In October 1993, ACTIONAID started a two year action research project aimed at developing a new approach to adult literacy. The project arose from a review of past experiences of adult literacy programmes which (despite the rhetoric of literacy planners), on the whole, have both failed to teach people to read and write and failed to link literacy to wider development. The new method was to draw on the visualisation techniques developed by practitioners of Participatory Rural Appraisal - who have firmly established that non-literate communities can construct elaborate local maps, calendars and matrices.
The broad principles of the new method were outlined in a short paper distributed to offices in the 20 countries around the world where ACTIONAID is working with poor communities. Seven countries responded positively and asked to participate in the pilot experience. However, owing to limited capacity and the need for detailed support and evaluation, only three countries were selected. They were selected, in part, for the diversity of contexts that they offered - so that the method could be tested in different conditions. The three projects were in Uganda, El Salvador and Bangladesh.
All three pilot projects were established in programmes supported by ACTIONAID. These are all long term integrated rural development programmes in defined geographical areas. This "Development Area" approach gives ACTIONAID a strong foundation for action research as the agency is able to take detailed baseline information and monitor and evaluate its work rigorously over a period of up to 20 years.
Initially this new "literacy method" was simply an idea. There was no detailed "package" and indeed some very fundamental questions were yet to be answered. It was only through direct work in the field, firstly in Bundibugyo, Uganda (in August 1993) that the method really began to take shape. Working over four weeks with the local ACTIONAID team (many of whom were experienced in community development but not in literacy), the method took shape and the first facilitators' manual emerged. The focus on (previously unwritten) local languages led to exciting innovations with a single manual being adapted for use in three different languages giving learners in each class a real choice over language. Another major step was taken with the introduction of visual cards (a creative solution to an enduring obstacle that we encountered in the first days).
In November 1993, in El Salvador the basic method from Uganda was adapted to the highly politicised post-civil war context for a literacy programme run by ex-guerrillas. This required radically different types of maps and matrices (eg of land tenancy and displacement) and involved working with a team that had no previous experience of using Participatory Rural Appraisal techniques.
In March 1994 the accumulated experience of Uganda and El Salvador was taken to Bangladesh - to start up a literacy programme in a conservative Islamic area, for women who were formed into savings and credit groups. The local team wanted a strong focus on numeracy - as the central goal was to make the savings and credit groups self-managing. This involved trying to extend the new approach to the area of numeracy and redefining the type of map or matrix to be constructed. Working with women who had very little opportunity to leave their homestead and who were not centrally involved in all agricultural activities, the range of themes covered was changed.
At the time of setting up each of the three pilot literacy projects, the local teams also identified "control groups" - other literacy programmes in the area working in similar conditions over a similar timeframe - but using a traditional primer-based approach. Contact was to be maintained with these control groups throughout the period so as to offer a contextual basis for the results of the new approach.
It was only in November 1994, in an international workshop in Bangladesh, that the new approach received a name. Prior to this workshop the project had simply been known as the "PRA and Literacy Project" - but this caused some confusion when trying to explain the approach. It often involved explaining what PRA is and getting caught up in the word "appraisal"- before then saying that we were using PRA in a very new way. For this reason it was felt that the approach needed naming and following consultation the name "REFLECT" was accepted. The acronym REFLECT is a convenient short-hand and is how most people involved now know the approach. It stands in full for:
Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques. Paulo Freire (the pioneering Brazilian educator) was briefed about the new approach as early as October 1993 and has been kept in close contact with its development. In March 1995 he wrote to offer his support, commenting:
"please feel free to use my name in the title of the new approach to adult literacy."
The three pilot projects were evaluated in the early months of 1995, drawing on external support as much as possible. These were evaluations in two quite different respects:
The results of the evaluation of the method itself are consolidated into a separate practical publication, "The Mother Manual" which brings together the best practice of REFLECT to date, tries to identify strengths and weaknesses, and aims to enable the reader to replicate the approach in new settings. This is already happening in more than twenty countries and there is an active interest being shown in many others.
There are of course many key questions which still have to be answered as REFLECT is taken up in different countries and contexts. It has not yet been possible to determine the longer term sustainability of the approach. Working with REFLECT on a larger scale will bring up many new issues and adapting the approach for urban areas will bring up others. There is still much unknown territory and a need for close monitoring and ongoing research in order to learn more. There is also a need for strong coordination between REFLECT experiences in different settings to ensure this learning is taken on board and to prevent fundamental distortions of the approach.
Given the above, this research report is, in many ways, still an interim report. REFLECT is still evolving and a two year time frame is insufficient to draw firm conclusions. Nevertheless, the indications from the three pilot programmes are extremely encouraging.
The results of the three REFLECT evaluations are presented here in detail - in chapter four - which forms the heart of the report. However, this report also seeks to put the work in context. The Introduction provides an overview of present literacy debates. This leads into the chapter on the theoretical background to REFLECT. The REFLECT methodology is then summarised in chapter three (see the REFLECT Mother Manual for more detail). In Chapter four there is a detailed, cross-country analysis of the three case studies. Following some concluding reflections in Chapter Five the report ends with an open dialogue, responding to a series of challenging questions which have either been put to us in the past or might be put in the future.
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