Saturday, November 14, 2009

Life and Literacy

Steven Winduo published this article in The National newspaper of August 21st, 2009.

In the 1990s we had done well with the concept of critical literacy and cultural awareness. The work done by various groups and institutions around the country saw our people becoming aware that learning to read and write is one thing, but understanding and accessing information to move forward was another. We knew the sense of imprisonment by illiteracy and poverty arrested our conscience as a free people.

This week the Minister for Education, Honourable James Marape opened the stakeholders consultation workshops on the implementation of the literacy development project in Papua New Guinea. UNESCO Pacific Cluster Office in Apia with support from UNESCO offices in Paris, Germany, Bangkok and the UNESCO national office in Port Moresby initiated the workshop. The lead agency coordinating this workshop is the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat (NLAS) under the Office of Library and Archives of the Department of Education, led by Mr. Willie Jonduo, its Director.

In his opening speech Mr. Marape challenged the task force and stakeholders to rethink strategies and plans to achieve a 75 percent literacy rate in the next 10 years. Among his challenges he wants the task force to come up with an accurate literacy map complete with details of the success and failures of literacy programs in different parts of the country. The Minister also challenged the stakeholders to set out achievable tasks and identify mechanisms and instruments to accelerate literacy programs to achieve a higher score. Some of these include: having all stakeholders and developmental partners working in partnership, reorganization of programs and reinventing institutions, strengthening capacities, and providing of basic literacy services to all Papua New Guineans.

UNESCO Apia Office—Cluster Office for Pacific States Director Dr. Visesio Pongi’s challenge to all partners in literacy development to work together rather than duplicating policies and responsibilities. UNESCO stands ready to support Papua New Guinea’s efforts to accelerate literacy rate reach 75-80 percent in the next 10 years. As its commitment to PNG, UNESCO has included it on the list of countries receiving LIFE (Life Initiative for Empowerment) from UNESCO.

LIFE and UNESCO-CapEFA are two principle programs that UNESCO is flagging in its partnership with the people and government of Papua New Guinea. LIFE is a framework of collaborative action for enhancing and improving literacy efforts, a process in support of literacy which is country led and country specific, a support mechanism embedded in national policies and strategies, and an initiative for technical support services and facilitation by UNESCO in the areas of policy, advocacy, partnership, capacity-building and innovations.

The UNESCO-PNG CapEFA (Capacity-Building in Education For All) programme aims to accelerated national efforts in PNG to achieve EFA (Education For All) through LIFE. UNESCO’s success in Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco, Senegal and Niger under this program now includes Papua New Guinea. I welcome this UNESCO initiative to PNG as it will enable us to strengthen capacities for design, implementation and management of good quality literacy programmes, as well as curriculum and material development, training of senior and middle-level management, assessment, monitoring and evaluation.

The questions begging immediate answers, however, are: Have we achieved any significant changes in our efforts to eradicate literacy and enable a critically literate society? Why have we abandoned or marginalized some of the outstanding organizations and institutions in the communities, civil society, and even in the government, committed to building basic literacy and strengthening critical literacy programs in PNG? Two of these that come to mind readily are the PNG Trust Inc. and the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat (NLAS). The later should by now have an elevated status of being an autonomous government Department.

The national government must now firm up its commitment to increase literacy rate by making NLAS become a separate department known as National Languages and Literacy Department, with wide ranging powers and sufficient funding to organize and mobilize national literacy programs in the PNG.

The lack of critical cultural and social literacy is affecting our responses to the modern global cultural, social, economic, and technological changes such as the changing social demographics and associated socio-economic activities in our urban areas, global epidemics such as HIV/AIDs, and the impacts of new communication media and technologies, patterns of unemployment, underdevelopment, and transitional tribal urban surge of cultural communities crowding our urban centres.

We are all affected by these sweeping changes. To deal with these changes we need to reinvest our efforts and resources in key programs, organizations, and institutions. We need to organize and assist our communities to give up counter-productive activities robbing their dignity, pride, and future. A nation with a high percentage of illiterates always struggles with dissent, negative responses, and stubborn refusal to abandon socially disrespectful attitudes and backward behaviours.

The need is to re-examine the yardstick of human development priorities and where we have channelled massive funding without achieving any measurable positive outcomes. How much have we achieved in the last 10 years? The surveys, carried out in the National Capital District and the New Ireland Province, by PNG Education and Advocacy Network (PEAN), a civil society organization in 2006 and 2007 reveal a troubling trend in literacy growth in Papua New Guinea: (1) A crisis in school participation with an alarmingly low participation rates among youth aged 15 and 19 years with many of them missing out on school, (2) a crisis in school quality reflected in low literacy rates for those who have completed school and (3) a crisis in literacy with pronounced low literacy rates in the community, dramatically lower than officially reported rates.

It is difficult to ignore the evidence of a systemic failure in accelerating literacy rates in PNG. In the words of Nicholas Faraclas, one time advocate of critical literacy and print literacy in PNG: “the way in which print literacy is implemented must not be counterproductive to the ultimate goal of critical literacy.” Literacy is LIFE. These words echo so loud in our ears, yet we choose to ignore them by shifting our focus elsewhere to trite and banal developmental discourses.

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