1.1 In October 1993 ACTIONAID began a two year action research project to explore possible uses of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques within adult literacy programmes. This has led to the development of the REFLECT approach (Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques).
1.2 The action research was carried out in over 100 villages spread through three projects in Uganda, El Salvador and Bangladesh (involving a total of 1, 550 women and 420 men). These pilot projects were rigorously documented and evaluated (with control groups) to determine the practical value of using PRA techniques in adult literacy in very diverse circumstances.
1.3 The REFLECT approach seeks to build on the theoretical framework developed by the Brazilian Paulo Freire, but provides a practical methodology by drawing on PRA techniques.
2. The Method
2.1 In a REFLECT programme there is no textbook - no literacy "primer"- no pre-printed materials other than a guide for the literacy facilitators. Each literacy circle develops its own learning materials through the construction of maps, matrices, calendars and diagrams that represent local reality, systematise the existing knowledge of learners and promote the detailed analysis of local issues.
2.2 These "graphics" might include maps of households, land use, or land tenancy; calendars of gender workloads, illnesses or income; matrices to analyse local crops, credit sources/ uses or participation in local organisations. Each graphic is initially constructed on the ground, using whatever materials are locally available (sticks, stones, beans etc). Simple visual cards (locally designed) help with the transfer of the graphics from the ground to large pieces of paper (the first step to literacy). Words can then be introduced in places where their spatial location helps to reinforce recognition. As the literacy course progresses so the range of graphics produce a wider range of vocabulary (from the linguistic universe of the learners) and learner-generated writing is promoted.
2.3 By the end of the literacy course, each circle will have produced between 20 or 30 maps, matrices, calendars and diagrams; and each participant will have a copy of these in their books, together with phrases they have written. The participants are able to produce a real document rather than being left with an exercise book full of copied scribbles. The graphics become a permanent record for communities, giving them a basis on which to plan their own development. Meanwhile, the organisation which has promoted the literacy programme can also end up with a detailed survey of the conditions, needs and attitudes of people in every village (which might take years to produce using other methods).
2.4 The method aims to promote active dialogue (which was at the basis of Freire's method but which very rarely happens with primer-based approaches) and empowerment. As participants construct their own materials they take ownership of the issues that come up and are more likely to be moved to take local action, change their behaviour or their attitudes.
3. The Pilots
3.1 In Bundibugyo, Uganda the pilot was in a multi-lingual area where neither of the two main local languages was previously written. In Bangladesh the pilot was with women's savings and credit groups in a conservative Islamic area and in El Salvador the pilot was with a grassroots NGO, "Comunidades Unidas de Usulutan" (supported by the national NGO, CIAZO) which is led by ex guerrillas converting to peaceful methods after 10 years in arms.
3.2 The three pilot programmes were evaluated (compared to control groups using traditional methods in each country) in the first six months of 1995. The evaluations included basic literacy and numeracy tests and assessments of the wider impact of the literacy process on community development and empowerment.
4.1 In the three pilot programmes the REFLECT approach proved to be both more effective at teaching people to read and write and more effective at linking literacy to wider development.
4.2 Of those adults who initially enrolled in REFLECT circles 65% in El Salvador, 60% in Bangladesh and 68% in Uganda, achieved basic literacy over a one year period. This compared to 43%, 26% and 22% in the respective control groups [and a typical 25% according to Abadzi (1994)]. REFLECT was particularly effective with women (and in Bangladesh specifically with younger women in the 15-19 age group). Participants in REFLECT circles remained well motivated and dropped out in much lower numbers than those in the control groups. There were positive signs that the participants are developing literate habits but it is too early to evaluate fully the extent to which literacy skills have been permanently consolidated.
4.3 In respect of empowerment the three evaluations identified the following major outcomes:
4.4 The REFLECT approach proved to be low cost and cost effective in Bangladesh (£12 per learner) and Uganda (£11 per learner), in both cases cheaper than an equivalent primer-based programme. In El Salvador, the only pilot programme to use volunteer teachers, the costs were surprisingly higher (£34 per learner) owing to the small scale of the programme in a country where costs are high. In a REFLECT programme resources are shifted from printing to training, which makes the REFLECT approach generally cheaper than a primer-based approach at a time of high printing costs.
4.5 A process of methodological learning has taken place through the pilot programmes so that the REFLECT approach is now stronger. Certain core recommendations are made. For example: facilitators should normally have at least 6th grade primary education in order to teach other adults; visual cards should be made much more simple than in the pilots; a broad range of approaches to reading and writing integrated with the graphics should be stressed (avoiding the use of key words throughout) and training for facilitators should be ongoing. Most of these observations are relevant to making any adult literacy programme effective. The essence of the REFLECT method as it has emerged through the pilot experiences has been compiled into a REFLECT Mother Manual available from ACTIONAID.
4.6 Literacy does not empower people. The control groups showed very few signs of having changed peoples lives. It seems that many of the past claims about the benefits of literacy are bogus. Literacy in itself probably does not empower and does not bring benefits in respect of health, productivity, community organisation, population growth etc.
However, this is not to say that literacy can never bring such benefits. This research has shown that the REFLECT methodology has brought quite dramatic benefits in the three pilot projects. This appears to be because the REFLECT approach involves two parallel and interweaving processes: a literacy process and an empowering process. The literacy gives people practical skills which will help in the empowerment process (eg as they assume positions of responsibility in community organisations) and the empowerment process in turn creates uses for literacy in people's everyday lives. This mutual consolidation and reinforcement is the essence of why it makes sense to fuse the two processes. To successfully interweave the two processes requires a well structured participatory methodology.
Literacy programmes in the past (especially since Freire) have tried to fuse the two processes and some have succeeded, with remarkable results. However, most have failed because they have fallen into believing that either literacy in itself is sufficient (so they have ignored other processes and focused on the product) or they have assumed that empowerment in itself is enough (but have in practice tried to "indoctrinate" people into new ideologies). REFLECT holds these two processes in an effective balance and helps them to build on each other.
4.7 There are many unanswered questions that remain. How flexible will the REFLECT approach prove to be? Will it work in urban areas, with refugees, with adolescents, within a government programme? Will it work on a large scale or will the participatory essence be lost? Will people who have learnt in the original pilots retain their skills in the longer term? Three things are needed:
ACTIONAID is planning to address all three of these in the coming three years.
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