International Review of Education

, Volume 60, Issue 4, pp 559–580 | Cite as

Cuba’s “Yes, I Can” mass adult literacy campaign model in Timor-Leste and Aboriginal Australia: A comparative study

  • Bob Boughton
  • Deborah Durnan


In the field of international adult education, mass literacy campaigns enjoyed wide support in the 20th century, when they were seen as a way to increase the participation of previously marginalised and excluded populations in national development. Cuba’s 1961 campaign achieved iconic status, but was only one of many successful campaigns in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In the 1990s, while mass literacy campaigns continued in many countries, scholarly interest in them declined under the influence of World Bank empirical critiques of their effectiveness and increasing postmodern scepticism towards the socialist “grand narrative” of liberation which underpinned some of the more famous examples. Recently, the mass campaign model has gained new impetus through Cuba’s international literacy missions, which use an approach known by its Spanish name, Yo, Sí Puedo [Yes, I Can]. This paper reports on the deployment of this model in two very different settings, one being a national literacy campaign in Timor-Leste, a newly-independent island nation in the Asia–Pacific; and the other a pilot campaign in an Aboriginal community in Australia. The authors have utilised participatory action research methods to evaluate the model in both countries, and locate their comparative analysis in the theoretical tradition of popular education.


Literacy campaign Popular education Comparative and international education Timor-Leste Aboriginal adult education Yo, Sí Puedo Yes, I Can 


Modèle cubain de campagne d’alphabétisation de masse pour adultes « Moi, je peux » appliqué au Timor oriental et en Australie aborigène : une étude comparative – Dans le domaine international de l’éducation des adultes, les campagnes d’alphabétisation de masse ont été largement plébiscitées au cours du XXe siècle, jugées alors comme un moyen d’accroître la participation des populations jusque-là marginalisées et exclues du développement du pays. La campagne cubaine de 1961 a acquis un statut emblématique, elle n’a été cependant que l’une des nombreuses campagnes concluantes d’alphabétisation menées en Amérique latine, en Afrique et en Asie. Dans les années 1990, si les campagnes d’alphabétisation de masse ont été poursuivies dans de nombreux pays, l’intérêt des spécialistes pour cette formule s’est affaibli, les critiques empiriques sur leur efficacité sous l’influence de la Banque mondiale ainsi que le scepticisme postmoderne croissant envers le « grand récit » socialiste sur la libération ayant accompagné certains des exemples les plus célèbres. Mais la formule de la campagne de masse connaît ces derniers temps un regain d’intérêt à travers les missions internationales d’alphabétisation de Cuba, qui appliquent une approche connue sous sa dénomination espagnole Yo, Sí Puedo (Moi, je peux). Les auteurs de cet article présentent la mise en œuvre de cette méthode sous deux formes très différentes, à savoir une campagne nationale d’alphabétisation au Timor oriental, nation insulaire de la région Asie-Pacifique ayant accédé récemment à son indépendance, et une campagne pilote menée dans une communauté aborigène d’Australie. Les auteurs ont appliqué les principes de la recherche-action participative pour évaluer le modèle dans les deux pays, et insèrent leur analyse comparative dans la tradition théorique de l’éducation populaire.


  1. Abadzi, H. (1994). What we know about the acquisition of adult literacy: Is there hope? World Bank Discussion Papers, No. 245. Washington DC: World Bank.Google Scholar
  2. Abadzi, H. (2003). Adult literacy. A review of implementation experience. OED Working Paper. Washington: World Bank.Google Scholar
  3. Abendroth, M. (2009). Rebel literacy: Cuba’s national literacy campaign and critical global citizenship. Duluth, MN: Litwin Books.Google Scholar
  4. Alkatiri, M. (2010). Interview with authors, Dili, January 2010.Google Scholar
  5. Allman, P. (2010). Critical education against global capitalism: Karl Marx and revolutionary critical education (Paperback ed.). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  6. Alvarado, R. V. (2008). Local management for literacy teaching with the “Yo sí Puedo” (Yes, I can) model. Paper presented at the Regional Literacy and CONFINTEA VI preparatory conference in Latin America and the Caribbean, 10–13 September 2008, Mexico City, Mexico.Google Scholar
  7. Anderson, T. (2006). Timor Leste: The second Australian intervention. Journal of Australian Political Economy, 58(December), 62–93.Google Scholar
  8. Arnove, R. (1986). Education and revolution in Nicaragua. New York, Westport and London: Praeger.Google Scholar
  9. Arnove, R. F., & Graff, H. J. (Eds.). (2008). National literacy campaigns and movements. Historical and comparative perspectives. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  10. Artaraz, K. (2012). Cuba’s internationalism revisited: Exporting literacy, ALBA, and a new paradigm for South-South collaboration. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 31(s1), 22–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Atwood, B., & Markus, A. (1999). The struggle for Aboriginal rights. A documentary history. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  12. Bhola, H. S. (1984). Campaigning for literacy: Eight national experiences of the twentieth century, with a memorandum to decision-makers. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  13. Boshier, R., & Yan, H. (2010). More important than guns: Chinese adult education after the long march. Adult Education Quarterly, 60(3), 284–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Boughton, B. (2010). Back to the future? Timor-Leste, Cuba and the return of the mass literacy campaign. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 18(2), 23–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Boughton, B. (2012). Adult literacy, popular education and Cuban educational aid in Timor-Leste. In A. Hickling-Hudson, J. C. Gonzalez, & R. Preston (Eds.), The capacity to share. A study of Cuba’s international cooperation in educational development (pp. 197–216). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  16. Boughton, B., Chee, D. A., Beetson, J., Durnan, D., & Leblanch, J. C. (2013). An Aboriginal adult literacy campaign in Australia using Yes I Can. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 21(1), 5–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Boughton, B., & Durnan, D. (2007). The political economy of adult education and development. In D. Kingsbury & M. Leach (Eds.), East Timor: Beyond independence (pp. 209–222). Clayton: Monash University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Branagan, M., & Boughton, B. (2003). How do you learn how to change the world? Learning and teaching in Australian protest movements. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 43(3), 346–360.Google Scholar
  19. Burchfield, S., Hua, H., Baral, D., & Rocha, V. (2002). A Longitudinal study of the effect of integrated literacy and basic education programs on women’s participation in social and economic development in Nepal. Washington, D.C.: Office of Women in Development, United States Agency for International Development.Google Scholar
  20. Cabral, E. (2002). FRETILIN and the struggle for independence in East Timor 1974–2002: An examination of the constraints and opportunities of a non-state nationalist movement in the late twentieth century. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Lancaster University, Lancaster UK.Google Scholar
  21. Cabral, E., & Martin-Jones, M. (2008). Writing the resistance: Literacy in East Timor 1975–1999. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 11(2), 149–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Campos, L. (Curator) (n.d.). Documents and exhibits of Cuba’s international literacy missions (viewed by authors, May 2010 and February 2013). Havana: Museum of Literacy.Google Scholar
  23. Canfux Gutiérrez, J., Relys Díaz, L., Ponce Suarez, D. G., Jimenez, E. M., Lafita, A. T., del Real Hernández, J., et al. (2005). Desde la alfabetización presencial al yo, sí puedo [From face-to-face literacy training to Yes, I can]. La Habana, Cuba: Editorial Pueblo y Educación.Google Scholar
  24. Carnoy, M., Gove, A. K., & Marshall, J. (2007). Cuba’s academic advantage: Why students in Cuba do better in school. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Carrillo, A. T. (2010). Generating knowledge in popular education: From participatory research to the systematization of experiences. International Journal of Action Research, 6(2–3), 196–222.Google Scholar
  26. Choudry, A. (2013). Activist research practice: Exploring research and knowledge production for social action. Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes, 9(1), 128–151.Google Scholar
  27. Cooke, M., Mitrou, F., Lawrence, D., Guimond, E., & Beavon, D. (2007). Indigenous well-being in four countries: An application of the UNDP’S Human Development Index to Indigenous Peoples in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. BMC International Health and Human Rights, 7(1), 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Cox, L., & Fominaya, C. F. (2009). Movement knowledge: What do we know, how do we create knowledge and what do we do with it? Interface: A Journal for and About Social Movements,1(1). Retrieved January 10, 2011, from
  29. Crowther, J., Galloway, V., & Martin, I. (Eds.). (2005). Popular education: Engaging the academy. Leicester: NIACE.Google Scholar
  30. Da Silva, A. B. (2011). FRETILIN popular education 197378 and its relevance to Timor-Leste today. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of New England, Armidale Australia.Google Scholar
  31. Durnan, D., & Boughton, B. (1999). Succeeding against the odds. The outcomes obtained by indigenous students in Aboriginal community-controlled colleges. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research.Google Scholar
  32. Fernandes, Z. (2012). Speech at the Wilcannia literacy campaign launch, February 2012. Typescript.Google Scholar
  33. Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). Harmondsworth: Penguin Education.Google Scholar
  34. Freire, P. (1975). Education for liberation and community: Two articles, and reports arising from his 1974 visit. Melbourne: Australian Council of Churches.Google Scholar
  35. Freire, P. (1978). Pedagogy in process. The letters to Guinea-Bissau (C. S. J. Hunter, Trans.). London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.Google Scholar
  36. Fundación UMMEP. (2013). Revista institucional No. 1 (Annual Report, unpublished). Copy held by authors. Buenos Aries, Argentina: UMMEP.Google Scholar
  37. González, N. (2005). The outlook for popular education at the time of the 6th general assembly of CEAAL. Adult Education and Development, 64, 125–130.Google Scholar
  38. González, N. (2010) Interview with authors, Havana, Cuba, May 2010.Google Scholar
  39. Gunn, G. C. (1999). Timor Loro Sae. 500 Years. Macau: Livros do Oriente.Google Scholar
  40. Hall, B. (2013). Interview with authors, 2 June. Victoria, BC, Canada.Google Scholar
  41. Harnecker, M. (2010). Latin America & Twenty-first century socialism: Inventing to avoid mistakes. Monthly Review, 62(3), 1–XVIII.Google Scholar
  42. Herman, R. (2012). An army of educators: Gender, revolution and the Cuban literacy campaign of 1961. Gender & History, 24(1), 93–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Hickling-Hudson, A., Gonzalez, J. C., & Preston, R. (Eds.). (2012). The capacity to share. A study of Cuba’s international cooperation in educational development. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  44. Johnson, R. (1988). “Really useful knowledge” 1790–1850: Memories for education in the 1980 s. In T. Lovett (Ed.), Radical approaches to adult education: A reader (pp. 3–34). London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Jones, P. W. (1990). UNESCO and the politics of global literacy. Comparative Education Review, 34(1), 41–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kenez, P. (1982). Liquidating illiteracy in revolutionary Russia. Russian History, 9, 173–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kozol, J. (1978). A new look at the literacy campaign in Cuba. Harvard Educational Review, 48(3), 341–377.Google Scholar
  48. Lankshear, C. (1994). Afterword. Reclaiming empowerment and rethinking the past. In M. Escobar, A. Fernandes, G. Guevara-Niebla, & P. Freire (Eds.), Paulo Freire on higher education: A dialogue at the National University of Mexico (pp. 161–188). New York: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  49. Limage, L. (1993). Literacy strategies: A view from the International Literacy Year Secretariat of UNESCO. In P. Freebody & A. Welch (Eds.), Knowledge, culture and power: International perspectives on literacy as policy and practice (pp. 23–34). London: Farmer Press.Google Scholar
  50. Limage, L. J. (2009). Multilateral cooperation for literacy promotion under stress: Governance and management issues. Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 17(2), 5–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Lind, A. (1988). Adult literacy lessons and promises. Mozambican literacy campaigns 19781982. Stockholm: University of Stockholm Institute of International Education.Google Scholar
  52. Lind, A. (2008). Literacy for all. Making a difference. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  53. Loomba, S., & Mathew, A. (2007). India’s National Adult Education Programme. In M. Singh & L. M. Castro Mussot (Eds.), Literacy, knowledge and development. South-South policy dialogue on quality education for adults and young people (pp. 91–115). Hamburg/Mexico City: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning & Mexican National Institute for Adult Education.Google Scholar
  54. Maddox, B. (2007). What can ethnographic studies tell us about the consequences of literacy? Comparative Education, 43(2), 253–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Moody, D. (2012). Wilcannia: The little town that said ‘Yes We Can’. Wangka Pulka, April 2012. Retrieved from
  56. Muhr, T. (2013). Optimism reborn. Nicaragua’s participative education revolution, the citizen power development model and the construction of ‘21st century socialism’. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 11(2), 276–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Oxenham, J. (2009). Effective literacy programs: Options for policy makers. Paris: UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning.Google Scholar
  58. Papen, U. (2005). Literacy and development: what works for whom? or, How relevant is the social practices view of literacy for literacy education in developing countries? International Journal of Educational Development, 25(1), 5–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Perez Cruz, F. (2007). Paulo Freire and the Cuban revolution. Paper presented at the Symposium: 40 Years from Education as the Practice of Freedom: New Perspectives on Paulo Freire from Latin America. In Learning In Community: Proceedings of the joint international conference of the Adult Education Research Conference (AERC) (48th National Conference) and the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASAE)/Association Canadienne pour l’Étude de l’Éducation des Adultes (ACÉÉA) (26th National Conference).Google Scholar
  60. Petersen, G. (1997). The power of words. Literacy and revolution in South China 1949–1995. Vancouver: UBC Press.Google Scholar
  61. Prout, S. (2011). Indigenous wellbeing frameworks in Australia and the quest for quantification. Social Indicators Research, 109(2), 31–336.Google Scholar
  62. Reyes, E. (2011). Mission Robinson. Paper presented at the Cuban Literacy at 50 Forum, held in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, 15 April 2011.Google Scholar
  63. Reynolds, H. (1981). The other side of the frontier: An interpretation of the Aboriginal response to the invasion and settlement of Australia. Townsville, QLD: History Department, James Cook University.Google Scholar
  64. Robinson-Pant, A. (2000). Why eat green cucumbers at the time of dying? Women’s literacy and development in Nepal. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education.Google Scholar
  65. Sandiford, P., Cassel, J., Montenegro, M., & Sanchez, G. (1995). The impact of women’s literacy on child health and its interaction with access to health services. Population Studies, 49(1), 5–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Schugurensky, D. (2011). Paulo Freire. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  67. Street, B. (Ed.). (2001). Literacy and development. Ethnographic perspectives. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  68. Sutherland Neill, A. (1962). Summerhill. A radical approach to education. London: Gollancz.Google Scholar
  69. Tornquist, O. (2000). The new popular politics of development: Kerala’s experience. In G. Parayil (Ed.), Kerala: The development experience. Reflections on sustainablility and replicability (pp. 116–138). London and New York: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  70. Torres, C. A. (1991). The state, nonformal education, and socialism in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada. Comparative Education Review, 35(1), 110–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Torres, C. A. (1992). Participatory action research and popular education in Latin America. Qualitative Studies in Education, 5(1), 51–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. UNESCO. (2005). EFA Global Monitoring Report 2006. Education for all—literacy for life. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  73. UNESCO. (2006). Study on the effectiveness and feasibility of the literacy training method Yo Sí Puedo. Paris: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  74. Youngman, F. (1996). Literacy for empowerment? Reflections on an international seminar. Journal of the African Association for Literacy and Adult Education (AALAE), 10(1), 74–85.Google Scholar
  75. Youngman, F. (2000). The political economy of adult education and development. London & New York: Zed Books.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia
  2. 2.University of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia

Personalised recommendations