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A withering verdict on Venezuela’s flagship literacy program

What’s a reasonable price for teaching an illiterate adult in a poor country how to read? It might seem a callous question, but in a world of limited resources, where adult literacy programs have to compete with a thousand other public policy priorities, it’s one question that developing country leaders need to answer. After studying ...

ANDREW ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREW ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

What’s a reasonable price for teaching an illiterate adult in a poor country how to read? It might seem a callous question, but in a world of limited resources, where adult literacy programs have to compete with a thousand other public policy priorities, it’s one question that developing country leaders need to answer.

After studying adult literacy programs in 29 countries, UNESCO advises that a cost in the range of $50-$100 per learner is reasonable. In Asia, costs tend to be lower — just $30 per learner. In the Americas, they stand at $61 per learner. But some computer-based literacy programs in Brazil have managed to cut the cost massively, to just $2.50 per adult learner, by leveraging pre-existing classroom and computer infrastructure in children’s schools.

So how does $543 to $977 per learner sound? If you ran an adult literacy program in the developing world at that cost, would you brag about it?

Only if you were Hugo Chávez.

According to research by Venezuelan economists Daniel Ortega, of the Caracas based IESA graduate school, and Francisco Rodríguez, formely of Wesleyan University – – that was the cost per learner of Misión Robinson, Chávez’s flagship adult literacy program.

After scrutinizing the results of the government’s own Household Survey, Ortega and Rodríguez struggled to find evidence that Misión Robinson had actually taught anyone to read at all in its first two years of operation in 2004 and 2005. Even using the most favorable estimate, they could identify no more than 92,000 people who were taught to read and write by the program, a shocking number considering the Education Ministry claimed to have hired over 210,000 literacy trainers in that time.

What’s really remarkable is the complete disconnect between these realities and the sprawling chavista propaganda effort around Misión Robinson. In 2005, president Chávez pronounced the program a success, and declared Venezuela a country free of illiteracy — a propaganda line trotted out again and again to underline the social advances of the Bolivarian revolution. (That was also the year, incidentally, that U.S. politician Jesse Jackson visited a Misión Robinson classroom, shown above.)  By October 2005, the government was claiming that the program had taught more than 1.4 million Venezuelan adults how to read — even though its own statistical agency’s household survey could find no more than 1.1 million illiterate adults in the country before Misión Robinson had even started.

This propaganda onslaught was happening at the same time as the household survey yielded estimates of over a million Venezuelan adults unable to read or write at the end of 2005, after the bulk of the money had been spent. Ortega and Rodríguez found that during the heyday of Misión Robinson, the speed at which the illiteracy rate was falling remained consistent with long-term demographic trends — falling, in other words, as older illiterate adults died out and were replaced by a younger, better schooled cohort. Those facts, alas, were not trumpeted in government propaganda, but squirreled away in the fine print of official reports or buried in a pile of survey data, where only a handful of inoffensive nerds like Ortega and Rodríguez were likely to notice them.

What really gives the game away is that Misión Robinson was rolled out in the absence of any clear performance targets, implemented by bureaucrats who didn’t see improving cost-effectiveness as part of their job, and therefore instituted no systematic monitoring and evaluation mechanism. That the result is a hugely expensive and not-particularly-effective program can’t really surprise anyone.

What’s clear is that Misión Robinson was always more concerned with the propaganda needs of the Chávez Regime than the educational needs of illiterate Venezuelans. Because if the government had invested a fraction of the effort it devoted to publicizing Misión Robinson’s supposed achievements to optimizing the program’s efficiency, Venezuela would have eradicated illiteracy long ago.

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