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.

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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

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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.

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4 Comments to “Literacy in development: economics and social sciences converge, uneasily (part 1)”

  1. valdaj says:

    That was a great read. Thanks Alexandra for all the references and suggestions.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good Guardian article on the inaugral World Literacy Summit at Oxford this week (April 2012): it outlines an increased focus on literacy measures, the costs to nations of illiteracy, but also the lack of diversity amongst those taking part in these discussions. Especially good point:
    “It’s not just a question of when and where education can be a good economic investment with a promising “rate of return,” but about really grappling with power and looking at how and why education rights are denied – and who’s benefiting from the denial.”
    https://apps.facebook.com/theguardian/global-development/poverty-matters/2012/apr/03/literacy-price-tag-economic-investing

  3. Carlie Rocco says:

    Thanks for opening my mind and getting me thinking about the 'cultural and social' characteristics of literacy. Will you be exploring these further in your next posts? Good to see such well-researched articles on whydev

    • Alex Grey says:

      Thanks Carlie. I will indeed be exploring these ideas in my next few posts (and hopefully some in the future, pending future research). If you have any interesting experiences with minority language communities in Yunnan, please let me know!