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Does the UNDP June 2010 Report on Literacy in Zimbabwe reflect the truth on the ground

18 Aug 2011 at 13:11hrs | Views

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) June 2010 Report on Literacy in Zimbabwe: Does it reflect the truth on the ground?


Background of the article
Readers, I would like to explore and examine with you the UNDP June 2010 report on literacy in Zimbabwe. The report unveiled that Zimbabwe now tops all African nations on literacy ratings, and swapped positions with Tunisia that is now ranked second in the continent. My interest in exploring and examining this matter is not based on Zimbabwe occupying the pole literacy position in Africa, but rather on the high percentage of literacy rate that it is stated to have achieved. 'According to the UNDP latest statistical digest, the southern African country has a 92 per cent literacy rate up from 85 per cent' (K. Nyathi, 2010). I believe the 92% literacy rate deserves to be critically subjected to scrutiny and analysis.


There are many reasons why such reports should not be taken at face value, and as far as I am concerned, in future, information from such official documents can be used as the basis of distributing resources.


The basic skills of literacy and numeracy are important for global citizens in practically every sphere of their lives. As people, we traditionally communicate with each other in writing or through the web, and follow given instructions or signs. Furthermore, literacy and numeracy plays a key role in our working and leisure lives, in making meaning of the value of huge volumes of information that are continuously churned out by the media, and when managing our lives in general.


In the past, literacy used to be viewed simply as the ability to read and write. On the other hand, in contemporary societies, the definition of literacy embraces more than that. It encompasses the ability to read, to comprehend and critical evaluate other forms of communication. Other forms of communication may include broadcast media, IT skills, active listening skills, digital media, print, and spoken language, among others. Likewise, we no longer think of numeracy narrowly as the ability to use numbers, but broadly as the use of mathematics to solve problems, and in meeting the challenging demands of the workplace and a more complex social life.


In a nutshell, literacy and numeracy are fundamental life skills that enable individuals or societies to participate economically, socially, culturally and politically.


Definition of literacy
As a way of summarising what I have already discussed above, I would like to share with the readers the Department of Education and Skills (2010) definition of literacy in a document titled Better Literacy and Numeracy for Children and Young People: A Draft National Plan to Improve Literacy and Numeracy in Schools.


       Literacy conventionally refers to reading, writing, speaking, viewing, and listening effectively in a range of contexts. In the 21st century, the definition of literacy has expanded to refer to a flexible, sustainable, mastery of a set of capabilities in the use and production of traditional texts and new communication technologies using spoken language, print and multimedia. In this plan, literacy refers to the development of these capabilities in the first language of the school (L1).


The above definition may not be the best in the world, but it captures most of the concepts that most modern sovereign states are striving for in order to have a literate society. I believe most Zimbabweans who are scattered all over the globe realised on arrival at their destinations of choice that at some stage they felt cut off from the mainstream host nation because of being computer illiterate. This might have experienced that even if they had 'A' Level and/or 'O' Level. In addition, some had professional qualifications. Furthermore, when the Zimbabwean citizens left the country because of the political and economic meltdown, the majority of those who chose to go to destinations beyond the SADC region were the more educated. This does not necessarily mean that those who chose to go to the SADC region were all less educated. Instead, the writer is of the assertion that the more educated the individual the more confident s/he would be to travel to countries where s/he would, for instance, use only English as the medium of communication.


In other words, what I am trying to put across above is that it is difficult in modern times and in a globalised world, with increased competitive labour markets, new technology, more leisure, demographic change, and skilled labour force, to talk of literacy without incorporating computer literacy skills. One does not need to be a rocket scientist in order to come to a conclusion that the majority of Zimbabwean citizens have no basic computer literacy skills.  Moreover, 60% of the population lives in rural areas where there is no electricity and access to computers is very low, if not negligible.


I believe answers to the following questions may help to unmask the weaknesses of the research study. What was the knowledge and skills that was tested by the researchers in measuring literacy? What sampling procedures were used to select the research participants? Most importantly, were the research subjects selected from those who had left school or only from those still attending school? Were research participants from the Zambezi valley of Binga, Hwange and Guruve, the remote parts of Gokwe and Nzarayibana, included? Last but not least, who actually carried out the research on behalf of UNDP? I believe it made economic sense for UNDP not to have dispatched researchers from its headquarters.


Knowledge and skills tested by OECD-sponsored IALS report in measuring literacy
Between 1995 and 1997, the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) carried out what became known as the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) that incorporated all the OECD member countries. The IALS document scale tested the knowledge and skills required to locate and use information contained in various formats such as official forms, timetables, maps and charts. The question asked of individuals by the IALS was not 'Can you read?' but rather 'How well can you read?'


The survey was carried out on young people and adults who had left school or education. In a way, it evaluated how the participants were ready to meet the challenges of the workforce and a complex social life. Most OECD member states are developed countries with sound economies and that have well established information and communication technologies, but they never achieved the literacy rate close to that of Zimbabwe.


Measurement of literacy of citizens of a country is not synonymous to measurement of literacy in schools or the education system. The latter is done as a way of assessing and facilitating progression from one level to the next. Therefore, in most countries, measurement of literacy of those still at school or in the education system is a preserve of the relevant ministry or department and does not necessarily reflect the literacy of a nation.


Literacy skill levels and domains used by the IALS in measuring literacy
The OECD-sponsored IALS survey acknowledged that no single standard of literacy could be set. The study sought to identify five literacy skill levels in three domains to cover demands at work, at home and in the social sphere. According to the National Adult Literacy Agency, three domains that were chosen were:

1) Prose Literacy: the ability to understand and use information from texts such as news stories, editorials, poems and fiction

2) Document Literacy: the ability to locate and use information from documents such as job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables and graphs

3) Quantitative Literacy: the ability to perform arithmetic functions such as balancing a chequebook, calculating a log book, or completing an order form


The research participants were then categorised in Levels 1 to 5, 1 being the lowest level of literacy skills and 5 being the highest. This implied that there was no universal literacy percent rate as was the case in Zimbabwe. Instead, there were different percentages for different levels and age groups were also taken into consideration. It could therefore have been possible, for example, to tell how literate young adults, the middle-aged and the old aged citizens were.


Advantages of using the literacy skill level and domain approach
The IALS approach cited above would have made it easier to determine how literate participants were would have completed primary school, and in our case, and those who would have completed the Junior Certificate and the percentages that had G.C.E 'A' and/or 'O' Level, college and university qualifications.


It would have been necessary to indicate what passes were achieved in whatever level that was applicable to the research participants. The approach would also have provided demographic data (possibly region by region) on the number of pupils or students that fall through the cracks of the education, for instance, from primary to J.C. or from J.C. to G.C.E 'O' Level. It could also have provided a flavour of how many G.C.E 'O' Level students proceed to 'A' Level and the number who fail to achieve minimum entry qualifications or who chose not to proceed, and the possible constraints or reasons of the latter of failing to do so.


That way the survey would have captured vital information that could be used for timely and early interventions that can help close the gap between the marginalised and socially advantaged communities.


The importance of sampling procedures
Sampling procedures for those who participate in a research are important. If no proper selection techniques were put in place, it might mean that participants from predominantly socially advantaged areas were used. If that was the case, then the credibility of the outcome is clouded with controversy. This might mean that the world was fooled to believe that Zimbabwe has a literate and numerate society when in actual fact the opposite is true. In the past ten years, the Zimbabwean education system was adversely affected by the meltdown of the economy. School inspections by education officials were ground to a halt because of lack of transport and other logistical supports. It is only now that the education Ministry announced that they have acquired vehicles to be used for inspections in schools.


Although there is no uniform approach in the world for measuring literacy, a survey that equates Zimbabwe to a 92% literacy rate is very questionably. In fact, most people are to a certain degree literate, what is important in studies of this nature is to answer the question to what extent or levels were the participants literate. Accordingly, giving an overall percentage is misleading, to say the least. How can there be such findings or outcomes when for the past six to eight years, for instance in rural areas, the ratio of text books to pupils has been more less 1 textbook to every 20 √¢‚Ǩ‚Äú 40 pupils?  


Definition of numeracy
The Department of Education and Skills (2010) defines numeracy as follows:
         Numeracy is the capacity, confidence and disposition to use mathematics to meet the demands of learning, school, home, work, community and civic life. This perspective on numeracy emphasises the key role of applications and utility in learning the discipline of mathematics, and illustrates the way mathematics contributes to the study of other disciplines.


Of importance, is that the above definition puts an emphasis on the importance of mathematics in facilitating the study of other disciplines, not merely as the basic ability to use numbers.  Mathematics facilitates studying of subjects such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry and Geography. It is not clear with the findings of the study what percentage of Zimbabweans can articulately apply their mathematical knowledge in the study of other disciplines.


It is through mathematical understanding that the young people can be able to tackle a wide and growing range of economic, technical, scientific and social problems. Further, it is through an in-depth comprehension of mathematical concepts that nations are able to create employment and future economic prosperity. Thus, mathematics is paramount in driving the cogs for a knowledge-based economy.


Problems faced by those that are illiterate and innumerate
Lack of literacy and numeracy impairs citizens from full participation in many spheres of life. This may include basic operations like sending and reading an email or a Short Message Service (SMS), writing a shopping list, buying a travel ticket, time sheets, reading a menu and ordering food, withdrawing money from an ATM, understanding advertisements and notices, and reading a gas or electricity meter or a bill. Illiterate and innumerate young people and adults cannot participate fully in education and fail to get satisfying jobs and careers. They find if hard to get a job and if they are luck to get one, it becomes difficult for them to move up the rungs of the promotion ladder because they may experience difficulties to write reports or to prepare time sheets for their team.


Human beings are political in nature. We display our plurality by interacting with other people. The more educated we are the more sophisticated we can engage in public life. Studies have shown that the less educated, especially the illiterate and innumerate are more susceptible to being manipulated by politicians. This is because they are likely not to fully understand the political party programmes and election manifestos. Moreover, being economically disadvantaged makes them more vulnerable to be used as pawns by unethical and unscrupulous politicians.


Link of life expectancy and level achieved in education
In most cases, workers that are illiterate and innumerate earn low incomes and that translates to a low quality of life for them and their family members. Research has shown that mastering the skills of literacy and numeracy has many economic, social, and health benefits for the individual and the society as a whole. A good example is that there is a direct link between life expectancy and the level of education that an individual would have achieved and the nature of job or profession that s/he does for a living. There is also a high likelihood of the less educated being involved in deviant or anti-social behaviour, resulting in them going to prison. Prison life also compromises inmates' quality of life and how long they can live.


The UNDP report that reflected that Zimbabwe has a 92% literacy rate is further problematic in the sense that it creates a false impression that might influence the government to approach the literacy problem with laxity or lack of seriousness. The government may falsely use the findings of that research to challenge those who claim to be neglected and disadvantaged in terms of education. The government of Zimbabwe is desperate to reclaim its position in the international arena. Therefore, it will stop at nothing to prove to the world that it has a credible 'inclusive education system' when that is not the case, especially when it is armed with UNDP-sponsored document.


I have a feeling that the findings were unfairly exaggerated and therefore reflect badly on the educationally marginalised, because their plight might be left unattended to for the foreseeable future. It would have been appropriate for those who carried out the survey to clearly state the various levels of literacy, and where necessary show categories using age groups and regions. I strongly believe the policy makers failed to meaningful take advantage of a survey that was paid for by an international body. In my opinion, the policy makers were supposed to set clear parameters for the study that would have reflected the literacy rates across the socioeconomic divides.


If the findings of the UNDP research are anything to go by, they reveal that the sampling strategies were not professionally done and that is to the detriment of disadvantaged communities. Under normal circumstances, studies of that nature help to expose underlying structural problems and make recommendations on how they can be addressed.  It seems as if that was not the case in that study and we may be celebrating success that never was.


If the study was credible and not questionable, why have neither the two Education ministries nor the UNDP made the full report available to the public?


Disclaimer: The articles that I write express my personal opinions based on my interest in education, lived experiences, observations and literature reviews, and cannot be necessarily taken as expert opinion. They are not meant to be used for personal attacks or to prejudice individuals, groups and organisations.

Source - Akim Zwelibanzi
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