Down the Rabbit Hole of Federal Funding

The demise of the NLS was due, in part, to those forces that were not specifically about literacy.
Brigid Hayes
From Community Development and
Partnerships to Accountability
Literacies #10 Spring 2009

Whenever I'm able to address a small group of citizens - in a grocery store checkout line, for example - I point out the need for a good political economy of the field of Canadian adult literacy. I say political economy because a longstanding challenge literacy providers and organizations have faced in Canada is has to do with the politics of funding. I say grocery store because, frankly, I don't get invited to address many small groups of citizens.

Based on this historical funding challenge, I would suggest the most pertinent research questions are "What money is being spent on literacy?", "Where is the money going and why?" and "Where isn't the money going and why not?"

These are complex matters, and I think it would take a political economist with some training in critical theory - a gnarly-bearded real marxist type - to sort them out. Not because just because of the complexity, mind, but also because the complexity is linked to government evasion and outright lies.

I had better state my own bias here. I'm not in favour of increased federal spending on literacy. I suspect we're spending more than enough already. Or, rather, we're intending to spend enough - if only the money were spent on literacy.

A while back, the literacies café posted a table of federal underspending in literacy. It showed that, throughout the past couple of years, the government spent only about half of the money it budgeted for literacy.

Let me tell you a little story about the last time we applied for federal funding.

We applied for money to provide 8 communities with training and materials sufficient for them to begin their own Storytent programs (including an up-dated manual). We did so as a response to stated interest - we already had groups lined up to receive this training - and with the belief that this met the intent of two OLES funding goals and guidelines:
  • Community Participation: Improve the literacy and essential skills of adults so they are better able to participate in their communities; and/or

  • Family: Improve the LES of adults so they are better able to contribute to their families.
I should note here that we don't think of Storytent as a children's program - for us, family literacy also and always has an adult component. (We base this on the apparently radical assumption that children have parents.) We knew the OLES people might see things differently, but figured it was worth a shot.

The feds turned us down. Well, okay. It happens, I guess. But, look at the reasons they gave for turning us down:

They said the project had no end date. It certainly did. We told them what the end date was: It was 18 months from the day we received their cheque.

They said we did not demonstrate the uniqueness of the project. Our Storytent program is the only one of its kind in Canada, in the whole world as far as we knew. Were there other people offering Storytent training out there somewhere? I can't believe that.

They said there was no evidence that we wouldn't be back next year looking for more money, claiming we couldn't finish what we'd started without another handout. Here they clearly had us confused with the construction industry. But we were not building an interchange or a nursing home or a frigate. We were delivering a fixed number of training sessions plus a kit of tents, blankets and books over an 18 month period.

In other words, they didn't turn us down on the grounds that we didn't meet the intent of OLES funding. Instead, they said things that could only be said by someone who either misunderstood or hadn't actually read the proposal.

Let me say that again: They didn't appear to have read our proposal. Therefore - and this is important - they must have turned us down for other reasons.

What reasons? Who knows. Maybe we voted wrong in the last election. Maybe we were living in the wrong riding or the wrong province. Maybe we were getting in the way of someone else's plans for literacy. Maybe somebody up there was just having a bad day.

I really don't know. And that's my point.

We need a political economist with some training in critical theory to sort out where the money's going, and where it isn't going, and why. We need to shine a light on our funding structures. We need to see - dare I say it? - some accountability.

She's not a gnarly-bearded marxist, but Brigid Hayes has pulled the cover off of one part of this federal mis-funding story. In the latest edition of Canada's Literacies Journal, she tells us about the transformation of the NLS from an organization tasked in 1987 with helping ensure "that everyone in the country had the opportunity to participate fully in Canadian society" (p.19) to... what?

Well, they just kind of did away with the NLS, didn't they? And replaced it with a funding program "about moving people to 'level 3'"(p.22).

Anyway, the paper is called "From community development and partnerships to accountability: the case of the National Literacy Secretariat" and you can find it in .pdf right here.

Go read it. Please.

Then, I'll see you at the grocery store.

We'll talk.

3 comments: said...

I am glad that you wrote about this Wendell. It was great that Brigid wrote about what happened at the NLS and how the relationship between our federal government and the literacy field broke. Thanks for telling us about your specific experience trying to get support for a great program ended up in a dead-end ... in every way. In some ways I feel so lucky that I got to be a part of the "good old days." But mostly, I am sad that they are over and that I am now struggling to find a place to learn and create in a time when quantaphrenia is crushing opportunity and access.

Wendell said...

The "good old days" are indeed over.

Fk'em. We'll make our own good days. (There'll always be room for you under our tent.)


Sandi said...

I too am glad that Brigid wrote the article and just as glad that you posted these thoughts on your blog. Based on our touchstone of the good ‘ole days, and I remember them waaaaaaay too fondly myself, it is indeed a mess. One of the saddest things to me is that there was a healthy tension between what the NLS would fund and what provinces would fund. So it always kept power completely or entirely out of one or the other’s hands. NLS could fund an ongoingness to activities and so could the province. Things crept forward in an innovative way. That was really good. Now things seems to swirl around a lot in that sort of pre-down the drain moment where one is never certain if there will be a conclusive direction or end to anything.

Even the idea that you would come back for more money somehow has turned into a really really bad thing as if we will do “it” and then there will not be additional need. Or if you need more, that means you screwed up the first thing. It used to be that when you came back for money it meant success. This was a good thing because something had worked, or grown, or unearthed new needs. It was exciting!

Personally, I think it is going to take all of us and lots of money to really march solutions forward. But not in this current way.

So I always ask in a moment like this, if we had a blank piece of paper, what would we build? Never mind before or now. What do we need? Seriously, what would we build in 2009?