At least half of the population of Bangladesh are unable to read and write as the world celebrates International Literacy Day under the theme ‘Literacy in digital world’ today.
The exact literacy rate in Bangladesh has been a matter of contention, with the 2016 ‘Education Watch Report’ by the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) putting the rate at 51.3% generally and 54% among women.
However, the ‘Sample Vital Registration System (SVRS)’ of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) puts the rate for the 15-45 year age group at 72.3% in 2016, an increase on the 62% figure given by the Bangladesh National Literacy Assessment Survey in 2011.
The differences can be accounted for in the different criteria used for measurement.
In the SVRS, a person able to write a simple letter has been deemed literate. But, according to Unesco, literacy incorporates three things: reading, writing and doing simple arithmetic.
CAMPE Executive Director Rasheda K Choudhury told the Dhaka Tribune that they had conducted their survey using the three Unesco instruments plus one extra: application.
“About the difference in data, I do not think the government assesses the application skills of people,” she said.
The former caretaker government adviser said the government has to conduct a literacy census to find out the exact figure.
Increasing the literacy rate has always been an important part of the election manifestos of political parties. The ruling Awami League’s Vision 2021 had plans to achieve 100% literacy by 2017.
In 1991, the BNP-led government launched four projects under the Integrated Non-Formal Education Programme (INFEP) which provided literacy to 18 million people.
The INFEP was brought under the Directorate of Non-Formal Education (DNFE) in 1995. Three years later, Bangladesh won the Unesco Literacy Prize for successfully implementing literacy programmes.
In 2000, the government unsuccessfully launched a district level-initiative called ‘Total Literacy Movement’, which Rasheda K Choudhury said had “weakened the entire adult literacy programme”.
“It was an administrative initiative rather than an academic one. Other major reasons behind the failure were a lack of monitoring and assessment, discontinuing the programme, and discouraging of NGO initiatives,” she said.
In addition to the governmental initiatives, literacy programmes were run by 250 NGOs in 1992, 426 NGOs in 1995, 700 NGOs in 2000, and 1,300 NGOs in 2008. However, many of these NGOs are struggling to continue the programmes due to funding shortages.
Rasheda K Choudhury said donors started investing in primary education as the UN Millennium Development Goals focused on this sector, leaving developing countries to raise funds for adult literacy themselves.
“Donors and governments started believing that investing in primary education will give much more in return than investing in adult literacy, which is a global scenario affecting local scenario,” she added.
After 2007, the government did not take any project to promote adult literacy, said CAMPE Deputy Director Tapon Kumar Das. However, CAMPE proposed bringing 37 million people aged 15-45 under mass literacy campaigning.
He said: “During last eight years, the government could not take any structural programme for adult literacy. At the same time, the government and international donors invested a lot in primary education.
“Budget allocation was less on non-formal adult literacy where National Education Policy 2010 and Skill Development Policy 2011 clearly stated to provide literacy and skill training within specific time.”
Tapan told the Dhaka Tribune that Bangladesh recently allocated Tk500 crore to implement a basic literacy programme in which CAMPE and Unesco are working as consultants to develop a sub-sector-wise plan for non-formal education.
“Our literacy rate will increase if it is implemented properly,” he added.
Rasheda K Chowdhury said the government should also introduce a needs-based skilsl training programme, a complete package of life skills and vocational training which will attract the population.
“Also continuous follow up and investment at all levels – not only primary, secondary or short-term courses – are needed to achieve expected level of literacy and outcomes,” she said.
Literacy is a key component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.