Bridging the Gap: Dr. Rafat Nabi

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Welcome to the BAICE e-forum, again! Today’s discussions are facilitated by Dr. Rafat Nabi, Director of Education, Aga Khan Foundation, Afghanistan.

RafatRafat works with the Aga Khan Foundation in Afghanistan as Director of Education. She is an educational development professional with over 30 years of extensive field and research based experience. The projects she has been involved in include teacher training, working nationally and internationally with governments, with civil society groups, with NGOs and donors particularly USAID, conducting research, monitoring and evaluation of the projects as well as documentation. She has conducted numerous evaluations and studies relating to schools, teachers’ training, assessment of students’ learning, reading and writing assessment in junior grades (Using and EGRA, EGMA and ASER techniques) and impact studies, etc. She co-authored a book with Professors Alan Rogers and Brian Street, which was published from the UK under the title “HIDDEN LITERACIES: Ethnographic studies of literacy and numeracy practices in Pakistan.” In recent years she has been attached to Cambridge University and Leeds University UK as a visiting fellow/scholar, conducting research on nomadic and marginalised groups of society in Afghanistan.

Questions for Discussion

What is our understanding regarding the term “Literacy”? Literacy means what?
Why do men and women want to be literate? 
Accreditation of Literacy program by the Ministry. Is it necessary?
Is center based literacy course, only mean to learn literacy skills?
Whose agenda of literacy is important? (Donor, NGO, Ministry or people who wants to learn?
What should be inlcuded in the literacy curriculum?
What are the real challenges of sustaining  literacy skills?


  1. Liza

    Thank you for posting very interesting and relevant questions Dr. Nabi. Defining literacy seems easy but it isn’t especially if we are to consider different perspectives- from whose point of view? This links to another issue you raised here- whose agenda? I think one problem now is that literacy is often too focused on formal literacy and little interest has been given to other forms of literacy.

  2. Anna Robinson-Pant

    Yes it seems that many donor agencies and governments prioritise schooled literacies as you say, rather than responding to the literacy people use in everyday life. I suspect this is partly so difficult to provide large scale literacy programmes that can build on the findings from ethnographic and participatory research. Does anyone know examples of this kind of less formal literacy approach that has worked on a large scale? Anna

  3. Sushan acharya

    Yes, acrreditation of literacy is necessary. Most knowledge and skills that contribute to women’ livelihood are better supported by literacy. On the other hand literacy is basic requirement for continuing education therefore acrreditation is necessary. It also gives social and cultural value/ respect to what women learned.

  4. Liza Fernandez

    That’s an interesting point Sushan. But I am not so sure about the purpose, process and scope of accreditation. What elements of the program needs to be accredited- the curriculum? the facilitators? the outcome of the program (how do we measure learning?) In some contexts, adult literacy programs are based on volunteerism. How do we do accreditation then? Another problem is that, though these programs are beneficial to the learners, because they are not accredited by the government/ministry, they are also less valued.

  5. rebecca s. gaddi

    In any country, people need to be literate to survive in a world getting more complex everyday, for them to learn life skills to earn a living and be productive, to be able to think critically not necessarily getting high level of education, and to be responsible citizens of society. Primary to a literacy program are life skills and value-based knowledge and practice, for people to earn a decent living and be able to relate with each other with respect. I guess those basic conditions are necessary for life to go on.

    In as much as not all can enter formal education, the government should lead in providing a responsive literacy program for its people, with the aim of linking them to productive life. Learning to work and to be productive should be necessary.

  6. Gina Lontoc

    It seems that issues raised here are deeply embedded in structures of politics and power. While academic researchers and NGOs work within institutional constraints and operate within bounds of drivers of collaboration (evidence and impact), I think the main consideration in and the focus of literacy programmes should be the agenda of beneficiaries of collaboration. But how do these people make their voices heard? Do they have the power to set the agenda?

  7. Dr Janine Eldred

    Thank you to everyone who has contributed to today’s discussion; some challenging questions and ideas. I wonder whether part of the problem about literacy is that politicians – and many others who determine policy – do not understand the complexity of what we mean by literacy. Let’s face it, those of us who work in the area find it difficult to explain the complexities and multiplicity of literacies. So perhaps the challenge is to try and articulate what we mean by literacies and social purpose etc etc so that non-specialists can begin to understand why its not just about learning the technical skills needed to read and write. Colleagues in Scotland seem to have convinced politicians about such perspectives, rather than emphasising the linear skills approach used in some other countries. Are we willing to and able learn from others and translate what seems to work to different contexts and countries?

  8. Tehmina Hammad

    Dr Nabi raises some interesting questions about how literacy is constructed, where our understanding is limited. I believe that this involves an interaction between the views of people (men and women) who want to be literate and different development agendas who would like them to be literate. An understanding of these interactions would facilitate addressing challenges around what needs to be included in literacy programmes, need for their accreditation but as Gina points out where the voices of beneficiaries are critical in not just the development of literacy programmes but also whether or not literacy outcomes are achieved.

  9. Alemu Sokora Nenko

    Thanks, Dr. Rafat for rising fundamental agenda that are evolving around literacy concept. Let me start from a meaning of “literacy”. Indeed, you all are the expert in the field and you know the professional meaning. You also know why the scholars like you want the world to conceptualize the meaning of literacy beyond simple ‘reading and writing’.

    However, the dominant meaning of literacy is just attending some school and learning reading and writing of ‘words and numbers’. This is the powerful meaning of literacy embedded with an everyday life of humankind. This is not only because policy advocates this meaning. It’s mainly, because, everyone uses this meaning to differentiate between who literate and who is not. This is actually a basic thing and if it works that is okay.

    However, what is a danger of this meaning I observed in Ethiopia or in an overall capitalist world? First, society believes that this formal literacy is age bounded and there is expiration age to go to school. Second, it is believed that formal education is employment oriented; once you learn it should land you on a formal job. Thus, if you call matured people to come to school to learn, they may come the first two weeks or month and then they feel that they are doing stupid thing. They think that their age is expired and they no longer get employed by being schooled.

    For example, my mom is in 60’s and not schooled. When I tell her that she can still learn reading and writing, she laughs at me. She concluded that her age is expired to learn and if her children learn, it is enough for her. But, when I gave her very nice watch and cellphone she started learning numeracy. Now she is perfect in reading a number on cellphone, shoe size, wall clock etc. Look, she did go school to learn and did not need tutors, just she asked us one time and I told her 1 to 0 numbers are written orderly on the phone keyboard. Then she exercised by herself. This is where we are concerned as the expert of literacy. Indeed, a reason why men and women should be literate is not about getting employed in a formal sector, it is about enabling people to co-exist with changing dynamics of everyday life like what I mentioned.
    How we can embed literacy with the everyday life of people has been our effort. Most efforts focused on writing the literatures. I think, we must be smart enough to embed best fit practices in existing formal literacy, rather than trying to open another literacy sector.

    Concerning accreditation, normatively it good, but it has a downside in practice. I saw the accreditation practice in Ethiopia has excluded many brilliant people from utilizing their own literacy(learned of out school). E.g. I’m University lecturer and I observed that my university recruits maintenance experts, who are diploma and degree holders. However, people who learned maintenance at their daily practices are highly efficient and accredited people cannot solve problems until today. Thus, the university recruits informally learnt people as a daily labourer. Since the university must abide by civil service rule, the university cannot recruit a person who doesn’t have a certificate as a permanent employee. University uses them as the daily laborer, this is the best example how accreditation means social exclusion and facilitates exploitation. This is no exception, it is happening wherever in the capitalist world.

    All in all, I am sure that formal literacy is facing a lot of challenges even in the developed. It is not fitting with people’s expectation. For example, I am in Canada now, in the Edmonton city where I am living, the local government is highly concerned about high school completion rate dropping. Why? A Simple reason is that people who did not finish school and who have diploma or degree can earn an equivalent salary. Even, most people are not using their degree to get a job. Thus, less educated (less accredited) people are much happier and motivated to work, they have a reason why they didn’t learn further. Those who have specialization certificate (accredited) are unhappy for not getting a job in their specialization. Informally, I hear that many countries are facing this problem. I think this is an opportunity for us to advocate for contextualized curriculum.

  10. Denis Katusiime

    Thank you Dr. Nabi for those challenging questions. My take on the questions is that Literacy programs should aim at helping the beneficiaries. However, policymakers and those implementing the policy should consider the capabilities (e.g. physical, political, and financial) of the beneficiaries to be. As regards the curriculum, it should address the needs and aspirations of the beneficiaries. But we should also keep in mind the fact that some of the beneficiaries do not have enough information to make decisions on the hierarchy of what they have in terms of needs and aspirations. This is why it is important that policy makers and designers of the curriculum engage the beneficiaries to be in a discussion so that they can be guided to understand better their needs and aspirations. This will help the policy makers to come up with programs that are more relevant to beneficiaries.

  11. Joseph Wichai Anamnart

    Thank you Dr. Nabi for posting very interesting and relevant questions. In my opinion, we should classify “literacy” into two main catagories. Firstly, “basic literacy” which mainly focuses on basic skills in reading, writing, simple arithmetic and basic critical thinking skill and accreditation must be certified by the ministry. I am sure that the staff of the ministry can develop appropriate curriculum and evaluation process. This issue is very important for the ministry to promote literate population of the country to catch up with higher education and the changing world.

    Secondly, the other type of literacy should be something like, “literacy for better living” or “literacy for sustainable for development”. This category of literacy covers environment literacy, health literacy, financial literacy, ICI literacy and so on. Accreditation (certificate) is also important, however, criteria can be set up by both governmental and private organizations.

    In conclusion, I would like to confirm that “literacy” and “literate environment” are very important issues for the ministry to seriously and neatly plan, implementfor and evaluate because they contribute so much for sustainable development of each nation and the world as a whole.

  12. Turuwark

    Thank you for the very interesting questions!
    Defining literacy seems easy at glance, but extremely difficult. In some parts of country, the equivalent word for the term literacy even doesn’t exist. In some places, it mean reading and writing letters (of their language). In some other places, it is defined as schooling (attending school). Some still define it the ability to read and write the formal/the school literacy, other materials in the everyday life are not considered as literacy. But, in most cases, literacy is defined as basic or foundational education (meserete timihirt , in Amharic language, the working language of the country). Therefore, it is difficult to find an agreed up on definition for the term literacy in our situation. This is, in fact, a great challenge for policy makers, programme developers and practitioners. Though they use the same term, they actually mean different things!

    Men and women want to be literate for various reasons. One of the reasons I recognized is to boost their self-confidence and self-esteem. Since the non-literate people are considered as blind and ignorant, living in darkness, men and women want to get out of ‘blindness’, darkness and ‘ignorance’ by simply attending the literacy programme. The other reason is to function well in the literacy environment (mostly urban areas). They want to get better service at market places, hospitals, clinics and other literate environments. They also want to be literate for religious reasons; many adults want to read holly books. They also want literacy to get employment opportunities since literacy by many organizations is considered as primary requirement. They might also have reasons other than mentioned here.

    Though accreditation of literacy is a challenging task, it is important, because, it helps adults who want to continue their formal education and other non-formal trainings. As I have indicated, many training institutions and organizations consider literacy skills as a prerequisite hence accreditation is important.

    Even though government and programme developers promote center based literacy for various reasons, it is not the only place to learn literacy skills. Adults learn literacy in their everyday lives, from their religious institutions, from their children… However, the main problem in our country is, adults do not consider the everyday literacies as literacy. If they do not attend literacy classes and certified, they consider themselves as ‘illiterate’ or ‘ignorant’. Not only adults, others also consider them the same way. On the contrary, many adults do not want to come to literacy centers for different reasons. This is again another challenge that our country is currently facing.

    Whose agenda of literacy is important? This question is very interesting! Donors and NGOs come up with their own interest. Government has its own interest. Adults have their own interest. In most cases, these interests vary; sometimes even contradict. In my opinion, maintaining a balance is important. Donors, NGOs and Government should try to balance their interests with the needs and aspirations of adult learners.

    Regarding the contents of literacy curriculum, local literacy materials, everyday literacy materials should be included. Many of adult literacy program are detached from the realities/contexts of adult learners. We tell them what they already know in the words and examples they do not understand. We use school literacy materials instead of locally available literacy materials. However, I do believe that including everyday literacy materials in the literacy curriculum requires knowledge and skills which most of us are lacking. It also requires well-trained literacy facilitators.

    In our context, the major challenge of sustaining literacy is absence of literate environment in the rural areas. The environment in which they live doesn’t require them to read and write, hence they tend to forget it. The other challenge is shortage of budget to produce post-literacy materials for adults. Many adult literacy programmes are campaign like, they do not plan of the post literacy strategies. In fact, it is time, labor and budget intensive task to do.