Financing literacy

Download the full financing literacy report and data here.

The financing literacy project started in June 2010; five years after the International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy were published by the Global Campaign for Education. Benchmark 12 stated that: 'Governments should dedicate at least 3% of their national education sector budgets to adult literacy programmes. Where governments deliver on this, international donors should fill any remaining resource gaps'. The financing literacy project set out to collect data on exactly what governments are spending.

When Benchmark 12 was agreed, there was awareness that adult literacy was drastically underfunded and marginalized within education ministries around the world. One reason for the neglect of adult literacy is the belief that the best, and most cost-effective, long-term strategy to achieve literacy is to focus on primary education, which will lead to future generations of adults growing up literate. This reasoning is problematic for several reasons: it paints an overly optimistic picture of the potential of universal primary education in many countries, it ignores the role of adult literacy in children's education and it means denying millions of adults their right to literacy.

However, while the neglect of literacy was well established, there was a lack of information about how much governments were actually spending. This lack of data meant that tracking progress was difficult and there was uncertainty about whether the 3% target proposed in the International Benchmarks on Adult Literacy was appropriate. Therefore, the financing literacy project was started to collect and collate data on government spending on literacy and adult education internationally. Additionally, the project has conducted case study research on a range of countries that have increased their investment in adult literacy. This has enabled the project to look at both the quantity and quality of literacy financing.

Key findings

Data on government spending on adult literacy and adult education was found for around forty countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. This probably constitutes the largest existing collection of data on literacy financing. Data was collected from CONFINTEA reports, Education Sector Plans and other government and civil society sources. Where data could not be found this was often an indicator that little investment was being made in literacy – and sometimes this was officially acknowledged. For example, the education plan for Belize states that: 'a primary goal for the ALE sector would be to have a specific budgetary allocation from the government'. This highlights the role that international targets could play in assisting national advocacy efforts.

  • No country has reached the 3% benchmark, although two countries have come close. South Africa reportedly spent 2.78% of the education budget on adult literacy in 2008 and Brazil 2.76% in 2006.
  • Countries including Chad, Thailand, Burkina Faso and Brazil have increased the percentage of the education budget allocated to adult literacy or adult education.
  • A larger number of countries have decreased their allocations to adult education and adult literacy as a percentage of the education budget and these include Pakistan, Malawi, Mauritania, Nigeria, China and the Gambia.
  • For some of these countries (e.g. Nigeria and China) real spending on adult education has actually increased while the proportion spent has decreased. For others (such as Pakistan and Malawi) there have been real decreases in spending on adult education. However, even where spending has increased in real terms, decreasing percentages still indicate that adult education is being deprioritized relative to other sectors and is therefore not receiving the benefits of increasing overall funds to education.
  • Some countries (such as Vietnam and Ghana) have increased real spending on adult literacy or education in line with increased overall allocations to education, but have kept the percentage spent at a fixed allocation (1.3% on adult education in Ghana and 2.83% on adult education in Vietnam).
  • In some cases, decreases in spending have been explicitly linked to pressure to divert resources away from adult education to the primary sector.


  • 3% as an appropriate target: It is recognised that there are problems with deciding on a global target for spending when the needs in different countries are so different. This said, the research indicates that a target is indeed useful as it provides a reference point for national level advocacy. 3% seems to be an appropriate target as it is large enough to make an impact if reached, yet feasible in size. Other targets on adult literacy show consensus on the appropriateness of the 3% target. For example, the outcome document for the Asia-Pacific CONFINTEA VI preparatory conference states in its recommendations that 'Allocations to adult learning and education should be at least 6% of the education budget' and the Latin American document recommends that '3% of education budgets should be spent on Youth and Adult Education'. The Bonn Declaration on financing adult education states that governments should: 'Allocate a minimum of 6% of GNP to education within which a minimum of 6% is for adult education, reserving half of this for adult literacy programmes where required’. The African CONFINTEA VI document stops short of setting a target but does state that: 'the current attempts to establish minimum funding benchmarks as a percentage of national education budgets should be intensified'. This shows broad agreement that a global target on literacy financing is appropriate.
  • Pegging literacy spending to sustain financing: In addition to low spending, fluctuating and inconsistent spending pose serious threats to the likelihood of long-term literacy programmes being implemented. In fact, as we have seen in Latin America with the dubious declaration of ‘illiteracy free zones’, short-term high spending can be a way for states to excuse themselves from the responsibility of spending on literacy in the future. Therefore, advocating for pegged spending in order to sustain financing is also important.
  • The EFA FTI and adult literacy: The Education for All Fast Track Initiative (EFA FTI) was set up to mobilize and coordinate donor resources for education. It has in fact focused almost exclusively on financing primary school education, making a mockery out of the title 'Education for All'. The EFA FTI website states: 'Any low-income country which can demonstrate serious commitment to achieving Universal Primary Enrolment can receive support from FTI'. Given, this focus, developing country governments are unlikely to include adult literacy in education sector plans submitted to the FTI for endorsement. There are signs of change and the FTI has now endorsed a small number of education sector plans with adult literacy components. However, the FTI should widen its focus to explicitly include adult literacy, thereby encouraging more governments to include literacy in plans they submit.
  • International aid and state responsibility: International aid to adult literacy should be encouraged but it should not absolve states of responsibility.
  • Quantity versus quality in literacy financing, the need for more detailed figures: Even more difficult than finding figures on the financing of literacy is finding figures that break down what literacy funds are actually spent on. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to examine the quality of literacy financing. Overall figures on the financing of literacy tell us very little about the amount that is spent on paying and training facilitators, factors that as the Benchmarks recognise, are integral to high quality programmes. The relative amount that is spent on these aspects does not necessarily correlate to overall high and low spending. Therefore, advocacy efforts aimed at encouraging governments to publish figures detailing what they spend literacy funds on, as well as how much is spent, are important.
  • Getting a reasonable percentage of the education budget allocated to adult literacy is only the first step: accountability mechanisms also need to be in place to ensure that allocated budgets are actually released. The research found that allocations for Adult Education are sometimes not fully released, with the implication that they are optional extras, which can be diverted to the school system if necessary (Aitchison and Alidou, 2009). For example, in Mali NFE was allocated between 0.6-2.9% of the education sector budget in the years 2004-2008, but only 1.4% of the allocated budget was distributed (African Platform for Adult Education, 2008). In Brazil and Peru too recorded figures for actual expenditure on adult education are frequently lower than figures for allocated expenditure. In other countries, informal conversations with those involved in the literacy sector cast doubt on the likelihood that recorded figures were actually spent in their countries. Therefore, budget tracking is a key area of focus for advocacy efforts around the financing of literacy.

Your contributions

The tables on the financing of adult literacy are a work in progress. If you have more accurate or up-to-date figures for your country please get in touch with us so that we can amend the tables accordingly. Likewise, we would love to hear from you if you have an interesting case study or have carried out research or advocacy on the financing of literacy in your country or region.

Contact: emma [dot] pearceatactionaid [dot] org




Thanks mary for your

Thanks mary for your insights, this kind of debate can bring forward more insights that can deepen the campaign on adult literacy financing by both the donors and national governaments. let us get more comments on the topic.

Topher Kwiri ( Independent Literacy practioner)

To pay or not to Pay

To pay or not to Pay facilitators?

There are continued debates on whether to pay or not to pay literacy facilitators. The push not to pay arises mostly from donor demands for the sustainability of literacy programmes. This has had consequences on the retention of facilitators especially from poor economic contexts. If the push is towards national governments increasing financing for adult literacy and part of which should go to motivation of facilitators, then the voluntarism push by donors becomes a stumbling block. Literacy facilitators are contributing immensely to the realization of EFA and MDGs and yet we expect them not to be paid. Aren't we deafeating our own campaign efforts.

Kwiri Topher is an independent Adult Literacy practitioner currently managing a centre for development research, training and management. He has written a masters thesis on REFLECT, Partcipation and Empowerment with the London South Bank University. He formerly worked with ActionAid as education policy and research analyst and participated in the ILOPs study. He has also introduced the REFLECT approach to anumber of organizations including Zoa South Sudan, American Refuguee Committe- south Sudan, ADRA Uganda, ADRA Rwanda

Thank you for your comment.

Thank you for your comment.

I think it is important that attention is paid both to the quantity (the amount spent) and quality (how the money is spent) of literacy financing, and facilitator pay is certainly an important aspect of the quality of literacy financing. The GCE Benchmarks on Adult Literacy also contain a Benchmark on facilitator pay which states that: 'To retain facilitators it is important that they should be paid at least the equivalent of the minimum wage of a primary school teacher for all hours worked'.

I would agree that there is pressure from donors to have the biggest results for the smallest amount of money and that this often leads to pressure to use volunteer facilitators. The use of volunteers certainly impacts on retainment which can in turn impact on the quality and consistency of programmes.

It is often difficult to find data which breaks down the way governments funds on literacy are spent, but where possible we are keen to find data on how funds on literacy are spent as well as the overall total, and facilitator pay is an important part of this.

I would be keen to see comments/data about facilitator pay in different contexts. 

Mary Cobbett (Financing Literacy Research Intern, ActionAid)

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