Tag Archives: China


Will the real humanitarians please stand up?

May I have your attention please?

155. The number of aid workers killed in 2013.

134. The number of aid workers kidnapped in 2013.

79. The number of aid workers who have already died in 2014.

@morealtitude has analysed the trends in security, and finds that between 2000 and 2013, 82% of aid worker fatalities were among national staff. International staff are at a higher risk of being kidnapped in a hostile environment, as the number of international aid workers kidnapped since 2000 has risen 1,218%. The security threat is largely confined to five countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria.

May I have your attention please?

Global Citizen, to mark World Humanitarian Day last week, released a link-bait list highlighting “30 humanitarians making zero poverty by 2030 possible.” It is an unusual list to say the least. The author, Michael Wilson, claims it’s in no particular order. However, Xi Jinping and Li Ruogu come in at #2 and #4 respectively. Xi Jinping is the successor to Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (not ‘President’). Xi’s leadership will focus on slower growth rates, social stresses and domestic political issues.

Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China
Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China

Li Ruogu heads the Export-Import Bank of China. Over the next 10 years, China will provide US$1 trillion of financing to the African continent, 70-80% of which will be provided by the Exim Bank. The region also received over 50% of China’s foreign aid allocation between 2010 and 2012. Both men’s efforts may contribute to making zero poverty by 2030 possible, but their intentions, motivations and goals are just as important.

The Communist Party of China’s “number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security.” That is, to remain in power. (Read Richard McGregor’s The Party for the clearest insight into how the government and Communist party function.)

Will the real humanitarian please stand up?

The term ‘humanitarian’ is quaint. It is an adjective that can qualify a noun or noun phrase – “The humanitarian situation in South Sudan is dire.” It is also a noun denoting a person – “The job of a humanitarian is exhausting.” Urban Dictionary describes a humanitarian as, “Someone very generous, and dedicated to the healing of the world. Or, if you want, someone who gives a shit about the planet.” Or, as one commenter cheekily replied, “someone who only eats vegans.”

The first humanitarian was the person who brought fire to life, and spent the rest of his/her life building the capacity of others to make fire.  In everyday dictionary-speak, it refers to a concern with seeking or promoting human welfare.  The Global Citizens’ 30 can all squeeze under this leaky roof.  Indeed, insurance salespeople can too.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s often quoted question asks, “What are you doing for others?”

The 30 are doing lots, but we have to ask how and why are they doing for the welfare of others. How and why do they give a shit about other people and the planet?

I repeat, will the real humanitarian please stand up?

This list is also in no particular order. It was made on the basis of identifying a small sample of those who embody the how and why of being humanitarian. That is, they exemplify how to promote human welfare and demonstrate a clear “why” for doing so, usually justice, humility and compassion.  Most importantly, they give a shit. Please add your contributions in the comments.

1. Jina Moore is a compassionate journalist covering women’s issues in African countries right now for mainstream media. Her narrative is at the same time intellectual and emotionally engaging. She has a deep respect for the people she writes about and does not steal their stories or take away their rights and dignity. These kinds of narratives are important, especially in humanitarian crises. The world needs more bridge builders like Jina.

2. Saaed Wame founded Namwera AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) of Malawi in 1996 with zero dollars, a heart for children facing the difficulties he had faced as a child and a vision for his community. Today, NACC has a US$100,000 annual budget, operating in 400+ villages in four districts in southern Malawi with 5,000 active volunteers. NACC has grown from strength to strength, adding programs and deepening its presence at the community level over the past 15 years. Saaed exhibits spirit, confidence and connectedness that are evident throughout NACC’s programs.

3. Mulugeta Gebru, founder of Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organization (JeCCDO), is a man of undying vision and perseverance. Grassroots-based organisations are part of the social fabric of the community in which children live and grow. When violence breaks out, a flood hits, or a case of abuse is discovered, committed people at the community level are the ones who snap into action to make sure kids are safe and cared for. This is why Mulugeta closed down JeCCDO’s orphanages that were operating across Ethiopia in favour of community-based care in 1996.

4. Roum Phearom’s organisation, Capacity Building for Disability Cooperation (CABDICO), is facing a funding crisis and is only able to pay her $200 a month. Recently, she was offered another job that would see her salary double. She turned it down. “I refused the job that paid more because I have had the opportunity to learn about speech therapy. That convinced me to stay.” Phearom works with children with disabilities in Cambodia, tirelessly visiting their homes each day to help them walk, talk and go to school. She has given up opportunities elsewhere to do the thing she loves the most, support children with disabilities to have a bright future.

5. The polio vaccination teams in Pakistan are known as the Lady Health Workers (LHW). It is a team of over 100,000 community workers, who have been delivering health services across Pakistan since 1994. More than 30 have been killed in the past two years alone, targeted by anti-government groups. They risk their lives each day for less than $5 a day. Despite the challenges of their work, research has shown that households served by LHW are 15 percentage points more likely to have children under the age of 3 immunised.

6. Kon Karapanagiotidis is the CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). I am also his fanboy. With more than 95% of its funding coming from the community and philanthropy, the centre is able to operate as a true advocate and firm voice for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. It also provides numerous services to over 1,200 asylum seekers, through the work of 30-odd staff and 800+ volunteers. Kon is the antithesis of “why bother?” and hopeslessness. I believe he embodies what it is to be a humanitarian: service, compassion, humility, passion and unwavering addiction to justice.

We’re gonna have a problem here if we keep fetishising and praising the efforts of the rich and powerful, and overlook the everyday service and commitment of real humanitarians.

Thank you to Weh Yeoh, Linda Raftree and Jennifer Lentfer for their recommendations.


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.


Another year down and no agreement in Doha trade talks

After more than a decade of trade talks under the Doha Development Round, the international community has nothing to show for its efforts. The talks broke down in 2008 and despite efforts to revive them there is still no agreement. Rather acrimonious finger-pointing from opposing countries has also soured the mood and further entrenched the stalemate. This signifies a failure to deliver potential welfare gains, across all WTO member nations, of an estimated US$120 billion.

When the Doha Round, dubbed the Development Round, was launched in 2001, the world was a very different place. Developing countries’ share of world trade was only 19.5% in 1996 as opposed to 41% in 2010, and these countries had considerably less clout in international politics. The talks were seen as a vehicle to empower developing countries through removing barriers to trade with developed countries.

Although 157 countries are party to the talks, negotiations have come down to a leadership group of countries and regions, the United States, European Union, China, India, Brazil, Japan and Australia. These countries are some of the key players in the trade of agricultural goods, which is the primary source of the disagreement. Eighteen items out of 20 on the agenda were agreed but the final two items, related to the trade of agricultural goods, could not be resolved.

Image Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)
Image Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

These items relate to US and EU subsidies of their farmers and access to developing countries’ markets for these goods. Countries such as India and China pushed for ‘safeguards’ of their markets, in the form of tariffs, which they could impose when imports of these subsidised agricultural products flooded their markets. Essentially, agreement could not be reached on what level at which this safeguard mechanism would be set.

It is widely acknowledged that developing countries have been disadvantaged in the past by the structure of the world trading system. The majority of rich countries established their wealth by protecting their domestic markets and promoting their industries via ‘infant industry’ policies, meaning providing investment and support to businesses and producers in the early stages of their development.

Industrial manufacturing in today’s developed world was strongly established by the late 1980′s, also establishing their competitive edge in the global economy. The other side of ‘infant industry’ policies, ‘investment’, is still most notably present today in rich countries in form of subsidies to farmers, particularly in the EU and the US.

Developing countries are under pressure to compete without such assistance to their industries or farmers whilst rich countries still reap the benefit of earlier use of such methods. It’s also now clear that developed countries have moved away from the principle of a ‘Development Round’, one which redresses these imbalances in the trading system and would benefit developing countries.

It is a great failure that the round collapsed, but its agenda was hugely ambitious, attempting to cover industrial goods, agriculture and services. Furthermore, discussions took place in a decade where global economic power has shifted more than at any other time in the last 100 years.

Still, development economists despair at the lack of agreement and have made it clear which nation is to blame. Jadish Bhagwati commented, “In short, the US killed Doha. Or at least put it into intensive care. The WTO Ministerial in November 2011 ended without concluding Doha, in defiance of all the efforts that leading scholars and statesmen worldwide had been making in its behalf”.

While agreement in these multilateral talks has been elusive, many nations are instead pursuing preferential trade agreements (PTA) which are less advantageous to all countries and particularly developing countries, which experience a power imbalance when negotiating such agreements. Bhagwati further commented, ‘and now, the US, not content with killing Doha, is even promoting the regional PTA called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, compounding its folly twice over’.

The importance of salvaging some agreement out of Doha cannot be overstated. According to the WTO, trade as a share of global GDP has risen from roughly 40% in 1980 to around 60% in 2012. During this time, trade has been a significant contributor to increasing economic growth and increasing prosperity in many developing countries.

The ‘Washington Consensus’, which advocated opening markets to trade and investment, was preached to developing countries in the 1990s and 2000s and many have diligently undertaken liberalisation of their economies, including removing barriers to trade.

There is a strong case of ‘do as we say, not as we have done’ from the US and the EU. The US simply finds it too politically sensitive to cut subsidies to agricultural producers, which also double as strong lobby groups. When head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick pointed out the importance of a deal and urged the US to show leadership saying, “The world needs a global growth strategy and opening trade drives growth. We’ve seen it with proven effectiveness all throughout the past 60 or 70 years”.

The quagmire economies of EU and US could benefit from an agreement but is it the insecurity in those countries which makes an agreement even more unlikely. It seems clear now that officials have concluded that the ‘grand bargain’ originally intended from this round is not possible. In October 2012, the head of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, conceded, “It is now clear the goal of achieving a Doha package encompassing 20 topics among the WTO’s 157 members is out of reach in the short term. But in this difficult environment the possibility still exists of advancing in smaller steps”.

It’s clear that political leaders are now bypassing the Doha talks. At the World Economic Forum in January 2012, David Cameron called on Europe to bypass the Doha talks on a world free trade deal in favour of seeking separate agreements with the United States, Africa and other willing parties.

In 2013, negotiators must move to conclude talks on those topics which parties can agree. Agriculture accounts for only 10% of global trade in merchandise, but has been the sticking point for an overall agreement whereas merchandise trade of manufactured goods accounts for 55% of global trade.

Lamy has spoken of a Doha-lite agreement, the Australian Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, is advocating a ‘modest agreement’ by breaking the large agenda into smaller pieces and concluding each one separately, and the Economist has taken a similar approach, in a recent article, calling for a ‘Global Recovery Round’ again being broken into smaller chunks and allowing member nations to pick and choose which agreements to pursue.

As the global economy is still stalling, these kind of pragmatic steps really would be the least worst option. Rather than simply let multilateralism slide and protectionism rise, all parties have a lot to gain from even a partial resolution to the battle.



Tobacco, Poverty and the Need for Global Action

The recent High Court judgement in Australia upholding legislation to enforce plain packaging for tobacco products provides a good opportunity to look at the impacts of tobacco in low and middle income countries, and what’s needed to stem the tide of poverty and mortality they cause.

Image credit: iStock photo

It’s increasingly recognised that non communicable diseases (NCDs) are among the greatest threats to global public health. According to the WHO, in 2008 NCDs (consisting of cardio-vascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases , cancers, and diabetes) were responsible for 63% of all deaths worldwide. The key source for statistics on the burden of NCDs – the WHO’s Global Status Report on NCDs 2010 – presents clear evidence that NCDs primarily affect low and middle income countries. In 2008, 80% of all NCDs deaths occurred in low and middle income countries – an increase from 40% in 1990.

Tobacco use is a major driver of the NCD epidemic, and is one of the single biggest public health threats the world has ever seen. Tobacco causes around 6 million deaths each year, and ultimately kills around half of its users. 10% of people killed by tobacco aren’t even smokers – but instead are killed by exposure to second hand smoke. Importantly, 80% of all smokers are in low and middle income countries. Tobacco use isn’t only a health problem, but is actually a development issue. Tobacco users who die prematurely deprive their families of income, raise the cost of health care and hinder economic development. Money spent on tobacco would obviously be better spent on healthy food and education.

Over recent years there has been increased momentum in global tobacco control. In February 2005, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control came into force, and since then it has become one of the most widely embraced treaties in the United Nations’ history, with more than 170 Parties covering 87% of the world’s population. The WHO Framework Convention is an important contribution to global public health – it reaffirms the right of people to the highest standard of health, provides legal foundations for international health cooperation and sets high benchmarks for compliance.

Much more, however, is needed if we are to stall and reverse the growth in tobacco use and NCDs more broadly. One of the key elements of the tobacco threat, as countries like Australia recognise and address this problem, is that tobacco companies are adopting increasingly aggressive strategies to increase their infiltration of developing countries. In countries like China, India and Indonesia, overall rises in economic development have led to an increase in tobacco use. A good example of this is the Tobacco Asia Conference, which is scheduled to be held in Indonesia on 19 September 2012.  A coalition of civil society groups came out strongly against this conference, noting that ‘The conference committee deems Indonesia a tobacco-friendly market with no smoking bans or other restrictions or regulations compared to other ASEAN countries. That is an insult to our nation because it means we are supporting death, and we are urging the government to ban this conference.’ Such protest and awareness raising has a vital role to play in ensuring that the tobacco industry and governments are held accountable and that the damage to low and middle income countries is halted.

Image credit: hakaider

It’s also vital that the tobacco control lessons that have been learnt in the developed world are shared with low and middle income countries. In July 2012, the Australia India Institute Taskforce on Tobacco Control launched a report outlining steps that could be taken in India to reduce the use and impacts of tobacco products. Drawing upon achievements in Australia, the report outlines how legislative change, public education, enhanced Government accountability, plain packaging and pictorial warnings will help reduce the roughly 1 million Indians who die from tobacco use each year.

It’s also important that tobacco control is seen as a core element of efforts to improve global public and eliminate poverty. One way this can be achieved is through elements of tobacco control being funded through the aid programs of developed countries like Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. AusAID has started funding tobacco control in the Pacific, including through activities like surveys on youth smoking, promotion of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and interventions including enforcement training. AusAID is also providing funding to address the disease outcomes of tobacco use, including cancer. This funding is currently focused on the Pacific, and it’s important that Australia’s commitment broadens to include other countries with major tobacco and NCD problems in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Finally, it’s vitally important that international development agencies embrace the need to tackle tobacco use. At present, programs to reduce tobacco use and control NCDs are largely limited to agencies that have a specific focus on these issues. The World Health Assembly’s decision in May 2012 to adopt a new global target of a 25% reduction in premature mortality from NCDs by 2025 was a step in the right direction; as was the inclusion of NCDs in the Rio + 20 Earth Summit’s outcomes document The Future We Want. What’s needed now is for tobacco control and NCDs to be placed at the centre of the international development discourse. The Oxfams and World Visions of the world need recognise and respond to the problem, and the post 2015 MDGs need to have a clear commitment to this crucial public health and development issue.


When talking about human rights is irrelevant

Go in search of your people;
Love them;
Learn from them
Serve them;
Begin with what they have;
Build on what they know;
But of the best leaders when the task is accomplished, their work is done, the People will remark: “We have done it Ourselves”

Chinese Verse (source unknown)


I had the pleasure of working with Handicap International in China last year. As someone who had recently graduated from studying an MA in International Development Studies, it was an amazing opportunity to compare theory with practice. We all know that what we learn in a classroom is often miles away from what happens or works in practice. How it actually differs though, is something that is difficult to predict.

In my very first week in China, I gave a presentation to a group of young university students who were volunteering to raise awareness about issues related to disability. During my presentation, I spoke heavily about human rights. What I found was that there was almost no reaction to the idea that people with disabilities had human rights that needed to be realised. Why wasn’t this resonating?

While studying development, one of the central tenets stressed is the rights-based approach. For those who are unfamiliar, this approach is a conceptual framework based upon international standards that should be used to promote and protect human rights.

In her book “Human Rights Approach to Development”, Julia Häusermann justifies using a rights-based approach because it is a normative framework to protect and promote the human rights of marginalised groups. The idea is that by stipulating a set of internationally agreed standards, which are often backed by international law, this should provide the impetus for the realisation of rights. At times during my studies, we were encouraged to give trainings about human rights, and to try and get local people thinking about this issue so that they could push for change in their own communities. This concept was one that I always struggled with at the time. How is it possible for bottom-up change to occur through a set of standards that are determined in a top-down fashion by the UN? It seemed paradoxical.

In China, I soon realised how limited the rights-based approach was in trying to instigate change. Although the rights-based approach may be a good foundation and framework upon which development workers can base their own approach, thinking that it will create change in countries like China is perhaps a little naive. What strikes me about using this approach is that it falls under the information deficit approach to creating change. In other words, once you educate people about human rights, and outline the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), they will be able to grasp this concept easily and energise themselves to create positive change. Simply not knowing about something is the reason why these rights are being ignored.

If this logic holds true, then the people who heard my presentation should be able to analyse gaps in human rights issues and demand that their government brings about change so that human rights are no longer ignored. Right? Wrong.

In China, my experience was that most people perceive human rights as a ‘Western’ concept. This means that plugging knowledge gaps with information about human rights is futile, because it isn’t locally appropriate. I learnt that Chinese people tended to have a very pragmatic view about solving problems (see photo below); if there was a problem, people wanted to know how to go about solving it (and more often than not, they wanted someone to tell them how to do it).

The pragmatic approach to solving problems in China (photo my own).

During my presentation to university students, I learnt very quickly about the gap between this “Western concept” and Chinese perspectives. The students were young people who were more likely to be “Westernised” than many of their older counterparts. I explained the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and linked that to people with disabilities. I explained that if we all accepted that people with disabilities were human beings, then it follows that they too have human rights that need to be respected and realised.

However, this topic hardly provoked any reaction. It just didn’t seem to gain traction. Puzzled, I went back to my colleagues to ask them how I could improve my talk. They were generally polite (possibly a little too polite), but one hinted that while the human-rights approach was interesting, it was a little bit too theoretical for the intended target group.

After some reflection, I decided to change my approach. Instead of talking about human rights as a conceptual framework, I decided to focus more on barriers.

I discussed how, for a child who uses a wheelchair, a disability is created by the barriers that society erects in front of this child. How it is not so much the fact that the child cannot walk in school, but the fact that there are no ramps in place, or no policy on how he or she can participate while the other children are running around during sport.

Looking at the problem from this angle is actually quite refreshing. Because no matter how clever you are, or no matter how much you care, you cannot go back in time and prevent a child with cerebral palsy from being born with that impairment. We cannot change what happens to the body. But, through society as a whole, we can lower barriers. We can promote inclusion by collectively focusing on  steps that lower barriers that prevent participation.

Immediately, I saw a change in the students’ response. Rather than talking about a conceptual framework that meant very little to them, they had a real tangible way in which they could improve the lives of those around them. It helped them see past people with disabilities as pitiable and helpless. It kick-started change and a desire for action.

The rights-based approach is not a useless concept. It can be a good start for us, particularly those with a ‘Western’ education, to wrap our heads around why we do what we do. It can be the underlying foundation for development work. But it cannot be a driver for change in a local context, when it clashes so heavily with the national psyche. Coming into a country like China and expecting to create change by throwing around concepts such as human rights is naive, and antithetical to the very nature of a bottom-up approach to development.

Thankfully, I was able to use the good advice of my local colleagues to develop a more effective strategy for promoting disability awareness. Hopefully, it enabled at least some Chinese people to begin creating their own change, and lowering barriers for participation for people with disabilities. Then, and only then, would they be able to say, “We have done it Ourselves.”


Don’t change the message. Change the messenger.

Everything that we do in development is about selling a message. Whether it’s conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor, convincing the public that foreign aid actually works, or recruiting people for a local HIV-testing program in Zimbabwe, we all need to convince people of what we ourselves believe.

Despite all his, discussion in development rarely revolves around the most effective ways in which we can influence other people. Previously, on whydev.org, we talked about the tendency to hold onto existing biases more strongly whenever views are challenged. When a message goes against the grain of what people already believe, convincing them of this message is complex, and requires effective strategies.

Courtesy of a recent study cited in New Scientist, here is one strategy that may work better: change the messenger, not the message.

Around the middle of last year, Republican politicians in the United States claimed that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was a potential cause of intellectual disability, despite a lack of strong scientific evidence. Unsurprisingly, whether or not people believed them was highly correlated to their political stance. In one study, subjects were questioned on their beliefs across a wide range of issues, and then classified as liberals or conservatives. Scientists then examined their attitudes towards the HPV vaccine. When presented with balanced arguments for and against administering the vaccine, 70% of the liberals and 56% of the conservatives thought it was safe to do so.

The experimenters then created fictional experts who portrayed themselves as liberals or conservatives. With the more “natural” pairing of the liberal expert arguing in favour of the vaccine and the conservative expert arguing against it, the number of liberals who supported the HPV vaccine increased, and the conservatives who disagreed decreased. No surprises there.

The interesting result occurred when they swapped the messengers around, so that the liberal expert argued against the vaccine and the conservative expert argued for it. Under this scenario, 58% of liberals and 61% of conservatives supported the HPV vaccine. In other words, simply swapping the messenger around resulted in more conservatives than liberals being convinced by the safety of the vaccine, a complete reversal to initial findings.

This seems to suggest that it’s not so much the message that is crucial, but instead, the messenger. Recent calls from British PM David Cameron to end foreign aid to African governments who do not uphold gay rights do not acknowledge this research. Apart from the futility of such a threat, the British leader is only likely to bring up not-too-distant memories of Western imperialism and aid conditionality.

Who then, is the best messenger to convey the message we want to give? Let’s go back to the three examples that I opened with individually.

Conveying an organisation’s work to a corporate donor

Often, it is the fundraising department, sometimes coupled with someone who works “in the field”, that tells corporate donors how money donated impacts people’s lives. However, a more ideal messenger could be someone who doesn’t even work for the NGO – perhaps someone who works within the corporate sector itself. Apart from speaking about the good work of the NGO to colleagues, this person is also able to discuss the tax benefits of regular workplace giving.

Convincing the public of the merits of foreign aid

Again, having someone outside of the aid sector could be the best messenger. A trusted public figure with an average income (i.e. not Bill Gates) might be best able to explain how he or she saw the impact of aid work on a recent trip overseas. It is crucial that this figure is someone the public can relate to. Recently, Jet Li was criticised for encouraging people in China to donate more willingly to good causes, as they believed it was his responsibility, as someone wealthy, to do more of the donating himself.

Recruiting people for an HIV testing program in Zimbabwe

Rather than foreign NGO workers, a local Zimbabwean who was diagnosed with HIV and successfully treated for tuberculosis may be a more effective person to convince local people of the need for testing. Having a voice that local people can relate to could lead to the message being more influential and believable.

In life, there are many other instances where we also need to sell a certain message. It could be telling friends about the value of caring for the environment, eating foods that we think are healthy, or why watching back-to-back episodes of Glee on a Saturday night is not only bad for your social life, but also your general health and wellbeing. In development, we need to give serious thought about how the issue is being framed. But, before we even do that, we need to be selective about who it is that is doing the framing.


This post originally appeared on How Matters, a site that explores the “how” of doing development work, in all it’s shapes and forms. I highly recommend you add it to your list of regular reading.

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The end of aid through trade?

We are undergoing a transformation in the global economy. The financial crisis which has plagued the United States and Europe since 2008 is still holding back growth in those nations. In the meantime many developing countries continue to register positive economic growth. This is partly because developing countries are less dependent than they once were on developed countries as a source of growth. Research carried out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2008 found that the business cycles of rich and emerging nations were diverging. Further to that, the IMF is forecasting that next year the developing world will out-produce the developed world for the first time. This signifies a key turning point and a monumental opportunity.

At the same time the importance of maintaining aid to developing countries is coming under the spotlight. Recently, the Canadian government made deep cuts to their foreign aid budget. Whilst the foreign aid budget has so far escaped such cuts in the United States, Greece and Spain have also slashed their aid budgets, as have Austria and Belgium.

The debate around the effectiveness of aid also rages on in many forums, including here on whydev (such as in this post). But, in light of the improved economic performance of developing countries, should there be a shift in the debate to be more focused on how the global community achieves the end of aid? And if so, how would we bring about the end of aid?

Although I don’t generally enjoy quoting Tony Blair, I’ll make an exception this time. In a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post, he argued that Africa can be free of dependence on aid in a generation. To achieve such independence he wrote that Africa needs economies that generate wealth and improved living standards for all. Similarly, the Nigerian finance minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, highlighted that aid to save lives is only part of the story. She explained that, “saving lives turns those people into productive contributors to the economy. Of course the social and humanitarian reasoning makes sense but add to that the economic”. She raised the question, “after lives are saved what is the next step?”

The next step is economic growth through trade. Today’s aid needs to enable tomorrow’s trade. Whilst economic growth figures in developing nations in recent years have been impressive, they can still be improved. Sub-Saharan African growth averaged 5% in the years 2000-2008 and we’re all familiar with the approximately 10% growth rates in emerging Asian nations in the same period. Although the economic turmoil in the US and Europe dented those growth rates, both regions rebounded in 2011. But, a recent World Bank report on the Light Manufacturing Industry in Africa highlighted the impact of poor trade logistics, which increases cost and reduces competitiveness, the holy grail of trade. Improved trade competitiveness is essential for developing countries to continue their growth trajectory and ultimately cut aid dependence.

In order to build a “trade enabling environment” an essential element of foreign aid spending needs to be investment in infrastructure such as roads, railways, ports, and systems. This is especially important on an intra-regional basis. In the African example, transport from landlocked nations to ports in the coastal nations adds significant cost and extends transit times, again reducing competitiveness. Also intra-regional trade is in itself a key component to increasing trade and economic growth. The OECD reported in 2010 that “South–South” linkages had intensified and trade is growing rapidly as part of the global production networks and also to serve the growing middle class in many emerging nations. The World Bank’s report “Connecting to Compete: Trade Logistics in the Global Economy” emphasises that efficient trade logistics is strongly associated with trade expansion, export diversification, the ability to attract foreign direct investment and economic growth. The basis of that report is the Logistics Performance Index, which assessed the reliability and effectiveness of import and export supply chains in 155 countries and ranked countries from best to worst. The countries in the bottom 10 in the rankings are low and lower-middle income countries and eight out of 10 countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa. China has the highest position of any developing country at number 27. It is quite clear that in order for autonomous economic growth to replace aid, investment in and improvement of transport infrastructure is an essential prerequisite.

In countries such as Malaysia, India and China, trade driven growth has been shown to be successful. In order for other developing countries to replicate such growth, rich countries can also ‘aid’ developing countries by allowing access to their markets and indeed providing a more level playing field. I won’t go into all the details of the failings of the Doha round, the so-called ‘Development Round’ of trade talks, but it’s clear that the lack of agreement is a key threat to increased global trade and that it is causing developing countries to lose out on significant opportunities. The current economic environment has also led to an increase in protectionist sentiment and hence creates less potential for a resolution of the round.

In a world where more than a billion people still live in poverty, it’s important to highlight that the end of aid dependence can be the goal only after development foundations have been laid, such as achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Aid is still an essential pillar of the “first step” in development that is to save lives. But Dr Okonjo-Iweala is right to ask, “what is the next step?”

The next step is becoming clear – it is economic growth through trade. Today’s aid needs to better facilitate this next step, by supporting better infrastructure and access to high-income countries’ markets.

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