Australia: Cuba's 'Yes, we can' literacy campaign success in outback

June 27, 2013 -- Green Left TV -- Bob Boughton speaks to GLTV's Linda Seaborn about his experience with the Cuban literacy campaign. Filmed in the GLTV studio at the Hobart Activist Centre.

This is an abridged transcript of an interview Linda Seaborn conducted with Dr Bob Boughton for Green Left Weekly. Boughton helped initiate a Cuba-supported literacy program in the New South Wales town of Wilcannia.

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Tell us about the Cuban “Yes, we can” literacy campaign model.

I came across it while working in Timor Leste where the government had invited a group of Cubans to help with their national literacy campaign. They had a model they had developed back in 2000. There are three aspects to the model. One is they mobilise the whole community around the issue of literacy and they build a local campaign structure which drives the campaign.

The second aspect of the model is they have a pre-recorded set of DVDs on which there are lessons, and when you watch the lessons you are watching a class learn how to read and write.

The third aspect of the campaign is that when people complete the 64 lessons, the community or local government organise activities which allow people to continue to build their literacy.

It's a way of doing literacy work which means you can do it on a mass scale without a lot of qualified people, because you can use village-based tutors and facilitators to do the teaching and organising.

It's based on their experience, over many years, working all over the world, to assist newly independent countries and liberation movements to raise literacy levels amongst their population.

In the English-speaking world the program is almost unknown. But in Latin America it is really well known, it's being used in 28 countries around the world, mostly in Latin America and Africa.

Why was the program developed?

The origin of it is the Cubans’ own literacy campaign which they developed in 1961 — 52 years ago now. They closed the high schools and people went into the districts and taught people how to read and write. They eradicated illiteracy in the country in about a year. On the basis of that, they were invited to go to other countries and help, so they went to Angola, Mozambique and other places.

Over the years they developed a lot of expertise in this area. In the ‘90s they started using radio to do it in Haiti and it was that experience of using radio that gave them the idea they should do it with television, as a TV program to use in countries where there weren't a lot of resources. So it was basically a model that they developed to use in countries of the global South.

It’s a distance education model which uses audio-visual technology to deliver classes. The cleverness of it is that when people are watching the class they’re learning to be students or, if they’re the facilitator, they’re learning to be a tutor because it’s being modelled for them on the screen.

And you can turn it on and off to do the exercises in the books that come with the DVDs.

How successful has it been?

In the countries where it’s been deployed in countries of the global South, they are getting a 90% completion rate for people who are joining the classes. I worked with the Cuban advisor group in Timor Leste between 2006 and 2010 when they were rolling it out there. They’ve reached over 150,000 people with it, some of them in very remote communities.

So it’s very successful. It only takes people to a very basic level of literacy. It only brings people “through the gate” as they say, and from there they can build. It gets everybody to a level where they can at least sign their own name or they can write a simple letter.

Does that affect people’s confidence so they can go on and learn by themselves?

One of the most dramatic impacts is the way it builds people’s confidence in their capacity to learn and to join that world where literacy is the coin. If a person didn’t go to school or felt they didn’t have the capacity to learn, this is a really simple step which allows people to realise they do have the capacity to learn.

The way the Cubans designed the lessons, it isn’t just about learning to read or write, there’s a lot of general knowledge in it. Every lesson starts with a positive message which is quite a simple message, it might be about the environment, or about looking after children or the importance of education, and then there’s a discussion in the class about that issue.

So whether it’s in Timor or Wilcannia in NSW, where we’ve had a pilot program, people really enjoy having the chance to talk about issues that they’ve got really strong views about, but they’ve never felt confident enough about expressing them before.

How was the model applied in Wilcannia, a remote Aboriginal community?

Wilcannia was the community that agreed to be the first pilot community for the program in Australia. The CEO of the land council did a lot of work talking to the community about whether they thought literacy was an issue, and whether they would be happy to have a Cuban advisor come and live in the community.

The community really liked the idea. We started with a big launch in a park in the middle of town and over 300 people came, in a town of 700. So it was a sign that the community did really want to be part of it. From then on it’s gone really well.

We’ve had two cohorts of students complete the classes and we’re at the stage now where a third cohort are starting and some of the students from the first cohort are helping to organise that third group.

In Wilcannia, in the first phase, when we were building community support for it, we went to every organisation in town — the health service, the shire, the school, the youth centre — and got their support before we started.

We also do a house-to-house survey. Some local people were trained to go house to house to discuss whether there was anybody in the household who might benefit from joining the campaign or whether anybody in the house wanted to help with teaching or some other role.

It opens it up to the whole community, the Cubans insist you have to go to every house, it’s not exclusive. There’s no selectiveness about it, anyone who wants to do it can join in.

When the classes ran we used a set of DVDs that had been made for Grenada — a country in the Carribean — because that’s an English speaking country that had used this method for their national literacy campaign that started in 2007. So the actors on the DVDs were Grenadian.

We weren’t sure how this would work in Wilcannia, but the community loved it. They were really interested that there were other people of colour in the world who didn’t know how to read or write.

How did it the literacy campaign change the lives of the graduates?

It is not just the students who are impacted, it is everybody. One woman has become an assistant facilitator in the next cohort. Another woman is now the coordinator of the campaign and she got a job in the shire for several months, which is the first time the shire had employed a local Aboriginal person.

Another group of men and women decided they wanted to use their new skills to set up an income generating business. They’re setting up a catering business to cater to public servants when they come to town and need sandwiches for meetings.

It has a ripple effect. One of the facilitators set up a men’s shed to work with men and talk about issues like health and violence.

What plans are there to continue the campaign in Australia?

The National Aboriginal Steering Committee — after their review of what it had achieved in Wilcannia — they decided they wanted to keep it going. Two other communities in the same region have asked to do the same campaign, so we’ve just started to work with those communities to develop it.

Another Cuban advisor is coming out, a woman this time. There’s also the possibility to try it in central Australia, in communities where English isn’t the first language.

Can you described your work in Timor Leste?

I was a member of the solidarity movement during the Indonesian occupation. In 1975, when Indonesia invaded, left-wing groups in Australia played a big role in supporting Fretlin – the independence movement. We had a relationship with Fretlin all through that period.

When they achieved their independence, members of the old solidarity movement were invited to a Fretlin congress, and we were talking about what we could do as a solidarity movement post-independence. One of the things they said they needed was to rebuild their adult education system.

Fretlin actually ran an adult literacy campaign before the invasion and it was one of the main ways which they built the popular support for the independence movement. We started working with the ministry of education to get this happening but until the Cubans came along we were floundering because we didn’t have a model.

The Cubans arrived with their medical people in 2004-05. That provided an opening for us to see they could help with literacy and a group of Cuban educators arrived in 2006.

I was lucky enough to get a grant to evaluate this work. We worked alongside the Cubans as they rolled out the campaign over several years. We watched the whole way they developed it. We thought communities in Australia might be interested.

People are amazed, they say “how come you’ve got a Cuban here?” They’re even more amazed when I tell them it’s because the Timorese showed us how to do it.

You’ve described literacy as a class issue, can you elaborate on that?

One of things that happens in education is it reproduces inequality. The people who come from working-class communities and backgrounds are regularly disadvantaged by the way the school system operates.

There’s a clear relationship between the level of inequality you’ve got in society and what you get out the other end in the education system.

It’s pretty obvious. People who go to private, well-funded schools, and go from there to sandstone universities and from there to highly-paid professional and executive positions, they finish up at the top end of society.

And people who come in with a lot less resources, and don’t do so well at school, come out with less qualifications and finish up in jobs that earn them less and have to face a lot more issues in order to survive.

The education system reproduces that inequality. A lot of people think it overcomes it, but it doesn’t. So what do you about it?

It doesn’t matter how much you invest in the education system. It’s going to be very hard for the people who come from the more marginal backgrounds to do well in it, because it’s a system that’s constructed around the needs of a different class of people.

You have to work with the adults in the communities that are educationally disadvantaged, so that they gain the skills to get the system to treat their children differently. They have to be able to assert the rights of their children.

People who haven’t had a good experience in school are often not confident in asserting the rights of their children in relation to the school, they think the school is doing what it should be doing.

It’s a class issue because if you don’t address the inequality amongst the adults, it’s difficult to break the cycle of what’s happening in the school system.

If you’ve got a mass of adults who have very low literacy, you’re not going to be able to build your society as an equal society.

What’s the adult literacy rate in Australia?

It’s a matter of debate because it depends on what you’re measuring and as each year goes by, what counts as being literate tends to move. Twenty or 30 years ago, you could get by with a certain level of print literacy and do a lot of things with that level whereas now the level of literacy required to operate has become a lot higher.

So over time, more and more people are being excluded from having the skills they need to operate in the modern world.

How literate you are depends on how literate society insists that you be. With that proviso, there is around 10% to 15% of the Australian population who have minimal literacy.

If you’re talking about how to operate in a modern service industry, or an industry where there’s a lot of technology, you might be talking about up to 30% to 40% don’t really have the skills to operate at that level.

People who have got good literacy don’t even know what they’ve got. It’s like whiteness, you don’t see your own literacy. Until you have to work closely with people who don’t have that level of literacy, you don’t realise how many barriers there are to even do the most ordinary things.

It’s not just what you can read. It’s what you can understand. That means being able to read between the lines, not just being able to read the lines. So you have to be able to read critically too, you have to be able to see that what you’re reading isn’t necessarily the truth, it’s just what someone else has decided to tell you is the truth. To be properly literate you have to develop that capacity to be critical.