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Monday, March 23, 2015

The Literacy-Language Story: A Fanciful History?

A Fanciful History: Annar Cassam On the Literacy-Language Story

By

Prof. Karim F Hirji

In her contribution entitled: TheLiteracy-Language Story, Annar Cassam contends that (i) the literacy programs implemented in Tanzania during the Mwalimu years had, by 1980, raised the literacy rates among school children to 90% and among adults to 80%; and (ii) these achievements together with other stellar gains in the education sector were drastically reversed by the Structural Adjustment Conditionalities imposed by International Financial Institutions and the West. She contrasts this fate with the spectacular and sustained achievements of Cuba under Castro, but then contends that African nations could not have followed the Cuban path. To Africa, only an Ujamaa type alternative road to development was available or feasible.
After joining the University of Dar es Salaam, in the company of many fellow students, I participated in voluntary adult literacy activities. In the evenings and on weekends, we spent one to two hours teaching reading, writing and basic arithmetic to residents of the surrounding area. The language of instruction was Kiswahili. I continued this work, but not that consistently, until 1973. Especially at the outset, enthusiasm was high and attendance was good. People, especially women, were eager to learn new skills. In that respect, I am in agreement with the positive sentiments underlying Cassam’s contribution.
Nevertheless, I am of the view that her general contentions are misleading and exaggerated. Deriving from selective and flawed data, they reflect the tendency among veterans and intellectuals of that era to uncritically glorify the Nyerere years. We need to set the record straight because only when armed with the actual achievements and mistakes of the past can we extract useful lessons, learn from them, and chart a viable path forward.
1.    Statistics: The reports of multilateral agencies like UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO, World Bank as well as of national funding agencies such as DANIDA, NORAD and SIDA corroborate what Cassam says and more: That up to the early 1980s, Tanzania showed higher levels of progress in literacy, education, health services and water supply than most African countries. The gains were and are attributed to the policy of Ujamaa na Kujitegemea (Socialism and Self-Reliance).
2.    The catch is that many of these statistics had a strong positive bias and painted a rosier picture than what actually prevailed. How did that occur?
3.    First, we need to bear in mind that by the mid-1970s, Mwalimu had abandoned his pledge of moving towards self-reliance. Contradicting the Arusha Declaration, Tanzania stood among the top per capita recipients of external development funding in Africa. The main funders were the Western nations and agencies. For their part, these entities, upon pouring in a lot of money in Tanzania, had a vested interest in showing to their taxpayers and providers that the funds were being put to good use. Fine outcome statistics served their interests well. That these data did not well reflect the reality on the ground was not a serious concern.
4.    In early 1974, I was ejected from the University of Dar es Salaam upon the express order of Mwalimu. An assistant lecturer in the Department of Mathematics was overnight transformed into a Planning Officer in the Regional Planning Office of Rukwa Region. With my wife and just born child, I was in Sumbawanga for two years. (It is a long story that I will not go into for now).
5.    I bring this episode up here because my stay in Sumbawanga gave me a direct experience of the process of generation of the kind of statistics Cassam cites.
6.    In the middle and at the end of the fiscal year, the Regional Planning Office (RMO) had to submit a report to the Prime Minister’s Office indicating the progress made or not made in sectors like education, health, social services, economy and transportation. However, a systematic scheme for collecting these data did not exist. For education, we relied on the numbers given by the Regional Education Officer; for health it was the figures from the Regional Medical Officer, etc. It was not clear how they got their data. Many times, we saw clearly flawed or incomplete numbers. Say, we had to state the number of rural dispensaries with adequate staff. The RMO might tell us 7 but our boss would say there were only 5. So we worked out a compromise, and placed that number in our report.
7.    Basically, our report was designed to show the Prime Minister’s Office that allocated funds had been spent well, that our numbers were in line with what was stated in the past, and that sufficient problems remained to justify the continued flow of funds. All my suggestions and plans to collect reliable information were scuttled by my bosses. They listened patiently to what I said but then forgot about it. In this bureaucratic setting, the presence of a qualified statistician did not affect the quality of the socio-economic development data being generated.
8.    A similar kind of situation prevailed in almost all the regions. Such data were collated at the national level in the Prime Minister’s Office, and put in the official reports. The reports of external bilateral and multilateral agencies were mostly based on such official data. A few of them carried out their own surveys and there were direct data collection efforts at the national level as well. But these efforts were not well implemented and generally lacked good quality control measures.
9.    In the mid-1990s, a documentary film dealing with the decades of Norwegian assistance to Tanzania was produced by a team from that country. I was in Norway when it was shown. It showed that many of the claims of achievements made in NORAD reports were hot air. Some projects had failed to take off; some had stalled in the middle and some had fallen into disarray a few years upon completion. Earlier, a book assessing Westernsupported water development projects in Tanzania had noted that failure to involve local communities had often produced unused, unusable and unsustainable facilities. Here too, what was on paper did not generally match the outcomes in the field.
10.Research by many scholars, Tanzanian and expatriates, who were not beholden to TANU, also showed wide disparities between the claims of the politicians and the actual situation with regards to many aspects of the progress under Ujamaa. Many papers and books, including those relating to education, documented the large gap between words and deeds.
11.The claims of spectacular progress in raising literacy rates during this period have thus to be viewed in the light of this overall context. There is no reason to believe that literacy data were of a higher quality than other data. They too were affected by the lack of systematic data collection and the tendency to exaggerate.
12.During my stay in Sumbawanga, I visited many towns and villages in the area, and talked to a large number of ordinary people. Most of them openly told me that when the policy of Ujamaa was first announced, they fully supported it. They were enthusiastic about the mass literacy and health education programs. However, when the implementation was seen to be poor, when their living standards hardly improved, when the bureaucrats treated them the same way as the colonialists had done, they turned against the policy and its associated components.
13.In 1974/75, people in Rukwa Region were moved by force into the Ujamaa villages. In a move done without prior planning, human rights abuses were rampant. A lot of common property was looted, generating much anger on the ground. Participation, especially by males, in many Ujamaa programs including the literacy schemes plummeted.
14.I am a statistician of forty years standing. I have studied many social and economic development reports and know their methods of data collection. I think I am quite well qualified to speak on the veracity or otherwise of such data. It is my opinion that the numbers Cassam relies on to make her case about the language-literacy story do not hold up to scrutiny.
15.I do not dispute or agree with her language-literacy claim. What I say is that her figures are not reliable enough or sufficiently adequate to conclude that the use of Kiswahili was a prime reason behind the success of the literacy programs in Tanzania. One has first to show that these programs did achieve exceptional results. You cannot make a sound case from flawed data. The use of Kiswahili may or may not have been a critical factor. We simply do not have the information required to conclude one way or another.
16.My impression is that the gains under Ujamaa, including those under regular and adult education, were impressive in the initial five to six years but especially after the mid-1970s, they stalled and the situation began to reverse. In contrast to the impression given by Cassam, these reversals predated the institutions of the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). Neglect by and incompetence of the ruling party functionaries were major factors behind these negative trends.
17.I also note that the employees of agencies like UNESCO were and are paid exorbitant salaries and allowances to `assist people in poor nations.’ They had and have a strong conflict of interest in the reporting of outcomes. Consciously or otherwise, the underlying need to justify their privileges implies that their reports carry the potential of a strong built in bias.
18.Conflict of interest is a documented feature of modern day research. It generates skewed data and thus needs to be considered and controlled for in the evaluation of the outcomes of any scientific research or other type of report. Many scholarly journals today require an explicit declaration of conflict of interest.
19.My claim of bias thereby derives from a solid methodological foundation. There is a large body of critical papers that elaborate on the nature of such bias, and its effect on data quality. Further, I have myself published scientific papers relating to this issue.
20.Let us by all means continue the important debate on the literacy, education and language connections. But let us base it on reliable information and numbers. We need to avoid drawing major conclusions from politically influenced, limited and biased statistics.
21.Cassam further discusses the SAP and contrasts the experience of Tanzania with that of Cuba. If my health and time permit, I will address these vital issues in the near future in another contribution.

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