A Critical History of National Adult Literacy Policy in Tanzania and Recent Canadian Project Experience

Adrian Blunt

College of Education

University of Saskatchewan

A recent Canadian literacy project is discussed in relation to the history and current economic, social and political contexts for adult literacy programs in Tanzania.

Un project de litteracie canadienne recent est discute en relation avec l'histoire et le contexte de l'economie sociale et politique courant, pour les programmes de litteracie por adultes en tanzanie.

On December 9, 1962 the British, east African colony of Tanganyika became the sovereign state of Tanzania following seven years of non-violent, political struggle led by Julius Nyerere, an ex-teacher. Nyerere achieved international recognition for his vision of lifelong education as an essential strategy for achieving long-term national development goals and adult literacy as an instrument for social and economic change. Illiteracy and rural poverty were to be eradicated through investments in formal and non-formal education, integrated rural economic development projects and Ujaama, a socialist reorganization of rural villages and their economy. It was anticipated that the population would use its newly acquired education to achieve economic self-reliance and sustain a democratic socialist state. Thirty-five years later adult illiteracy continues to be a major national concern, extensive rural poverty persists and economic self-reliance and socialism have been abandoned as national goals. This paper examines the history of adult literacy work in Tanzania, describes a current Canadian adult literacy pilot project and concludes with an assessment of the national social and economic context for literacy work in Tanzania today.

Nyerere's expectations of the role education was to play in Tanzania's development during the 1960s and 1970s are clearly outlined in a number of government policy papers, articles and public speeches (See for example, Nyerere 1973). Initially national education planning focused on supporting development to build, i) a socialist democracy committed to the eradication of poverty through equitable distribution of the nation's resources; ii) a Tanzanian national identity which would counter the lingering negative social effects of colonialism and achieve racial integration, and iii) an economically and politically self reliant nation. Adult education and literacy programs were regarded as an integral part of the national development effort to raise agricultural production and enhance the capacity of people to contribute to the development of their own communities (Hinzen & Hundsdorfer 1979). Achieving higher levels of critical consciousness as a pre-requisite for meaningful participation in local development was to be achieved through adult education and community development. The National Literacy Centre (NLC) was established in Mwanza and mass literacy campaigns were implemented with the goal of eradicating illiteracy by 1975 (Republic of Tanzania 1969). The core functional-literacy resource materials were primers, developed by the NLC, on subjects such as growing cotton and maize, cattle rearing, fishing and civic politics. International agencies including the UNDP and UNESCO contributed funds, technical expertise and the concept of functional literacy.

However, the 1970s brought a drop in world commodity prices, a decline in the influence of international socialism, and reductions in western overseas aid and the national budget deficit increased dramatically. Together these changes created conditions which negated any possibility that large investments in public education would quickly contribute to the country's economic development. By the mid 1980s major shifts in economic and education policies were introduced to implement structural adjustment programs demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Greater emphasis was placed on formal education, particularly at the elementary level and adult education and literacy were given a much lower priority (Buchert 1994). In addition responsibility for adult education programs was devolved to the regional and district levels where local taxation was expected to support them. This change greatly diminished the Ministry of Education and Culture's (MEC) capacity to use adult education to achieve national identity, political participation and social equity goals.

To further complicate matters the mass literacy campaigns experienced major difficulties including, among other problems, poorly trained instructors, community resistance arising to social pressure and elements of compulsion to participate, and learner dissatisfaction with the primers. By the late 1980s literacy programs were in decline and by the 1990s with the NLC barely functioning only a few, mostly donor supported, programs were still being conducted. By agreeing to the structural adjustment requirements of the IMF and the lending policies the World Bank, Tanzania has established an economic context which will create and sustain large scale rural adult illiteracy and poverty for the foreseeable future (Denny 1999). Education and health user fees now make elementary and secondary school attendance unaffordable for many rural families. Consequently non-attendance and early withdrawal from school are increasing and will guarantee youth and adult illiteracy continue to increase for the foreseeable future.

In 1995 MEC reviewed its literacy and post literacy programs and made the decision to introduce a new approach called Integrated Community Based Adult Education Expansion (ICBAE). ICBAE was designed to be a "bottom-up" rather than a "top-down" program model, it's administration was to be decentralized and to be successful would need to address a number of pressing problems in the Ministry:

Inadequate knowledge, within the MEC, of the needs and interests of villagers

Inadequate knowledge on community based adult education program planning

Lack of knowledge and skills among local facilitators and literacy trainers

Increasing illiteracy rates in the target regions

Lack of resources at NLC to print primers and develop instructional materials

Low participation rates in literacy and post-literacy development projects

Lack of MEC resources at national, regional and district levels.

This was the context into which a small three-year, CIDA funded program was introduced by the Saskatchewan Institute for Applied Science and Technology (SIAST) and Cypress Hills Regional College(1). The project was to pilot test an integrated community based literacy project in two communities - Sembetti on the west side of Lake Victoria and Kishinda on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjiro(2).

During the first year, two facilitators received training at ABE programs in Saskatchewan and the Philippines; technical feasibility visits were made to the two communities; a national steering committee was established with representatives from, among others, the MEC, the Institute of Adult Education, the Department of Adult Education at the University of Dar Es Salaam and the Ministry of Development; and a conceptual plan for the project was outlined. Local MEC staff were trained in the principles of CBAE and new role descriptions were written to guide them in monitoring and administering the project at the regional and district levels. The model of literacy education selected, REFLECT, was developed in 1993 by ACTIONAID, a British NGO, which conducted pilot studies of the methodology in Uganda, Bangladesh and El Salvador (Archer & Cottingham 1996). The name REFLECT was originally an acronym for Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques. Today ACTIONAID no longer uses, and requests others not to use, the name REFLECT as an acronym.

The REFLECT approach incorporates the philosophy and critical literacy thought of Freire (Freire 1970) with Participatory Rural Appraisal (Chambers 1992) which is a variant of Participatory Action Research (Hall 1975). Literacy circles of 10 to 20 persons are formed and through a small group facilitation process the participants learn to study their communities and families by constructing maps, matrices, calendars, and other such graphics. There are no literacy primers or printed materials, although the facilitator has a "mother manual" which details how the methodology is to be used (Archer & Cottingham 1996). The graphics are first produced on the ground using available materials such as nuts, corn husks, pebbles and sticks. The participants also draw lines on the ground with sticks, and later may use charcoal on wood, to depict their daily activities and community problems. The graphics are then re-created on cards and large wall posters by the participants themselves. Next the facilitator introduces the alphabet and phonics (where appropriate) to complete the transfer of the graphics into simple text, which is learned as it is generated by the participants during critical analyses of the information created within their group. At this stage the participants require simple writing materials to produce their own personal copy and to practice their newly acquired literacy skills.

The graphics become a permanent record of the participants' analyses and discussions and are used to complete community studies which inform the planning of local economic or community improvement projects. The REFLECT method promotes critical dialogues within communities and maximizes participation in the study of community problems and priority setting for development activities. Through the REFLECT approach local knowledge is compiled, validated and made available for use by others.

A small revolving fund was established for each community to enable learning circle participants, together with other more literate villagers, to gain access to capital for small income generating projects. For example, a small group of women from one of the literacy circles decided that they wished to make school uniforms that they would sell to other families. They created a "literacy of sewing circle" and with the assistance of the facilitator found a local tailor willing to teach them garment making. The tailor was paid as an instructor from the ICBAE budget to teach pattern making, materials estimating and machine sewing. A local accountant taught the group basic bookkeeping and business planning. The women applied for a loan to purchase one sewing machine to start their business. After learning from the salesperson how to operate and maintain the machine they co-signed for their loan at an agreed rate of interest and repayment schedule. By using their one machine in shifts they repaid their loan promptly and applied for another to purchase a second machine. Eventually each woman owned her own sewing machine and while they continued to purchase their materials cooperatively and to meet as a social group, each worked at her trade independently. Through a similar process a group of men acquired higher level literacy skills and chose to become furniture makers. One community group established a non-profit community pharmacy with the loan being repaid from a small mark-up on the resale of the drugs and medical supplies.

After three years the project evaluation demonstrated:

A high rate of retention among learning circle participants

Participants appreciably improved their levels of functional literacy(3)

A number of small livelihood and community development projects had been completed successfully

Participants recommended the activities to others, and additional community requests for learning circles exceeded the capacity of the project to respond

Initial resistance to CBAE practice within the MEC had declined and support for the model was strong among those district staff responsible for its administration

Costs per participant were lower than those in the traditional MEC programs.

In 1997 the MEC established CBAE literacy as a ministry program enabling it to be adopted by regions prepared to allocate funds for community literacy work. And in 1998 MEC, with donor funding from the African Development Bank (ADB), introduced the program to approximately 200 additional communities in six regions. Reflection on the design and implementation of the SIAST pilot project supported by an analysis of the history and current contexts for literacy programs now permits the prospects for future literacy work in Tanzania to proceed from a more optimistic perspective. While the macro level goals of the state have shifted from education for social change, political participation and the elimination of poverty (Human capacity building, 1960s-1970s) to education for economic growth, social stability and capital accumulation (Human capital building, 1980s-1990s) the REFLECT model of literacy can be responsive, depending on choices communities might make, to either of these broad goals being adopted within a region or district's development plan. Although the MEC's priorities have shifted from a strong commitment to adult education in favor of formal vocational and technical education the policy to devolve planning and administration to the district level allows local education planners great flexibility to develop adult education programs that are responsive to community needs. Through the MEC's CBAE program and the REFLECT model communities are able to assess their development priorities and increase their participation in local development. As communities and local institutions of civil society gain strength they may be able to exert greater influence on the allocation of local education and development resources. Further, space is created by devolution for NGOs to re-enter the adult education sector and offer an alternative literacy education, one that would not be provided by government, a more liberatory and human scale development (Max-Neef 1991) oriented literacy.

In conclusion, the SIAST project demonstrates that although the MEC no longer allocates resources for mass, national literacy campaigns it maintains a policy commitment to support programs at lower levels and resources may yet be found from local taxes or international donors. While political, economic and social contexts for literacy work have changed dramatically over the last three generations administrative opportunities for new, community responsive, and likely more effective, models of community based literacy education have been created.


Archer, D. & Cottingham, S. (1996). The REFLECT mother manual: A new approach to adult literacy. London: ACTIONAID.

Buchert, L. (1994). Education in the development of Tanzania 1919-1990.

London: James Curry.

Chambers, R. (1992). Rural appraisal: Rapid, relaxed and participatory. London: IT Publications

Denny, C. (1999). Where debt makes school a luxury not all can afford. Guardian Weekly , February 28, p. 11.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Seabury Press.

Hall, B. (1975). Participatory research: An approach for change. Convergence 8(2),


Hinzen, H. & Hundsdorfer, V. H. (Eds.) (1979). The Tanzanian experience: Education for liberation and development. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education.

Max-Neef, M. A, (1991), Human scale development: Conception, application and further reflections. London: Apex Press.

Nyerere, J. K. (1973) Freedom and development: A selection from writings and speeches 1965-1973. Dar Es Salaam: Oxford University press.

Republic of Tanzania (1969). The second five year plan for economic and social development 1969. Dar Es Salaam: Author.

From independence on December 9, 1962, the paper traces the evolution of Tanzanian literacy education within a national policy of education for self-reliance, through the Arusha Declaration of 1967, the centralized National Literacy Movement of the early 1970s, and the Ujaama rural development program to the introduction of integrated, community-based literacy education in the 1990s.

The paper includes an analysis of the conceptual framework of Tanzania's current literacy programs which has emerged from a project initially funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and currently funded by the African Development Bank (ADB). The CIDA project, developed and implemented by the Saskatchewan Institute for Applied Science and Technology (SIAST), is based on an integrated community based development model which incorporates a new methodology - REFLECT. This methodology, developed by ACTIONAID, a UK NGO, is based on the work of Freire and incorporates Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques developed by Chambers. The name REFLECT originated from an acronym which is no longer used: Regenerating Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques.

In its conclusion the paper focuses on the conference themes of "analyzing past trends" and "illuminating emerging practices" to link Canadian and Tanzanian literacy research and practice.

Beginning in the mid 1980's the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) "persuaded" the government to accept economic reform and structural adjustment programs intended to reduce the countries dependence on overseas aid, eliminate budget deficits and support a market based economy (Buchert 1997). By 1993 these initiatives had led to the introduction of user fees in the education and health sectors. The elimination of free education and health programs imposed extreme financial burdens on the rural population and school non-attendance and drop out rates have increased dramatically. Today, according to Oxfam, there is one desk for every seven school age children, each textbook is shared by four students and elementary classes of 50, or more students are common (Denny 1999).




Purpose Education for social change, political participation and elimination of poverty

Means Develop political consciousness at all levels of society

Communicate and share national goals & priorities

Integrated, multi-sectoral development strategies

Promote national identity and personal commitment

Education Priorities Innovation & balanced curriculum

Formal and non-formal education

Lifelong education

Policy Focus Universal & free access to public education

Social justice & equity

Community rather than individual benefit

Econ & Political Context Socialist self-reliance domestically

International geo-political cold war



Purpose Education for poverty reduction & sustainable development

Means Enhance community capacity

Establish partnership with civil society

Develop long term infrastructure projects

Cooperate with western donors to support social programs

Education Priorities Basic education at expense of higher & lifelong education

Formal at expense of non-formal education

Policy Focus Universal & free access to basic education

Social equity

Individual and community benefit

Differentiated & private education permitted

Econ & Political Context Export & domestic market priorities

International socialism in decline



Purpose Education for economic growth & capital accumulation

Means Devolution of social programs to local authorities

Establish partnership with private sector

Reduce government expenditures & tax base

Cooperate with western financial institutions and create investment incentives

Education Priorities Vocational-technical at expense of liberal secondary education

Math, science & technology

Policy Focus Cost-benefit & public system efficiency

Individual benefit

Differentiated & private education supported

Econ & Political Context Participation in global market

International deregulation & tariff elimination


Purpose Education for social change, political participation and elimination of poverty

Means Critical literacy education to raise political consciousness at all levels of society

Communicate and share national goals & priorities through literacy circles

Literacy & ABE integrated into multi-sectoral development strategies

Promote national identity and personal commitment through mass campaigns

Education Priorities Innovation & balanced curriculum

Formal and non-formal education

Lifelong education

Policy Focus Universal & free access to public education

Social justice & equity

Community rather than individual benefit

Econ & Political Context Socialist self-reliance domestically

International geo-political cold war


Regenerated Freirean Literacy through

Empowering Community Techniques.

Critical adult literacy approach

Non-formal learning circles & popular education techniques

Participatory rural appraisal & participatory research techniques

Integrates literacy and local development activities

No primers. Local materials & objects used initially (Vygotsky - zpd)

1. A supporting institutional partner seeking experience in international development.

2. The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) established a parallel CBAE project in four communities but did not use the REFLECT approach.

3. None of the participants had been totally illiterate when they entered their learning circle.

Press this button to return to National Conference Archives Main Page.
Return to the National Conference Archives Main Page

Prepared August 3, 1999 by the ACÉÉA/CASAE Internet Working Group