Rene Raya

Pursuing Adult Literacy: A Cost Benefit Study

This study is designed to estimate the cost of achieving the Education for All (EFA) Goal 4 on adult literacy. It aims to present clear and convincing evidence on the urgency, benefit and feasibility of addressing adult illiteracy particularly in the Asia-Pacific region which hosts the biggest number of adult illiterates. It used data compiled and generated by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) and various official national surveys. The study built on the earlier works of the Global Campaign for Education (GCE), Action Aid International and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL).

While literacy level has improved globally, the number of adult illiterates remains high, estimated at 774 million or about a fifth of the world’s adult population. Three of every four adult illiterates are in Asia-Pacific and half resides in South and West Asia, the sub-region with the lowest literacy rates in the world. Progress in reducing adult illiteracy has been quite slow and largely uneven. The UIS projects that given current trends, there will still be 725 million adult illiterates by 2015. This is way short of the EFA target of reducing adult illiteracy by half. About two-thirds of the world’s adult illiterates are women. This has been the situation over the last two decades and is projected to remain the same by 2015 unless decisive action is taken.

To meet the EFA target in the Asia Pacific region, a total of 255,666,575 adult illiterates (205,783,853 female and 49,882,723 male) must be reached and made literate. This effort will reduce adult illiteracy by half and achieve gender parity in literacy. The per unit cost of a literacy course is computed based on instructor’s salary, instructional time, group size, working hours and the ratio of instructor’s salary to total cost. A premium cost is added for female learners to consider the multiple barriers faced by women. The study assumes a three-year course duration to ensure full literacy and to integrate an EFA Goal 3 component in the programme. The aggregate cost of achieving EFA Goal 4 for developing countries in Asia-Pacific is estimated at $45.0 billion. Spreading the cost over a 5 year period (2010 to 2014) will result to an annual outlay of $9.0 billion, an amount that appears more realistic and manageable for most countries in the region.

The GCE urges government to allocate at least 3 % to 6 % of their education budgets to adult literacy programmes. Using this benchmark, annual outlays for majority of countries in the Asia-Pacific region fall within range. Some countries, however, will need external assistance such as Papua New Guinea in the Pacific and Cambodia, Lao PDR, China and Philippines in East Asia. South Asia will face a tough challenge in mobilizing the resources needed to meet the EFA literacy goal. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan will need external assistance to achieve the EFA target.

Pursuing EFA Goal 4 is not necessarily an expensive venture. In fact, the benefits derived from improving the literacy situation far outweighs the cost that it will entail. Data from national surveys clearly show that literacy impacts on human capabilities, enhances productivity, broadens earning opportunities and improves personal well-being. It contributes to engendering a healthy, equitable, gender-aware and democratic environment. Literate individuals tend to earn significantly higher income and have more regular employment. Literacy is critical to accessing information and knowledge and in communicating with others. Literacy contributes to better health awareness and practices. Literate individuals are more familiar about family planning, HIV/AIDs, proper nutrition and other health concerns. Literate females tend to marry at a later age and have fewer children compared to illiterate ones. Literacy promotes women’s empowerment. Literate females tend to be more mobile and participate more actively in making decisions about family and household matters. They are less vulnerable to spousal abuse and experience less cases of domestic violence compared to illiterate females. Literacy is one of the most effective strategies to combat poverty. Illiteracy rates are highest in the countries with the greatest poverty. Similarly, poverty incidence is highest among households headed by illiterate individuals.

Pursuing adult literacy will require strong political will on the part of governments to strengthen policies, increase financial investments, upscale existing programmes and fast track their implementation to reach out to adult illiterates, particularly female and disadvantaged learners. This is not an impossible task. It is feasible, financially, as this costing study has shown, particularly if there is effective and sustained external assistance from donors to complement the national efforts.

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