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Who benefits from illiteracy? Literacy and empowerment Yusuf Kassam
During i99o--International Literacy Year--the debate on the relationship between adult literacy and development will be intensified. While the benefits of adult literacy have been widely discussed, a fresh way to illuminate this debate is to analyse who benefits from illiteracy at the local, national and international levels. In approaching the debate from this angle, the relationship between literacy and empowerment becomes a key and central question. H o w does literacy empower? And what does 'empowerment' mean? In our world of triumphant science and technology, there are close to I,ooo million illiterate people over the age of I5. Why do we have a problem of such magnitude and why is this situation allowed to persist and even worsen? Although other major global problems that we face today, such as the hole in the ozone layer, are so formidable and intimidating, it is widely recognized that the problem of
Yusuf Kassam (United Republic of Tanzania). Director of Programmes, International Council for Adult Education, Toronto. Formerly Associate Professor of Adult Education at the Univeristy of Dar es Salaam (x97o-79) and Director of the Institute of Adult Education, United Republic of Tanzania (z979--Sz ). His fields of competence include literacy, adult education and participatory research. Author of
The Adult Education Revolution in Tanzania and co-editor of Participatory Research: An Emerging Alternative Methodology in Social Science Research.
global illiteracy can be solved. It is a solvable problem. If total global literacy is achievable, and if the benefits of literacy to individuals and their societies are assumed or taken for granted, what is it then that prevents every adult citizen from becoming literate? Is it a question of resources or is it a political question? To shed some light on this probldmatique, let us examine what I consider to be the ultimate impact and benefit of literacy in people's lives. The most profound, far-reaching and significant impact of literacy on people's lives is its 'empowering' potential. To be literate is to become liberated from the constraints of dependency. To be literate is to gain a voice and to participate meaningfully and assertively in decisions that affect one's life. To be literate is to gain self-confidence. To be literate is to become self-assertive. To be literate is to become politically conscious and critically aware, and to demystify social reality. Literacy enables people to read their own world and to write their own history. Literacy makes people aware of their basic human rights and enables them to fight for and protect their rights. Literacy enables people to have a greater degree of control over their own lives. Literacy helps people to become self-reliant and resist exploitation and oppression. Literacy provides access to written knowledge--and knowledge is power. In a nutshell, literacy empowers. To be illiterate is thus to be disempowered. To be illiterate is to be marginalized. Empowerment from
Prospects, Vol. XIX, No. 4, 1989
literacy is the foundation of all other benefits and advancement of people and their societies. It is clear that the acquisition of literacy skills is a means to an end--many ends. To empower adults through literacy introduces a new political force in power relations within and between countries. Through the process of literacy, adults become more informed and more critically aware of their rights. They begin to question the status quo. They articulate their demands more forcefully for a just share of a country's resources. They want to participate in all the decision-making processes that affect their lives. They want democracy, they want to vote and they can vote more intelligently in determining the political leadership and the political agenda. The empowering dimension of literacy poses a threat to forces of domination and oppression. Literacy, therefore, is a political act. ~It is not neutral, for the act of revealing social reality in order to transform it, or concealing it in order to preserve it, is political' (Persepolis, I975). Julius Nyerere, the former President of the United Republic of Tanzania, in commenting upon the highly political nature of adult education put it this way: 'Politicians are sometimes more aware of this fact than educators and, therefore, they do not always welcome real adult education' (Nyerere, I976). It can be understood why Paulo Freire was detained by the Brazilian authorities when he tried to preach and practise the literacy concientizaci6n process in the I96OS. Perceived in this analytical framework, the major obstacle in the fight against illiteracy is, to a large extent, a political issue at the international, national and local levels. It could be argued that lack of adequate resources is also a major factor in dealing wit!lthe Colossal problem of illiteracy. However, this argxtment contains only a partial truth as the question of making the necessary resources available for literacy is also a political decision. This po!itical issue in relation to literacy has several dimensions. It has been stated before that the world map of illiteracy is the same as the world map of poverty. Illiteracy is
a cause, symptom and result of poverty, but the causes, symptoms and results of both illiteracy and poverty go much deeper. In many respects the history of oppression, exploitation and colonialism is linked with the history of illiteracy. The history of underdevelopment is thus also the history of illiteracy. The problem of illiteracy hinges on power relationships between the centre and the periphery at the international, national and local levels. It is determined by dependency relationships between the North and the South and by the inequality of resources between the rich North and the poor South. The world economy and the present international economic order are both controlled and dominated by the Western industrialized countries. Literacy is also determined by the nature of a class struggle in a given society. It is a struggle between the dominant and oppressed classes, between the haves and the have-nots, between the status quo and social change, authoritarianism and democracy, and between oppression and liberation. This brief analysis of the political economy of literacy may help to shed some light on who ultimately benefits from illiteracy at the international, national and local levels. At the international level, colonial rule and colonial exploitation thrived on denying education, especially adult literacy and adult education, to the colonized subjects of many Third World countries. It is therefore not surprising to see that one of the weapons that national independence and liberation movements used in their struggle against colonialism was the promotion of adult literacy. In the post-colonial era, the persistence of worldwide illiteracy serves the rich countries, including the former colonial powers, by helping them to maintain their economic and ~olitical stranglehold over the poor countries that suffer from high rates of illiteracy. T h e poor develoPing countries of the South find themselves in a vicious circle of dependency on the North and on the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Who benefits from illiteracy? Literacy and empowerment
The international debt crisis of many Third World countries is a good case in point to illustrate how these countries are hard pressed to find any resources for making their people literate on a large scale. The financial institutions will lend money to the South to develop mega-economic projects but will not lend money to finance adult literacy work. One of the conditions applied to I M F loan packages imposed on recipient countries is to institute cut-backs in social services, including education. In this process, the areas that suffer severe cut-backs or even total elimination in the education sector are adult literacy and adult education. The prevalence of illiteracy perpetuates the inequality between men and women and the oppression of women by men. Statistics on literacy show that 63 per cent of the world's illiterates are women, and in the least developed countries of Africa and Asia, the rate of female illiteracy is about 80 per cent. While inequality between men and women is by and large a universal phenomenon, even among literate men and women, it is exacerbated in the context of illiteracy. Since to be illiterate is to be disempowered and marginalized, men with the ammunition of literacy have additional clout in dominating and oppressing illiterate women and denying them equal rights in both the family household and in the society at large. It is well known that in many developing countries many men prevent their wives from attending literacy classes because they know that literacy will enable their wives to chip away and challenge their authority and domination in the household. Multinational corporations and the corporate sector at large also benefit from illiteracy. Illiterate adults in the developing countries suffering from poverty and helplessness are a cheap source of labour which generates huge profits. The same situation prevails in the so-called free-trade zones in many developing countries. The labour unions (where they are allowed to function) do not have a strong voice in protecting workers' rights because the voice of the workers themselves, most of whom are
illiterate, is weak. However, it should be noted that in the industrialized countries, where labour is not cheap, business and industry have begun to ensure that their workers are literate because they have come to realize that the problem of illiteracy or functional illiteracy among their workers accounts for industrial accidents and lost productivity amounting to billions of dollars. So in this case, the corporate sector supports literacy because it is in its own self-interest. To expose the politics of literacy and those who benefit from illkeracy, let us cite some specific examples at a national level in some countries where dramatic changes have taken place in the literacy situation, These are only some examples of countries which have attempted to bring about radical structural changes. Mass adult literacy in these countries was used to prepare for people's participation in creating new political, social, economic and educational structures under revolutionary conditions or during early post-independence periods. These are examples of countries where the majority of the people were illiterate and who suffered from underdevelopment, 01opression and inequality, and who were denied participation in the development of their society. In the Soviet Union, immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution of x917, the country embarked on a massive national literacy campaign. Before i917, under the Tsarist regime, about 7~ per cent of the people were illiterate. The national literacy drive initiated by the new regime was designed to create a new political consciousness, provide opportunities for the people to participate in the political process and consolidate the revolution. The literacy campaign had both ideological and economic purposes. The relationship between literacy and politics was clearly stated by Lenin: 'An illiterate person is outside politics and he has to be taught his ABC.' Adult literacy was seen as a means of breaking down class structures and bringing about equality. In China, before the revolution in I94% the overall illiteracy rate was 85 per cent and as
high as 95 per cent in rural areas. After the revolution, the country embarked upon a mass literacy campaign with more or less the same goals and purpose as in the Soviet Union. A similar phenomenon occurred in Cuba after the overthrow of the Batista regime by Fidel Castro in x959. A national literacy campaign was initiated in 1961 as part of the revolutionary regime's strategy to abolish Class structures, to create a new revolutionary consciousness and to develop new economic skills. It should be noted that literacy work had also been part of the revolutionary struggle against the Batista regime in the period prior to x959. In the United Republic of Tanzania, in 197 ~, about two years after the country's decision to follow a socialist and self-reliant path o f development, both a national literacy campaign and a national adult education programme were initiated. The illiteracy rate in the country was then about 80 per cent. The ruling party, T A N U , was convinced about the empowering potential of adult literacy and adult education in building an egalitarian society and genuinely wanted to empower the people. The objective of Tanzanian socialism was (Nyerere, I968) to build a society in which all members have equal rights and equal opportunities; in which all can live in peace with their neighbours without suffering or imposing injustice, being exploited, or exploiting; and in which all have a gradually increasing basic level of material welfare before any individual lives in luxury. In an attempt to arouse people's consciousness about the need for change and the possibility of change, one of the major objectives of adult education in the United Republic of Tanzania was defined by l~tyerere (1973) as follows: The importance of adult education both for our country and for every individual cannot be overemphasized. We are poor, and backward; and too many of us just accept our present conditions as the 'will of God', and imagine that we can do nothing about them. In many cases, therefore, the first objective of adult education must be to shake ourselves out of a resignation to the kind of life Tanzanians have lived for centuries past.
Against the history of colonialism and capitalism in the United Republic of Tanzania, adult literacy and adult education were clearly perceived as a means of giving the people more control in their own affairs. T h e TANU Guidelines (TANU, 1971) articulated the need for people's participation in their own development and liberation: For a people who have been slaves or have been oppressed~ exploited and humiliated by colonialism or capitalism, 'development' means 'liberation'. Any action that gives the people more control of their own affairs is an action for development, even if it does not offer them better health or more bread. Any action that reduces their say in determining their own affairs or running their own lives is not development and retards them even if the action brings them a little better health and a little more bread. In Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade of 1981 was an attempt to consolidate and strengthen people's liberation from the unjust and dictatorial Samoza regime and to enable the people to participate in the reconstruction of a more just society. In South Africa, one of the major means of perpetuating apartheid, which is a crime against humanity, is not only to offer inferior education to black South Africans but also to deny them adult literacy and adult education. During the last decade, non-governmental organizations have been very active in promoting literacy and adult education for the black population of South Africa. The South African regime has perceived this activity as a threat to its power and the apartheid system. Consequently, the regime recently passed a bill which is designed to cut off external funding to non-governmental organizations in the country. The pattern of beneficiaries from illiteracy repeats itself at the local level. Those who benefit from illiteracy in general are those who wield political and economic power--the landlord, the moneylender, the corporate employer, the male head of a household, the village chief and the politician. A couple of eloquent testimonies from some Tanzanian
Who benefits from illiteracy? Literacy and empowerment
learners will suffice to illustrate this point. Yusufu Selemani, a worker at the Tanganyika Coffee Curing Company Ltd, had this to say (Kassam, 1979): Before the literacy classes were started at our factory by the new Tanzanian management, the old foreign management did nothing to alleviate our oppressed state9 They maintained our ignorance and it seems to me that they actually took delight in pushing us about like a plough 9 T h e truth is that if I start talking about my former oppression and wretchedness, I will not be able to finish talking about it even i f I spend a whole day. I n short, when I started to work in this factory one of my legs was inside the factory and the other was outside because your employment could be terminated in a most arbitrary fashion and there would be no law to protect or defend you . . . . This country now is full o f laws. I now feel a more complete human being. It is like being born again and all your rights are explained to you.
Rukia Ohashi, a peasant women with seven children and several grandchildren, related the following experience from her life (Kassam, 1979): Take, for example, the question of inheritance. Your relatives could easily snatch away your property. H e brings a paper to you and asks you to sign; you don't know what is written on that piece of paper and he is probably very cunning. T h e following day you come to know that you have nothing--everything belongs to him. Such incidents have occurred here quite frequently, yes, quite frequently. They have happened because you don't know how to read and write. Your parents die and your relative can write and concoct something, or if he has a friend who is a clerk, he asks him to prepare a document; he brings it to you and asks you to press your thumb on that paper. Before you do that they bring that t h i n g - - W h a t is it called?--the ink pad, then you press your thumb there, " n g ' a a " , and the job is finished. Afterwards you realize that things which you had discussed and agreed upon before are not the same things that appear on the document. But now we are thankful. We can defend our rights, we can't be forced to do anything against our wishes, we can't be cheated. You put your signature only to those things you clearly understand and accept and which you can read yourself.
To conclude this analysis of literacy, particularly of literacy's empowering potential, it is quite evident that the question of literacy is fundamentally political and one of political will. Widespread adult literacy affects existing power relations and power structures and the distribution of wealth and resources at the international, national and local levels. In general, it can be argued that those who demand literacy are interested in social justice and egalitarian development, and those who deny widespread adult literacy have a vested interest, either consciously or unwittingly, in maintaining their political and economic control and the privileges derived therefrom.
References KaSSAM, Yusuf. 1979. The Voices of New Literates from Tanzania. Dares Salaam, Tanzania Publishing House. Nx'~l~mb Julius. 1968. The Arusha DecLaration. Freedom and Socialism. Dares Salaam, Oxford University Press. 9 I973. Adult Education Year. Freedom and Development. D a r e s Salaam, Oxford University Press. 9 I976. Adult Education and Development. Literacy Discussion (Tehran, International Institute for Adult Literacy Methods), Vol. vn, No. 4PERSEPOLIS. INTERNATIONAL SYMPOSIUM FOR LITERACY. I975. Ten Years of Literacy Struggle. New Delhi, Directorate of Nonformal Adult Education, Ministry of Education and Social Welfare. TANU. x971. T A N U Guidelines. Dares Salaam, Government Printer.