Can volunteers alone make the nation literate?

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It is not surprising to know that the evidence from the ground shows that the efforts of the Government of Nepal to eradicate illiteracy are not bearing desired fruits.

Indeed it is not uncommon to read news about the Government’s failures to achieve the ambitious goal of reaching out by mid July 2015 to 1.7 million citizens still unable to write and read.

While the revised criteria to declare a person literate looks to offer a real shortcut to reach the goals and  are questionable at least, what really baffles me is how the Government can declare to have mobilized 207.000 volunteers through its flagship Literate Nepal Mission.

True that the Mission is mostly focused on rural areas and therefore these volunteers are “invisible” to those like me living in Kathmandu.

Yet I am wondering how come such a massive number of persons mobilized for an important cause like illiteracy eradication is not being acknowledged nationwide as a major accomplishment.

If it is really true that thousands of volunteers have been involved in the campaign, then, despite the shortcomings, we should really talk about a great achievement for Nepal. What are we doing to recognize and celebrate their outstanding contributions?

Having hundreds of thousands citizens mobilized for the national literacy mission is instead a real matter of pride for the country and in comparison, the recent human made national flag, possible thanks to the mobilization of hundreds if not thousands citizens, is a minnow event.

Doubts aide, assuming that the number of volunteers mobilized is genuine, the reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done in order to eradicate illiteracy in Nepal with or without volunteers.

Can we just count on the sheer determination of volunteers or instead volunteerism, while important, should be seen only as one of the many tools available by the Non Formal Education Center, NFEC, the apex body to turn Nepal into an illiteracy free nation?

First of all who are these volunteers? What were the criteria used to select them? Which level of preparation do they have? What was their overall “duty descriptions” (talking about volunteers, technically we should not talk about a job description)? Did they receive any allowance? Are they involved part time or full time? Which agency is coordinating them?

Let’s be careful before replicating an education version of the Female community health volunteers program, not because it is not successful but because actually they are not real volunteers but unpaid community health workers.

Might it be the case that the failures of any literacy campaigns so far implemented are also related to the fact that the government is too much reliant on the performance of the volunteers? Are they so indispensible?

Is the NFED coordinating with the district education offices? Who is actually in charge of the Community Learning Centers, the learning institutions at the grassroots level charged with the responsibility of reaching out to illiterate persons and teach them basic reading and writing skills? Are the Resource Persons under the District Education Offices involved in the process?

What about the participation and involvement of national and international not for profit organizations, alias NGO and INGOs? Are they part of this so called national mission?  

These are key questions we should ask ourselves when we try to analyze the reasons why the National Literacy Mission is failing despite the huge financial resources it has been entrusted with.

In an article published in the daily Republica, Mr Baburam Poudel, Director of NFEC states that ninth and tenth grade students could be mobilized to bridge the sizeable gap of remaining 348,299 persons  left behind . Moreover it seems that the Ministry of Education is to set up a separate unit or division to coordinate the mobilization of volunteers to be involved in the Mission.

I am wondering if the National Development Volunteering Service, the apex program under the National Planning Commission that mobilizes volunteers all over country, is going to be involved in future efforts. NPC’s participation should be considered a must in any future plans.

As oftentimes happens, coordination among stakeholders is the most difficult thing to achieve.

Leading such ambitious plans requires sheer will and determination from the top level of  political leadership. NFEC alone, despite all the good will it can put in the drive against illiteracy, will never be able alone to make illiteracy history.

The ongoing Literacy Campaign Week that will culminate with International Literacy Day on the 8th of September, risks being a farce unless it is turned into a serious introspection exercise to strategically review the past shortcomings and prepare a detailed blue print to boost its chances of success in the future.

All the major stakeholders must take part in this review process and clear roles and responsibilities should be framed out in order to maximize the added values that each player can provide.

An enhanced accountability mechanism should be also agreed to in order to effectively mobilize the resources at local levels. Local and national not for profits can offer tremendous inputs and contributions but they will need adequate financial resources. Money should not be spent on doling out allowances for volunteers but rather to train them adequately to carry out their duties well while financially backed literacy performance targets should be entrusted to the not for profit actors involved.

 NFEC should be aware about the power and limitation of volunteering action. Expecting that volunteers are able to eradicate illiteracy alone is naïve at best.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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