School Choice & Charters

Foreign-Aid Groups Use ‘Nonformal’ Strategies To Educate Youngsters

By Sean Cavanagh — December 11, 2002 4 min read
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In trying to educate children in foreign countries where poverty, geography, and scarce resources can make formal classroom instruction nearly impossible, international aid organizations are often forced to look at other options.

One of those options is “nonformal education,” a concept that generally refers to instruction taking place outside the standard classroom environment, as either a complement or alternative to existing school-based programs. According to representatives of various international aid organizations who gathered here recently, those efforts have as much relevance today in developing nations as ever.

Titled “Funding a World That Works for Everyone: Global Social Change Philanthropy,” the Nov. 17-19 conference featured representatives of organizations working on projects in Southeast Asia, Central America, and Africa.

A session at the conference, staged at Gallaudet University, explored nonformal education’s role in an environment where many countries and organizations are focusing primarily on improving traditional classroom instruction.

The ‘Other’ Category

“The whole concept of nonformal education [fits] in that vast, unending ‘other’ category,” said Michael J. Gibbons, the associate director of the Banyan Tree Foundation, a Washington organization that underwrites international projects, who attended the session. “Partly, it’s a reaction to the limits of formal education.”

The shape of nonformal education programs varies according to the setting and the needs of the populations they serve.

In some cases, those projects could amount to a teacher, or simply the most educated member of a remote village, leading children or adults through literacy or math lessons in someone’s home. In vast, rural areas of Africa and other regions where there aren’t any schools—or immediate plans to build them—those sorts of makeshift classes may be the only options.

Other nonformal initiatives evolve as a part of agricultural development, health care, and other social- service projects in developing countries, in which adults or children spend a few hours each day in academic instruction.

One participant at the gathering here described a project assisting poor children and parents in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in which education was incorporated into health care and vocational training.

Another attendee, Steve Ginther of the Global Fund for Children, said his organization uses nonformal concepts as part of a project in Peru that provides children between the ages of 6 and 15 with additional mentoring and tutoring that traditional schools do not. The Global Fund for Children is involved in projects in at least 21 countries, using both nonformal and formal structures, said Mr. Ginther, a program officer for the Washington-based organization.

Nonformal projects may face opposition in some nations, Mr. Gibbons noted. Such countries’ leaders may want to control what is taught, he said, either for ideological reasons or because they would prefer that international education aid flowed directly into government-run programs rather than private initiatives.

Evolving Concept

Nonformal education’s roots can be traced at least as far back as the 1960s. Many of the movement’s basic principles were first articulated in the works of such influential writers as Philip H. Coombs, the author of The World Education Crisis, and the Brazilian scholar Paolo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed envisioned education as a means for social change. It became an authoritative text of the political left in many countries, particularly in Latin America.

“Nonformal education became exciting because it wasn’t just viewed as old-fashioned education—it brought the promise of social justice,” said David R. Evans, the director of the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Over time, nonformal education became less rooted in political ideology, Mr. Evans said, and more concerned with providing basic literacy and other training for the poor abroad.

During the 1970s, nonformal education drew interest from international funding agencies and organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank, which saw it as a relatively inexpensive way of reaching poor populations in developing countries.

Today, nonformal education represents only a small fraction of the budgets that most developing countries devote to education, though it still represents a significant piece of many nongovernmental agencies’ projects in foreign countries, Mr. Evans said.

‘Education for All’

It continues to have potential, Mr. Evans believes, particularly in light of efforts to provide universal education worldwide—a goal espoused at several multinational summits in recent years.

Joshua A. Muskin, a senior education adviser at World Learning, an international education and training nonprofit group based in Washington, said some interest in nonformal programs has fallen off in recent years, as nations and aid organizations have focused on building formal instruction through improving teacher training and the quality of instruction.

The flexibility and low cost of nonformal initiatives, however, make it likely they will remain a part of international aid, in one form or another, Mr. Muskin said.

He pointed to the usefulness of the approach as part of a current World Learning project in Guatemala. The project focuses on building leadership skills among women, and increasing their involvement in local schools, but also provides them with basic literacy training.

Financed through USAID, the project offers training in both the indigenous languages of Guatemala and in Spanish.

Nonformal education is “critical in developing countries that are trying to attain education for all,” said Mr. Muskin, whose organization is involved in more than $200 million worth of long-term projects worldwide.

“There are too many children in circumstances where [formal] schooling is not an option for them,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Foreign-Aid Groups Use ‘Nonformal’ Strategies To Educate Youngsters


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