How does a country make progress? The answers seem to be obvious on paper - if difficult to effect in the world itself. Those of us who are citizens of the First World tend to believe that we understand what is required for a nation to "develop." But Blunch and Verner, in their study of literacy and numeracy skills in Ghana, demonstrate how complicated the idea of "development" is and how culturally specific.
That development should take different courses in different parts of the world should, in fact, not be a surprise to us at all. One of the problems of modernization projects has always been that there is a certain essential arrogance to nearly all of them because there is embedded in them the idea that every "backward" country could improve itself (i.e. become like the nation that is sponsoring the modernization project) if it simply applied itself.
Such an arrogance is not, in fact, restricted to the United States or the Western European nations; it was at least as marked an aspect of Marxist regimes that argued that every nation would progress through feudalism and capitalism in the same trajectory.
However, if the process of making progress were truly as simple as all of that, one might hazard a guess that nations would be more developed than they are. While the idea of development may be a Western one, with a number of cultural biases woven into it, it is also hard not to imagine that many governments do in fact desire many of the things that development can bring with it - lower infant mortality rates, for example.
This article looks at two of the measures that are traditionally used by First World nations and a variety of non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations and the Red Cross to determine how much a country is developing: literacy and numeracy amongst the population.
The authors argue that these are essential criteria to examine when considering the current economic and cultural situation in Ghana because they afford fairly concise ways of determining what skills are possessed by members of the population that might be of greatest use to those people in their lives.
Education is generally seen as a uniformly positive force both in overall improvement of a nation's economic position (and one might indeed posit that the current economic stagnation in sub-Saharan African arises from the fact that the population in this area is in general formally uneducated), but the authors of this study suggest that simply assuming correlating an amorphous value of "education" with improved economic chances does not provide us with a sufficiently precise analytical tool by which to assess a population.
This paper attempts to provide a precise, quantitative method to determine exactly how educated different subpopulations are in Ghana in certain sets of specific educational skills and how these measures may be used to suggest future allocations of public resources that might be employed to increase the level of education in the nation.
One of the important issues taken up in this paper is the entire question of literacy and how it should be embedded in a cultural context. Those who have grown up in the First World tend to assume that literacy is essential to being educated, and indeed it is hard to disagree with this assessment for First World citizens. Being illiterate in the First World places one in a position of significantly lessened potential economic and social power.
Moreover, being an illiterate in, for example, the United States, not only substantially limits the kinds of jobs that one can get (for example), it places one almost beyond the pale of the definition of human, in the same way that children who are so neglected and abused that they never learn to speak are also seem as somehow not quite fully human. This accounts for the reason why those who are illiterate in the First World feel such shame over their condition.
But literacy in Ghana, the authors argue, must be understood within an African context that emphasizes the importance of oral culture - the transmission of culture and knowledge through spoken rather than written language. While there are certainly limitations to an oral culture, there are also certainly many advantages to it as well (including perhaps most importantly the way that oral transmission of culture tends to create stronger community bonds and more peaceful ways of settling intra-community struggles).
Ghanaians, as members of a traditionally oral culture, may not become literate at the same rate with the same educational expenditures that another population would. Another way of putting this is that access to education (if that education has embedded in it cultural values that are not consonant with those of the population) may well fail to achieve the original goals of that educational program. This is a reiteration of the point made at the beginning of this case analysis: Progress must be defined, understood and implemented in a culturally sensitive and culturally specific way.
Education in Ghana - if we define education here to mean the acquisition of the skills required to read and write simple texts and mathematical equations - must be understood within a cultural context, and any failings of the educational system (as defined either by the government or by the people themselves) must be remedied by actions that are also culturally sensitive and specific.
The authors of the study found that there were significant differentials amongst different subpopulations in Ghana in terms of literacy and numeracy skills that reflected larger social and cultural divisions within the society. The study was an attempt to answer some of the following questions:
In particular, has the quality of schooling, as measured by literacy and numeracy, increased as a consequence of increased educational expenditures?...Has access to education, as measured by literacy and numeracy, increased or decreased over time? Is it equally distributed across rural and urban areas? Across gender? If not, we may ask: why is this?
Blunch and Verner in fact found that there were significant differences that must be seen to reflect no differences between, for example, men and women in terms of intelligence, but existing cultural and social hierarchies.
These differentials in literacy especially are of vital concern to the Ghanaian population for a number of different reasons, including economic development. But the ability to read includes more than simply the ability to get a better job: Indeed, for those pursuing traditional occupations such as farming literacy and numeracy may not be of immediate, substantial economic help (although in some cases they might).
However, there are other benefits to literacy, such as public health ones, that have both an immediate effect on a population as well as trickle-down economic ones. A person who becomes infected with AIDS because he or she cannot read health information will still be able to work for a while, but eventually will be so sick that he or she must drop out of the workforce.
Blunch and Vermer summarize this point:
Summing up the discussion in this sub-section, it seems fair to conclude that with such distinct links and spill-over effects among literacy/cognitive skills and health and labor market outcomes, the usefulness of analyzing further the origins and determinants of literacy and cognitive skills in order to promote growth of these skills becomes evident. Indeed, pointing to the AIDS-epidemic in large part of Sub-Saharan Africa, increasing our understanding of the literacy-health link and promoting literacy throughout the continent is imperative.
The differentials that the researchers discovered in regards to literacy and numeracy skills are in fact exactly what one might expect. Literacy and numeracy are positively correlated with age: Each additional year that a person has lived increases the probability of being literate by between 1.8 and 2.4%.
Males are more likely to be literate than are female, the researchers found by a significant degree, suggestive of structural biases in the educational system. The educational level of fathers, but not mothers, is important as well. And urban dwellers far more than rural ones are likely to be literate.
Finally, the two researchers found that a person's general cultural background was an important element in acquiring literacy and numeracy skills.
Case Study Two: Blunch and Verner (Functional Literacy)
One of the assumptions made about education in the First World is that people will be either impelled or lured by economic factors into becoming literate. There are few jobs in the United States, for example, in which literacy is not important and almost none that are not minimum-wage positions. (Certainly there are a few: One might become a millionaire by being a model or an athlete if one were not literate and had a talented, honest agent, but the chances of being able to achieve this are, of course, very low.)
However, this may not be the case in all countries simply because the amount of education required for a good job is likely to…