While many in the global development community have largely written off adult literacy programs as failures in teaching literacy and numeracy and therefore defunded them, research by a Washington and Lee University economist demonstrates that these programs have had the unintended success of decreasing child mortality.
Niels-Hugo Blunch, associate professor of economics at Washington and Lee's Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics, has recently published a paper, "Staying Alive: Adult Literacy Programs and Child Mortality in Rural Ghana," in volume 42 of the journal "World Development." He is the first researcher to convincingly analyze the health outcomes of adult literacy programs, and the impacts of these programs in general have received little attention in economics literature.
"My findings are somewhat controversial," admitted Blunch. "Evaluations of these programs show that they failed dismally in terms of their one official objective — teaching literacy and numeracy — but no-one has considered other potentially beneficial outcomes that have made them, in fact, a great success."
Blunch is hoping that publication of his paper will bring this omission to the attention of the global development community, including the World Bank, and result in increased attention and funding for these programs, especially in rural areas.
It was while working at the World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C., in the late 1990s that Blunch first visited Ghana as part of a team supervising adult literacy programs funded by the World Bank.
"It was a humbling experience and it really hit me," he said. "We would go to a village way out in the rural area and it would be dark outside. But inside a clay hut, with maybe one or two petroleum lamps, women — and they were mostly women — would sit around, some with babies on their backs. Many had worked a full day, maybe in the fields, and then come to attend one of these adult literacy programs in the evening to learn to read and write and do basic calculations."
Blunch explained that although the adult literacy program is formally about literacy and numeracy, it is really a multiplex program that integrates other modules such as health and social issues, income generation/occupational skills and civic awareness. Approximately 28 different topics are covered across those three modules.
Under the health module, women learn about family planning, teenage pregnancy, environmental hygiene, immunization, HIV/AIDS, safe motherhood and child care, drug abuse, traditional medicine and safe drinking water.
Classes in rural Ghana are held two to three times a week for a total of about six hours per week and, in most cases, there are 20 to 30 participants per instructor. It takes about 21 months to complete the course. Yet, according to Blunch, a significant reason for the skepticism and resulting reduction in funding of these programs is the poor outcomes in Latin America and South America, where classes frequently lasted only six to eight months, were shorter, and often also not with the additional health, income generating activities and civic awareness components.
Ghana's National Functional Literacy Program was officially launched in 1987 through the establishment of the Non-Formal Education Division as a separate unit under the Ministry of Education, indicating the importance the government attached to the program and non-formal education more generally. Many Ghanaians attended the program through the late 1980s to early 1990s, but funding decreased significantly in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In his research, Blunch analyzed data from the Ghana Living Standards Survey, a nationally representative, multi-purpose household survey which uses a template developed by the World Bank but tailored to local conditions. In order to strengthen the credibility of his results, he used several methods to evaluate the data. He found that, for a wide range of estimation methods, the program had a consistently high impact on decreasing child mortality. On average, a woman attending the program could expect the deaths of between 0.165 and three of her children to be averted.
"I specifically looked at whether a woman who participated in the program would be less likely to experience her children dying. This would then be attributable to information she learned in the health module due to the combination of low effects of program participation on literacy and numeracy outcomes and the rigorous statistical methods employed," he said. "And I found the relationship between program participation and child mortality to be both sizable and statistically significant. So it's effectively 'beyond any reasonable statistical doubt'."
It took Blunch a few years for his paper to be published because he insisted on a causal interpretation of his findings. "I argue that it is not merely a 'statistical association' where women 'tend' to experience fewer children dying—potentially due to women participating in the programs simply being different in other respects to begin with, for example due to ability or preferences. It is participation in the program per se that causes the decrease in child mortality: a causal relationship from A to B with nothing in between. I insisted on that strong conclusion because I have faith in both the quality of the data and my statistical methods. Also, if I can make that stronger case, then it will benefit these programs much more."
Blunch also included a cost-benefit analysis of the adult literacy program. It demonstrates that participation produces substantial positive net benefits in monetary terms, including the future earnings of children whose deaths have been averted, even when disregarding women learning about income-generating activities, as well as the many other positive potential outcomes of program participation. He purposely used very conservative numbers in his calculations by keeping the expected costs high and the expected benefits low.
"The program is very cheap because the instructors are teachers in the formal schools during the daytime and teach in the program a couple of nights a week. And they do it mostly to help their communities," Blunch explained. "They get a nominal payment such as a sewing machine or a bicycle rather than money, which would be distributed to family and friends. So this gives them something tangible of their own that they can then still lend to people."
Blunch hopes that his paper will be seen in academic and policy circles within the global development community. He is also aware, due to his time at the World Bank, that when programs are started a full review of published research on the subject is undertaken and used to form priorities on what might work and what might not work.
"If policy makers come across my paper and see these positive outcomes in a different dimension than they originally intended — even though they built those multiplex components into the program — it could broaden their view of what development is and what should be deemed a success," said Blunch. "My mission is to reinvigorate the focus on these programs and show the development community everywhere, not just in Ghana, that these programs can be a potentially useful vehicle for development, and not just in literacy and numeracy. This is especially true where the quantity and quality of formal educational institutions are low."
Blunch considers adult literacy programs a core part of his research and has also analyzed the effect of the health components of these programs on teenage pregnancy and the use of contraceptives.
Blunch received his B.A. and M.A. in economics from the University of Aarhus, Denmark and his M.S. in economics and econometrics from University of Southampton, UK. He received his Ph.D. in economics from The George Washington University.