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Sustaining Literacy in Africa: Developing a Literate Environment By Peter B. Easton

By Peter B. Easton, Florida State University.

literacy in AfricaThe goal of achieving widespread and durable literacy in Africa and other target areas of Education For All is not likely to be attained – even by the next international deadline chosen – if equivalent attention is not given to ensuring that the basic skills school leavers and new literates acquire can in fact be regularly and beneficially used in the environments where they live.

Drop-out figures and weak rates of literacy retention witness all too often to the absence of such supportive conditions. Programs based on the assumption that literacy is its own reward take inadequate account of the dearth, in depressed environments, of the materials and opportunities that create learning imperatives elsewhere. As Malian farmers in the “Boucle du Niger” region of West Africa were wont to reply to extension agents recommending new agricultural equipment to them in the years that I spent there, Kòlongòsi bè dlòn fè, sen t’a la: “The tortoise loves to dance; he just doesn’t have the legs!” In short, certain basic conditions are required to learn and exercise new routines in life.

One critical issue of research and practice broached in my recent book on Sustaining Literacy in Africa” Developing a Literate Environment (2014) is therefore to examine the conditions under which local usages for literacy begin to multiply in poor communities, and measures for building an environment where acquisition and retention of literate and numerate skills come naturally to the majority of the population. Educators have made some real progress in improving the supply side of literacy – that is, in providing learning materials, instructional methods and teacher training programs – but they have typically been much less versed in tending to the demand side of the equation, or the factors that determine the usability of new knowledge in different settings.  Most such usages reside in fact outside education itself – in domains like agricultural marketing, health promotion, small business creation and natural resource management with which educators have little professional contact. Yet the experience examined in the book strongly suggests that literacy acquisition only accelerates in deprived regions when new social, political and economic opportunities take shape – or are configured – to intensify demand, and when educational supply is closely linked to the learning requirements of such change.

Building this type of “literate environment” typically means rethinking sectorial development strategies in joint instructional design and empowerment terms, where:

  • progressive literacy acquisition and mastery of basic skills are closely linked to the assumption of new socio-economic responsibilities and viable livelihood options on the ground; and
  • the spread of different levels of competence beyond a limited cadre of current occupants of the functions in question helps ensure the democratic character of the undertaking, active monitoring by stakeholders and the possibility of recruiting new blood if the old turns sour.

Both history and current experience suggest that the one of the quickest routes to literacy and numeracy acquisition lies in the exercise of significantly increased resource management responsibilities. From the Bronze Age Fertile Crescent, where writing was invented as a means for managing proliferating irrigation schemes, to 17th century England, where the rapid growth of business and manufacturing spurred by the triangular trade stimulated literacy to such an extent that, Harvey Graaf (1987) maintains, the common school had to be established to control and regulate it as much as to promote it, a lesson seems clear: increased responsibility for governance, resource management and economic activity that create the strongest demand for new skills.

Lacking these, education may have very little “purchase.” As a good colleague from Burkina Faso put it in lapidary fashion during a field discussion of strategies for promoting literacy for management purposes in the country’s rural areas, “On ne gère pas le néant!”: “You can’t manage nothing!” But when circumstances or policy change resource flows, experience documented and discussed in the book suggests that the resulting reinforcements on the demand side have a further positive consequence. The development of new opportunities for beneficial usage of skills generally serves to “smoke out” unsuspected human resources and reservoirs of existing competence in the local population that those concerned had not previously though it worthwhile to mobilize.

An old maxim of adult education underlines a related and relevant principle: “Teaching is the art of putting people in situations from which they cannot escape without learning.” But the cross-sectoral policies and intervention designs that create such situations and bolster effective demand have been little analyzed in available educational literature.

[Editors note: readers familiar with the 2006 Education For All Global Monitoring Report on Literacy will of course recall their earlier point about the importance of developing rich literate environments if the literacy challenge is to be met].   

Further reading:

Easton, P. (2014) Sustaining Literacy in Africa: Developing a Literate Environment. Paris: UNESCO Press. 295 pages.

Peter Easton is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the College of Education, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA, Email:

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1 Response

  1. Nothing like commenting on one’s own writing 😉 …but I’d take slight exception to the Editor’s note above. It’s certainly true that the 2006 GMR highlighted the issue and that (as discussed a bit in the book itself) the topic has made important repeat appearances in subsequent GMRs: all well and good.
    But, as pointed out in the book, the notion of a literacy or “literate” environment necessarily has a supply and a demand side: not just (supply side) the chronic dearth of available and relevant written material in the language of instruction, but even more fundamentally (demand side) the lack of economic, social and political opportunities that REQUIRE literate skills and so constitute a durable source of demand.
    In my reading, the GMRs stick largely on the supply side. The principal thrust of the book is to fill in the DEMAND side.

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