the central goals and principles of development and what is meant by literacy in this context (chances are, your definition of literacy can be expanded).

A narrow, conventional understanding of literacy sees it as skills of reading and writing existing “autonomously”, to be taught independently of learners’ lives. However, more recent scholars question whether “literacy is a ‘universal’ skill that is devoid of class specificity” (Maddox 2001:144) and, as Bryan Maddox points out, this “has implications for understanding the role of literacy in economic and social development”.

These scholars are part of the ‘New Literacy’ school. They criticise functional literacy because literacy is not “an independent variable that can be separated from social context” (Street 1999:35). Their understanding of literacy sees it as a set of social practices inferred from events mediated by written texts i.e. much more than just the standard reading and writing skills on the school syllabus. It is important to New Literacy scholars to note the different forms of power which affect what counts as ‘literacy’, who uses literacy, and for what purposes. This analysis of power is highly relevant when understand literacy’s role in development, as a major concern of development is redressing power inequalities.

As the DEV Blog noted on 2011’s World Literacy Day,

“UNESCO statistics tell us that there are some 796 million adults who cannot read and write.  These figures are an important reminder of global literacy inequalities…[however] They are imprecise, and tell us little about what it means to be literate, or to have ‘enough’ literacy.”

There is not yet any great accord between linguists and development policy-makers on the meaning and purposes of literacy.  Anna Robinson-Pant (2008: 779-796) gives an interesting first-hand account of the tensions that arose when she was part of the team writing a recent UNESCO Global Monitoring Report on literacy, and how this tension undermines development work:

“The starting point – and undisputed assumption – for many policy discussions is that literacy (or schooling) is a ‘good thing’ and the terms are often used synonymously with ‘education’. By problematising ‘literacy’ and presenting evidence that literacy (and schooling) interventions do not always lead to greater equality or positive social change, the researcher can be seen as the opposing voice in a policy debate that is polarised around evidence ‘for’ (or against) literacy.” (Robinson-Pant 2008:781)

Narrow and broad development

And now to ‘development’: there is a division between seeing development narrowly as the economic advancement of a people towards the market economies characteristic of the developed world, and broad progress towards empowered lives for people, including affirmation of their culture, political voice, and economic progress that can be sustained over generations. The dominant view in development policy-making is an “instrumental view of policy as rational problem solving” (Robinson-Pant 2008:780) and this favours policy using literacy (narrowly understood) as an instrument.

In contrast, the “critical view [of development] sees policy as a rationalising discourse concealing hidden purposes of bureaucratic power or dominance, in which the true political intent of development hidden behind a cloak of rational planning” (Robinson-Pant 2008:780). Power dynamics of decision-making in development and the need for increasingly empowered grassroots communities has been discussed from other angles on whydev before (+here, here). From this perspective, policies about literacy have to have a broader base, taking into account the social practices of literacy.

There is an increasing reclamation of development policy and practice by developing countries’ governments and grassroots organisations, so that development does not continue as another form of exploitation or paternalism. Formal, schooled literacy is an ill-fit with this view. Rather, literacy is developed as a community resource and to amplify political voice. The role of literacy in creating, affirming, or denying cultural identity comes into play here. In many countries, this is particularly relevant to minority-language communities.

Drawing together two literatures

An ‘ethnographic perspective’ on literacy has not sat comfortably with the largely economics-centred discipline of development studies because linguists document literacies rather than evaluating or participating in social change (Basu et al 2008:770,772). From a development modelling perspective, however, the social practices of literacy are externalities and the full value of these externalities is not often tapped.

To illustrate, consider this typical example: a scholar called Minglang Zhou (2000) notes adults’ formal illiteracy has had a negative impact on formal literacy across the whole Lahu minority-language community in South China. It’s this kind of scenario economists describe as a vicious cycle:

“Illiteracy in one generation means poverty for that generation, which in turn means an inability to educate the children, thereby giving rise to another generation of illiterate adults and the cycle is ready to be repeated, trapping a whole dynasty in low human capital” (Basu et al 2008:773).

Linguists, in contrast, are likely to document the scenario and comment that the Lahu have social practices which do not involve many literacy events.

Zhou contrasts the Lahu to the neighbouring Naxi, who have above-average formal literacy. He suggests this is due to successful adult literacy campaigns in the 1950s, but his doesn’t analyse how adult literacy differently affected younger generations in these two communities. That is exactly the insight an ethnographic account could give. That insight could be key to working out how to improve literacy campaigns or analysing what is stopping development policy achieving its goals in Lahu communities.

Naxi written script

Despite the tension over what literacy means, in recent years Robinson-Pant and others have laid good ground work to integrate literacy studies into the development studies discipline: she, Bryan Maddox and Kaushik Basu edited a special issue of the prominent Journal of Development Studies in 2008 (vol.44 no.6). Maddox’s earlier work is an engaging read about his involvement with literacy and development projects in Bangladeshi villages.

The LETTER Project (Learning for Empowerment Through Training in Ethnographic Research), which began in India, is a good example of this cross-over scholarship being put into practice. It’s

“a training programme that brings together ethnographic approaches to researching local literacies and educational approaches to learning and curriculum development…such an approach is more effective, for the gap between what is learned in the classroom and what is practised at home is now being used as a tool of learning, not an obstacle to learning.”  (Rogers and Street, 2011).

What is important is that development work supports people who are formally illiterate to increase their capability to live more fulfilling and self-directed lives. This involves not only improving literacy, but just as importantly, breaking down the perceptions amongst both the ‘illiterate’ and ‘literate’ that illiteracy is a sign of stupidity, that illiteracy in a national language is a sign of the innate backwardness of a minority group, or that the lack of a script in a minority language is a sign of a minority group’s inherent inability to become literate. These perceptions often pervade minority group members’ self-image as strongly as they pervade the views of the dominant culture. Revealing and affirming existing micro-literacies beyond the classroom is a great place to start changing opinions. But even if the goal of development is not as broad as cultural affirmation, reading and writing classes should take into account the students’ various cultural purposes for literacy, simply in order that teaching be more relevant, and therefore more successful.


References and Suggestions (+links to author bios)

This list of publications of the University of East Anglia’s Literacy and Development Group

Barton, David and Hamilton, Mary (1998). ‘Understanding literacy as social practice’ in Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community. London: Routledge.

Barton, David (2007). Literacy. An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language (2nd edition), Malden, MA: Blackwell

Basu, KaushikMaddox, Bryan & Robinson-Pant, Anna (2008). ‘Literacies, Identities and Social Change: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Literacy and Development’, Journal of Development Studies, 44:6, 769-778.

Freire, Paulo & Macedo, Donaldo (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, London GB: Routlege and Kegan Paul Ltd.

Grant, Rachel A & Wong, Shelley D (2003). ‘Barriers to literacy for language-minority learners: An argument for change in the literacy education profession’ Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46:5 pp386–394.

Gray, W.S. (1956). The Teaching of Reading and Writing: an International Survey. Paris: UNESCO.

Iversen, Vegard & Palmer-Jones, Richard (2008). ‘Literacy Sharing, Assortative Mating, or What? Labour Market Advantages and Proximate Illiteracy Revisited’ Journal of Development Studies, 44:6, pp 797–838.

Maddox, BryanEsposito, Lucio (2011). ‘Sufficiency Re-examined: A Capabilities Perspective on the Assessment of Functional Adult Literacy’, Journal of Development Studies, 47:9, pp1315-1331.

Maddox, Bryan (2001). ‘Literacy and the market: The economic uses of literacy among the peasantry in north-west Bangladesh’. In Brian Street (ed.) Literacy and development: Ethnographic perspectives. London: Routledge, pp137-51.

Robinson-Pant, Anna (2008). ‘ “Why Literacy Matters”: Exploring A Policy Perspective on Literacies, Identities and Social Change’, Journal of Development Studies, 44:6, pp779-796.

Rogers, Alan & Street, Brian (2011). ‘Using Ethnographic Approaches to Understanding and Teaching Literacy: Perspectives from both Developing and Western Contexts’, Viden om Læsning (Knowledge About Reading) special issue ,World Literacy Day 8 Sept 2011: ‘Jorden læser (Literacy Around the World)’.

Sen, Amartya K (1985). Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Street, Brian (1999). ‘The meanings of literacy’ in D Wagner, R Venezky and B Street (eds.) Literacy: An International Handbook, Colorado: Westview Press, pp34–42.

Tong, Ho Kin & Cheung, Lin Hong (2011). ‘Cultural identity and language: a proposed framework for cultural globalisation and glocalisation’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 32:1, pp55-69.

Wang, Yuxiang & Phillion, JoAnn (2009). ‘Minority Language Policy and Practice in China: The Need for Multicultural Education’ International Journal of Multicultural Education, 11:1, pp1-14.

Zhou, Minglang (2000). ‘Language Policy and Illiteracy in Ethnic Minority Communities in China’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 21:2, 129-148.

Zhou, Minglang (2001). ‘The Politics of Bilingual Education and Educational Levels in Ethnic Minority Communities in China’, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4:2, 125-149

The price of freedom is not eternal vigilante-ism

The development of civil society in China is happening largely on internet microblogs. With limited civil society infrastructure but individual-friendly technology, this is easily understood. China’s public discourse and government accountability can’t progress far without institutions of civil society.

The recent Red Cross Society of China (RCSC ) scandal ablaze on Weibo (Chinese Twitter) is a good example of why. It highlights how quickly internet vigilance slips into internet vigilante action (or, coining an electronic age term, vigilant-e action).


The Red Cross malarkey


A young Chinese woman, Guō Měiměi, posted photos draped over her Maserati on her Sina Weibo microblog while claiming to be General Manager of a Red Cross marketing arm, “Red Cross Commerce”. Quickly, Chinese netizens did some hacking and found the stench of nepotism and the corrupt siphoning of charity funds, because Miss Guō  is from a down-at-heel family herself yet owns multiple luxury cars and packs a whole lot of glam. They allege she is the daughter or the mistress of RCSC vice-president Guō Changjiang, or his son’s girlfriend, or the step-daughter of the chair of the Tian Lue Group, a corporation associated with RCSC, or that guy’s mistress…

RCSC claims there is no Red Cross Commerce, and that a ‘Red Cross Chamber of Commerce’ exists but doesn’t control any of the charitable funds which RCSC receives. (RCSC’s official statement also notes Red Cross Commerce’s operations are now suspended and that RCSC has invited in investigators.) Miss Guō retracted her job description and defended it as a joke. But private and media microblogs continue to allege embezzlement in dealings between RCSC and some affiliated corporations. There’s more detail on the close dealings here and here.  The story has just hit international news, with the BBC reporting Ms Guō’s boyfriend has resigned from another Chinese Red Cross commercial enterprise, after coming under fire from management for giving Ms Guō her many luxurious possessions.

Australian alternative news medium Crikey notes “It hasn’t helped RCSC’s cause that it was just recovering from the internet posting in April of what was claimed to be an invoice showing the society’s Luwan branch in Shanghai had spent 9859rmb ($1524) on a meal, or 500rmb a head”. I’ll come back to this, because it showcases the spectrum of utility of internet postings. This article doesn’t dispute that there are issues RCSC must face up to.

As more and more netizens joined the online hunt for Miss Guō and her credibility, they also joined to physically descend on Beijing airport when Miss Guō was to fly overseas. It’s unclear whether this was simply a show of vehement disapproval, or an attempt to stop her freedom of movement.

The Vigilant-e and Development

Vigilantes are, by definition, undesirable. The difference between vigilance and vigilante-ism is this: vigilance is keen scrutiny by citizens of power and those who use it, in China’s context particularly to keep government corruption in check. In other countries, where the phase ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’ hails from, the scrutineers were less concerned with corruption and more concerned by enemy incursions (historically) and by abuse of State power for oppression (nowadays). Anyhoo. Vigilantes differ in that they take the law into their own hands, and the label ‘vigilante’ generally connotes a querulous, rebellious rabble. Vigilante-ism is not the kind of action that reflects, or engages in, or nourishes, informed public debate. But that kind of public debate is exactly what civil society needs to progress.

So this vigilant-e action creates two harms (at least). One, it distracts and distorts public discussion, like a royal wedding in a republic debate. Two, it encourages people to unite outside of the law rather than encouraging people to unite inside law and in support of the regulation of power in society by law (otherwise known as The Rule of Law). In the bigger trajectory of development, the establishment of a Rule of Law is important. But it is also essential that it be organic: the people have to mold the content of their laws and adopt a mindset of following them. Vigilant-e conduct, while exciting (maybe because it’s exciting) only forms habits of casting the law aside.

Information and Clamour

Uninformed debate is not that useful. A fair bit of online ‘vigilance’ is chains of aggressive chat, waxing speculation and assertion of voice for its own sake.

In countries where there are few institutionalized outlets to participate in public discourse, and recriminations for many discussants, it’s no wonder people feel their voice is stifled. But this also causes something of a fermenting-exploding phenomenon, whereby angry people get really heated up online and stray into pretty extreme territory on less-than-extreme topics. You know it, you’ve all closed a window of screeching comments after a news article at some point.

The online watchmen are at least partly a self-selecting bunch, not necessarily representative of the masses despite the appeal of conflating the netizenry and citizenry.  I’m certainly not saying plural opinions are bad, but just because an opinion is expressed online doesn’t mean it is a considered opinion, or that it is expressed for appropriate reasons. Some people fixed on an issue will perform their perceived role with knee-jerk alacrity. As one microblogger says of Miss Guō’s case, “China itself is now a society with hatred of the rich. Once cyber manhunt launches, it becomes even more rampant.” Morally, it’s not fine to hate the rich just because they’re rich, but more crucially to the development of civil society, that energy needs to be directed away from manhunts scape-goating shiny individuals and directed to the system in order to to change how money and power are distributed. At a stretch, you could say this RCSC frenzy has galvanized people against corruption, but really, who wasn’t against corruption already?

In terms of any particular public debate and the overarching, general credibility of public debate, polemics based on misinformation and gossip are dangerous substitutes for informed points of view.

And if informed points of view are hard to come by?

What would be much more useful are institutions that allow greater accountability to the public and better public discussion. For example, freedom of information laws so that civil society can deal with the substance of key social issues rather than getting worked up over the shadows and the hype. Freedom of information laws are institutionalized, so they inject some rigour into the process of keeping a government accountable. Remember, the RCSC is a quasi-government organisation, so government accountability measures could have been a much bigger part of this online debate that which flight Ms Guō might be taking. Active anti-corruption agencies are another institution, or rules and methods for independent auditing of charitable institutions.

And, critically here, institutions of free media, rather than a microbloging diaspora. Media institutions can develop the information-gathering resources, skills and clout that microbloggers cannot. They are crucial for progress in civil society. It is a couple of larger newspapers whose investigations have brought detailed financial information caused real strain for Red Cross Commerce and related corporations. While these papers’ investigation germinated in microblogs, this is a good illustration of how institutions of civil society (here, media) are essential and much more powerful than many microbloggers.

Some of these are clearly a little pie in the sky for China right now, but internet vigilant-es are not a long term substitute, and, in fact, can inhibit the development of such civil society institutions because they don’t use the power of combined voice to push for structural changes, including institution-building, but they do obscure the need for such changes.

As mentioned near the top, the RCSC got online attention earlier this year because of an online posting of an extravagant bill for a lunch it hosted. This consequential discussion did bring to light the lack of independent auditing and confidential accounting at RCSC. This could have been a lightning rod for public momentum demanding change to institutions to create independent auditors and impose accountability rules across a number of large charitable and semi-government organisations. But it wasn’t. And pressure for practical changes like independent auditing is absent from the posts about RCSC’s recent scandal. Debate is evanescent in the microblog world.

Loony Eclipse

Tide of public opinion is pulled by the loonies. Scandal and celebrity are the engines of online opinion and discussion. Miss Guō’s microblog following is topping 108,000 people now, after being a few hundred till scandal broke. We cannot rely on microblogging to identify the best issues for public debate and must be wary that it has no head, or centre, to make strategic decisions about which civil society action will have the greatest long-term impact.

'Baby' Guō Měiměi microblog

Microblogging has evolved from the entertainment and communications industries (now so entwined), not from investigative journalism or check-and-balance institutions. That doesn’t mean microbloggers have no role to play now that they find themselves functioning as an accountability mechanism, but they remain highly vulnerable to hijacking by powerful interests and to being victims of misinformation. Some say this was a stunt by Miss Guō. We hit the age-old problem of the watchdog:  who watches the watch dog (for Latin-loving canes: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes)? This concern is particularly relevant when the watchdogs are disparate, often anonymous, unregulated.

Harm v Harm

Finally, the Red Cross, too, is a civil society player. By slaying it on the altar of vigilant-e action, does China end up with any progress in public debate or accountability? The answer is, ‘online: not really’, as the hackers and bloggers aren’t asking for any systematic anti-corruption measures to be implemented, and ‘offline: certainly not’ given the harm done to Red Cross and its ilk. This beguiling, blogging force tars with the same brush those institutions who have managed to establish roles for themselves as non-government actors, particularly in the development and charitable works sectors.  Blogs are reporting that many would-be-donators have decided to boycott RCSC (e.g. China Red Cross clusterf*cked by 20-year-old brat); though RCSC may deserve the suspicion, the distrust isn’t limited to RCSC. If there are broader flaws with the organisations participating in civil society in China, then institutional changes are needed. But when it comes to fixing the broader problems, or adding really useful contributions to public debate itself, microblogging has a way to go.

Hardly one bad Apple spoiling the bunch

A case study on the development of Chinese occupational health and safety law

Apple again hit the news in late February over poor working conditions in its supply chain. At least 137 workers in an assembly plant in Suzhou, China, which supplies Apple with touch screens, have nerve damage from exposure to n-hexane. And the reports can’t help but mention Apple’s last supply chain scandal, when a plague of suicides hit its supplier Foxconn’s factory in 2010. But from my perspective, working in a labour law legal aid and research centre in Beijing, this recent story isn’t bad news.

If anything, it’s a relief to hear of one international corporation bothering to audit safety conditions – goodness knows the government inspections do little to improve occupational health and safety here. And this recent Apple saga provides an example of an employer complying with legal obligations to purchase workplace injury insurance for workers. It may as well be the only complying employer, given the tide of uninsured, injured workers my colleagues have to battle for every day in court!

Sure, Apple is ultimately responsible, morally, for the harm to these 137 workers. But that doesn’t absolve the supplier corporation, who in this recent case is Wintek. Wintek shoulders its own moral obligations, and has failed to meet them. It also looks to have failed to meet its legal obligations to workers. And the media storm barely points the finger at the other internationally recognised brands using this same factory. They don’t seem to have responded to the lax safety in the way Apple has. (Even if it is 2 years late: the injuries first came to light in 2009 and workers conducted a strike earlier in 2010 but there was no response from Apple or Wintek, according to Hong Kong group Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, as reported in the New York Times ). Cnet News quotes Apple, saying, “40 percent of the suppliers audited said Apple was the first company to ever have audited their facilities”, despite the fact that many large consumer electronic producers share these suppliers.

A legal aid lawyer talks to a client about a workplace injury (N.B. not sustained at Apple's supplier factory)

Nokia certainly hasn’t made itself accountable to consumers over supply chain incidents in the way the Apple has with its public, annual supplier responsibility reports. (The BBC names Nokia and HTC as fellow users of Wintek’s Suzhou factory.) This is despite Nokia claiming it, as a responsible a corporate player, sends assessors to most of its supplier factories.

Which brings us to the role of Chinese regulations. We shouldn’t assume supply chain safety will be regulated effectively by big-name, international chain heads alone. The workers in a supply chain are employed by any number of intermediate companies flying right under the radar, like Wintek. The Wintek’s of the world have no Western consumer-base breathing down their necks. And they are operating internationally, so they don’t have a home government scrutinizing their workplaces either. The country they operate in has a huge role to play in using its laws to ensure safe workplaces. I anticipate scoffing readers here: as if China has workplace safety legislation. But it does. The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Prevention and Control of Occupational Diseases (call it the ‘Law on Occupational Diseases’) has been in force since 2002. Let’s walk through Wintek’s possible contraventions.

Legal Breaches

Workers at Wintek’s factory say they had masks and protective glasses. This at least partially fulfills an obligation under the Law on Occupational Diseases to “take measures to ensure that the workers receive occupational health protection” (art. 4).  Wintek’s failing was poor ventilation: when it upgraded from alcohol to n-hexane for screen cleaning, it didn’t upgrade the ventilation. N-hexane is vastly more noxious than alcohol when inhaled. Given art. 5 of the same statute says the employer shall “bear responsibility for the occupational disease hazards produced in the unit”, Wintek is liable, regardless of the prudent provision of goggles and masks, because the hazard was still produced.

Or another company – unnamed, unknown – is liable.

The Law on Occupation Disease binds the employer only. Wintek may contract out to a local company to employ the Chinese workers. Yet another link in the supply chain. Wintek is certainly acting as though it accepts its position as employer, but details available publically don’t pinpoint the exact corporation employing the poisoned workers. In fact, most media reporting discusses Apple as if it were the employer, but it is certainly not.

Finding the correct employer, and proving an employment relationship, are particularly onerous tasks for Chinese workers, especially as liability doesn’t seem carry over with a change of business ownership. To get the official medical certification of a workplace injury (as required for compensation claims), the employee has to prove their employment. But keeping comprehensive business records simply isn’t common in China. Moreover, my colleagues tell me time and again of cases where the employer refuses to provide the documentation even when they do have it. They deny the employment relationship and effectively scuttle workers’ compensation claims. It’s a simple sidestep round legal liability in the march to mercantile success.

Strike two: Wintek didn’t tell workers the new cleaning solution was dangerous. In fact, really dangerous: Jia Jingchuan, one of the technicians, was hospitalised for 8 months with nerve damage caused by the n-hexane exposure. Workers’ n-hexane poisoning symptoms included extreme fatigue (imagine not being able to button up a jacket), intense headaches, dizziness, and numb limbs.

This lack of information is a distinct contravention of the law, even if Wintek itself didn’t realise the harm: “The employer shall know the occupational disease hazards produced by the … materials it employs; if it conceals the fact that … materials produce occupational disease hazards and employs them, it shall bear responsibility for the consequences of the hazards” (art. 29). In this provision, Chinese law-makers are putting an onus on employers to check for possible hazards before using a technology or material, and ensuring that keeping a hazard secret doesn’t assist an employer to escape liability. This is coupled with a worker’s right (under art. 36) to know of hazardous factors, their consequences and necessary precautions.

Whether Wintek (or Apple) think acquiring such knowledge is an unreasonable burden may be a matter for discussion with legislators, but so long as art. 29 stands, being ignorant of the danger of n-hexane is no excuse for Wintek. In any case, Wintek has never suggested that injuries caused by n-hexane were a complete surprise. Apple contends that 300,000 workers and another 6,000 supervisors have been trained in workplace safety in the last two years. Commendable, but it’s problematic if such large scale training still doesn’t create a culture where factory managers bother to check the danger a new chemical presents, or tell workers’ about it. And yet behaving responsibly towards workers’ is not a new idea for Wintek, whose Chairman says it “is committed to providing a safe and just work environment, upholding the rights of its personnel and fulfilling its social responsibilities as a corporate citizen.” Apple pledges to monitor the implementation of corrective actions at Wintek’s factory, but can it work out why a safety-conscious culture isn’t taking root?

Wintek says the workers’ medical costs and some compensation were paid out of work-related injury insurance. This is a pleasant surprise.  In China, the government is the insurer in such arrangements and the employer has a legal obligation to a buy an insurance policy in respect of its workers. A recent survey by Yilian, a Chinese legal aid centre, found 55.9% of surveyed injured workers did not receive their last medical insurance payment, and only 46.8% had work-related injury insurance, despite it being mandatory.  In this regard Wintek is a good example, and justified in touting the insurance pay outs in media stories about the n-hexane poisoning. 1 in 5 injured workers in China has industrial poisoning, according to the Yilian Centre’s Occupational Survey Report 2011 (19.1%, for exacting readers). Do you think 1 in 5 employers are providing adequate insurance for compensation post injury?

Yilian Center holds a press conference to launch the Occupation Survey Report February 2011

If it is Apple’s leverage that caused Wintek to comply with the work-related injury insurance obligations, then this also exemplifies how international brands can better achieve safe supply chain workplaces when armed with specific awareness of local legal obligations: their pressure on suppliers can be targeted, their expectations made clearer.

As for the technician, Mr Jia should have been paid his salary while in hospital, in monthly installments. Such payment is entirely absent from Apple and Wintek’s defence of how workers were treated. It’s fantastic that he received some compensation and medical costs, but his and his dependents’ everyday costs need to be funded too, and that’s what these regulations are for. The Yilian Centre’s Occupational Survey Report 2011 reveals that the typical injured worker is male, in his 30s, has migrated from elsewhere in China for mining or manufacturing  work, and was remitting wages to dependents in rural China.  Thus, the chances are Mr Jia’s salary supported a number of people and, after covering medical costs, the compensation payment won’t stretch far enough.

Art. 50 obliges Wintek to reassign these workers with occupational injuries, and to make proper arrangements for their work. Instead, reports say Wintek pressured the workers to resign and accept cash settlements. The terms of these cash settlements reputedly release Wintek from future liabilities. It is in this regard that Wintek’s response (and Apple’s) seemed particularly callow. Getting a liability release as part of a dispute settlement is hardly a new trick, but these workers are particularly vulnerable to being done over in the deal. Wintek denied these claims to the NY Times. The same paper also reported that signing a release is no longer being put to workers as an essential part of their resignation. Hopefully, this is true. Wintek would be sailing close to the wind in forcing workers to resign. Nevertheless, I doubt the workers would litigate under this provision to return to their jobs, given the costs, exhaustion and uncertainty.

And what of the ongoing health effects for Mr Jia and his coworkers? N-hexane poisoning doesn’t go away. The Telegraph quotes a worker, Guo Ruiqiang, saying  “We are unable to cope with the medical costs of treatment in the future” and notes his fresh symptoms. Chinese law specifically deals with such recrudescence: Reg. 38 states that “where a worker who suffered from a work-related injury but recrudesces from the past injury, and is confirmed to be in need of cure, he shall enjoy the treatment of work-related injuries provided for in Articles 30, 32 and 33” (those regulations entail payment from the work-related injury insurance fund and some salary continuance while off work).  So if Wintek and Apple continue their (relatively new) responsible response, future medical costs should not be a concern for the injured workers. But it might be helpful if they knew this! A reaction like Guo’s certainly suggests there is little faith down in Suzhou that Wintek and the government insurance fund will be supportive if workers return with fresh n-hexane poisoning symptoms.

Entirely new poisoning cases are unlikely as the use of n-hexane at Wintek’s factory ceased. In this regard, the law has been obeyed. If Wintek fails to make rectification after a government slap on the wrist, only then will it be fined – up to RMB200,000 (US$30,400), the retail cost of 133 basic i-Touches. As Apple is not the employer, it is unlikely to be fined at all.

Current Law Reform

The National People’s Congress has “Occupational Disease Prevention Law” slated for its law reform program for 2010-2012. In August 2010, China’s  State Council Legislative Affairs Office released to the public the draft amendments to this legislation. At the time of writing, the Chinese legislature has just met (the annual National People’s Congress, alongside the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference). This was evidenced, among other events, by a reinforcing of the Great Firewall and immense difficulties accessing email and social network accounts. The outcome is that further modifications to occupational disease prevention laws are scheduled for this year, but will there be progress or simply change? What this Apple case shows is that even a relatively well-scrutinised supplier and an international brand already under pressure over workplace conditions still achieve only partial compliance with workplace safety laws. Law enforcement needs to be bolstered.

The Yilian Center found increased safety precautions flowed from government safety inspections in only 40.9% of surveyed workers’ workplaces. This is despite health and safety failings, not because only 40.9% needed improved safety. The same survey found a mere 23.3% of respondents had some protective facilities in their workplace, despite the legal obligations on employers.

After decades of rapid development, the grave and large-scale toll on workers’ health is increasingly in the spotlight here in China. Workers and their families are increasingly taking action – legal class action, prohibited industrial action, blogosphere action – to secure compensation from the employers they claim so recklessly disregard their health. High profile government prosecution of employers for endangering workers is yet to come. Perhaps the Winteks of the world will start to feel the heat when Chinese safety law is refined in line with the National People’s Congress’s program, particularly if that reform includes improved enforcement or incentives for change in organisational culture.

Wintek isn’t a brand and so it is not vulnerable to a media maul, but its name is certainly known to its thousands of employees and an increasing Chinese readership. This case shows how the irresponsibility is very much Wintek’s, not just Apple’s. I hope in future we see suppliers held to popular and legal account, not merely the pillorying of Apple and its ilk. It is, as ever, clear that neither suppliers nor international supply chain leaders are willing to improve worker safety on moral grounds alone. China wastes a key way of influencing these companies if it lets safety laws languish unenforced, and shrugs off its responsibility to workers in the process.  Even the existing laws could have prevented this contamination of both workers and brands, if they were followed and upheld. That would keep the doctor away.