According to reports issued by the United Nations, Latin America is a continent with high levels of poverty. And although it is not the poorest continent in the world, its levels of inequality and injustice are among the highest.
Poverty tends to be measured in terms of economic income and expenditure level, extreme poverty being defined as living on less than one US dollar a day. At the same time, however, poverty is an expression of the degree to which human rights are violated. When basic human needs go unsatisfied, individuals are deprived of their elemental right to human dignity.
Popular educators in Latin America hold this situation of injustice to be rooted in economic, political, and cultural structures that impede the eradication of pov erty. The appropriate response to eliminate poverty and ensure the full exercise of rights, as they see it, is to change those structures in a struggle that is essentially political.
It is a struggle in which the marginalized and excluded groups assume the role of protagonists, in alliance with people who identify with their struggle and stand in solidarity with them – middle-class groups, intellectuals, members of religious communities. The aim of this movement is to transform the conditions of injustice and structural violation of human rights and to generate new conditions under which those rights are not just recognized but can also be exercised to the fullest extent possible. To accomplish this aim, it is necessary to overcome purely legal and theoretical concepts of human rights and to adopt a vision of commitment toward change.
Education plays a fundamental role in this essentially political struggle. People who are deprived of their rights – the oppressed and excluded members of society – do not assume the role of actors who spontaneously rally to such a struggle. It is only through processes of awareness-building and organization that they become political subjects capable of bringing about change. And this is an educational task, without ceasing to be political, because it involves both individual and collective subjectivity and identities.
The fight for human rights in Latin America is an unfinished process that is linked to the battles for liberation of our countries and our peoples. One thing is certain: when the context changes, the nature of the battle also changes, making it neces sary to adopt new strategies for education.
In this article we will first seek to describe the socio-political and educational contexts in which education and organization processes in Latin America have developed around the topic of human rights. Then, after taking a global look at human rights education in terms of its characteristics and objectives, we will exam ine the popular education approach to human rights as an educational focus and method that has accompanied the battles for human rights in the specific context of the Latin American continent.
Although the struggle for rights goes back to colonial and republican days, the focus here will concentrate on more recent times, in particular on the period of dictator ships (the 1970s and 1980s) and of so-called “controlled democracy” (from the late 1980s to the present). The situation varies according to country. And it is also necessary to take into account recent attempts to construct participatory democra cies in countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina, and Bolivia.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States encouraged and supported au thoritarian governments all over Latin America as part of its “Doctrine of National Security”. The aim was to put an end to the popular movements that had attained a high level of organization and development in the wake of the Cuban Revolu tion and the “preferential option for the poor” articulated by the 1968 Bishops’ Conference of Medellín and perpetuated by the Theology of Liberation. Plans and alliances such as “Plan Cóndor” were created in the Southern Cone of America, seeding terror and selective assassination. Chile and Argentina were the countries that suffered the greatest impact with tens of thousands of persons murdered, disap peared, or forced into exile.
Important human rights organizations sprang up during this time – groups such as the Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos (Permanent Assembly of Human Rights) in Bolivia (1976), the Comisión Justicia y Paz (Commission of Justice and Peace) in Brasil (1972), the Comisión de Derechos Humanos de Centroamérica (Commission of Human Rights of Central America), la Vicaría de la Solidaridad (Vicariate of Solidarity) in Chile (1976), and the Servicio Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Service) in Uruguay, (1981). All of these organizations are connected directly or indirectly with the churches, which served as a protective shield in the face of dictatorships.
Education played a key role in resisting dictatorships. Every human rights organi zation counted on popular education programmes that emphatically condemned the violation of human rights, in particular civil and political rights, calling for a restoration of democracy and the recognition of popular and political organiza tions.
During the 1980s, the countries of Latin America gradually shed their military dictatorships, restoring democratic institutionality. By the early 1990s there were no longer any military regimes in power. They had been replaced by a different kind of dictatorship, one that is no less violent and is a generator of exclusion and discrimination – the “dictatorship of the market”. The Doctrine of National Security was superseded by structural adjustment plans which constitute the essence of neoliberal policies emanating from the “Washington Consensus”.
Although the cycle of political persecution came to an end with the return of de mocracy, and civil and political liberties were restored, the right to a life of dignity was further curtailed. Indeed, since the 1990s, the right that has been most violated is the right to work – a perverse mechanism of neoliberal capitalism to increase its gains. Having employment, even on an occasional basis and without former labour rights, has become an inaccessible privilege for millions of people.
Accordingly, it is not surprising that the fight for human rights during the neoliberal era in Latin America has become a fight for the right to live as “citizens” and not to be excluded – a fight for equality. The struggle for civil and political liberties has become a struggle for economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights. This struggle goes hand in hand with the struggle to transform formal democracy under the control of small power groups into a real inclusive democracy, a “high intensity democracy”.
An important trend in recent times, along with the expansion of human rights, is the growing protagonism of grassroots organizations and civil society. The World Social Forum, and the countless regional, local, and thematic forums that have sprung up as its offshoots, provide a platform for these complex issues and new actors who are promoting the fight for human rights.
We are witnessing a great variety of struggles on many different fronts. In the fight for their culture, their land, and their territory, indigenous peoples and rural farmers are struggling against the invasion of transnational companies and the policies of the World Trade Organization. In a battle against violence in the family and mar ginalization, women are claiming their rights and identity. Children, adolescents, and the elderly are calling attention to their generational-specific needs. Gays, lesbians, and transsexuals are taking collective action to question cultural practices and rules that discriminate against them because of their sexual orientation.
We are also witnessing a radicalization of concepts. As the Portuguese social scientist, Boaventura de Sousa Santos1 has observed, human rights are no longer just a matter of “discourse” in the forums, with a certain western focus on what constitutes democracy and development. They have become the objectives of a multitude of struggles and coalitions against neoliberal globalization (campaigns against the Free Trade Agreement, the external debt, etc.) propelled by thousands of movements across the length and breadth of Latin America and throughout the world under slogans such as “A different world is possible”, “A different America is possible”, and “Let’s globalize hope”.
There is no doubt that the leftward shift currently taking place in various Latin American countries (Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay) is a response to grassroots processes that are questioning the model of development and democracy imposed by the neoliberal capitalist system.
In this context, popular education has been improving its strategies and techniques as well as its discourse in the area of human rights. Besides incorporating economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights on its agenda, it has assumed the task of building a substantive and participatory democracy – a “high-intensity democracy” – as the articulatory axis of its work.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of conferences and documents that address the situation of education in the countries of Latin America and elaborate proposals to improve the access and quality of education. On the part of governments, mention is made in this connection to an official communication entitled “The Major Project in the Field of Education for Latin America and the Caribbean” (PROMEDLAC, 1980-2000), and its follow-up, the new Regional Project for Latin America and the Caribbean (PRELAC, 2002-2017). These documents set the guidelines for formulating public policy in the various countries of Latin America in line with the Jomtien (1990) and Dakar(2000) “Education for All” declarations. The education reforms that are being implemented in all of these countries have become fundamentally instrumental in the attainment of the goals relating to access, equality, and quality of education.
15 years DVV in Bolivia, Source: DVV International
Despite all the government commitments and initiatives that were undertaken at different regional and worldwide summits and conferences to ensure the right to education, official analyses and evaluations show that high levels of illiteracy, minimal attention to pre-school education, high degrees of repetition and deser tion, and low-quality education provision continue to persist in the countries of Latin America with only a few exceptions. And it is the poor, both urban and rural, the women, and the indigenous population who are affected the most.
Latin American civil society, on the other hand, has accompanied the entire process by conducting initiatives such as the “Latin American Declaration on Education for All” (EFA), and the “Latin American Campaign to secure the Right to Education” (CLADE), as well as by participating in movements such as the “Global Campaign for Education” (GCE) and the “World Education Forum” (WEF), which is linked to the “World Social Forum” (WSF). In recognition of analyses on the right to education which UNESCO and the governments elaborated at various international events, the organizations of the civil society have placed greater emphasis on the underlying causes of the situation: insufficient government funding in the face of pressure to pay off external debts, the thrust to commercialize and privatize education, and precariously deteriorating working and living conditions for professional educators.
These analyses led to the development of an action plan to secure the universal right to quality public education based on the following postulates and strategies:
Human rights education in Latin America is intimately linked to the protection of life and the promotion of democratic values, which must permeate social life in all of its manifestations, including in those spaces, such as school, that are directly concerned with education. Among the values in question are personal autonomy, the ability to engage in dialogue and to solve conflicts rationally, and openness to diversity and difference in the spirit of solidarity. For these reasons, human rights education opposes all forms of authoritarianism and the exploitation of human beings by human beings.
The methods and techniques of human rights education can vary. Human rights education is sometimes introduced into the regular curriculum at primary schools, secondary schools, and at the university level, under the heading “moral educa tion”, “citizen education” or “education on values”. Normally in such cases it is not merely treated as one more “assignment” in the lesson plan. Where complex topics are dealt with in a multi-discipline approach with intrinsic educational values of its own, it rather becomes an overarching theme that cuts across all subject areas. At the same time, the “overarching” nature of human rights goes beyond curriculum content with the aim of establishing a “culture of human rights” that influences the way the educational institution is organized and how people interact there.
In other cases, human rights education takes place within the framework of non-formal and open education programmes outside the formal education system. This is where the most creative and flexible strategies have been developed, providing a point of reference for the members of the popular sector and preparing them to take a concrete stand in situations involving the violation or protection of their rights. This is the way the majority of the aforementioned human rights organizations and institutions work.
Mass media and new information and communication technologies (ICTs) have come to play a growing and more central role in human rights education. For a large percentage of Latin America’s rural population, the radio is the main source of information and learning. And in urban centres, especially among the younger generation, we are witnessing a progressive shift from traditional learning spaces to television and the Internet.
In terms of contents, the programmes and educative activities on human rights are developed around the following key themes:
In the struggle for human rights, the ultimate goal has always been to ensure full and complete protection of every human right with no exceptions. Human rights are inalienable and integral. They are constituent elements of the personal identities and dignity of each and every human being.
Throughout history, however, the concept of human rights has had to dialectically embrace both equality and diversity, universality and alterity. We human beings are all equal... in our differences. At times – under dictatorships, for example – greater emphasis is placed on equality of rights. In a democracy, the accent is more on the right to be different, on the diversity of identities. Today we give greater attention to collective rights, to the transformation of social relations and to our relation with nature as the condition for attaining true equality of rights.
This fundamental objective has led the struggle for human rights along various paths in Latin America. The development of strategies and further objectives in the process has fostered progress in the direction of its achievement.
Institutionalized violence in de facto regimes and the mechanisms of exclusion inherent in neoliberal globalization have profoundly influenced the values and forms of behaviour within the population, to the point that it is said of the poor that they “have become the henchmen of those who are even poorer”. The situation has spawned a culture of individualism, an “everyone-for-himself” mentality, breeding racism and indifference to the needs of others.
It has been a primary focal point in the struggle for human rights not just to influence the conscience of people by denouncing institutionalized violence, but also to promote the values of freedom, justice, solidarity, tolerance, and respect for the dignity of others. An important role in this whole process is played by the provision of human rights information and the development of a critical conscience that empowers people to investigate the deep underlying structural and personal causes of injustice. The groundwork for building a democratic culture is laid by helping people to assimilate information and make critical thinking a vital part of their lives and their institutions – their families, their schools, their mass media, their governments, and their social organizations.
The process is stimulated by a new ethical sensitivity that commences with the development of a sense of self-worth and is complemented by the recognition and acceptance of others as individuals, as groups, and as peoples.
The development of an ethical conscience necessarily leads to the creation and strengthening of the mechanisms that generate essential changes in social relations. This becomes possible through the medium of organization which makes it possible for people to move on from being “subjects of rights” to become protagonists and actors who are “political subjects”, capable of influencing and transforming the conditions of discrimination and exclusion.
The creators of a Popular Education
Source: DVV International
The struggle for human rights has its foundation in the rise and development of social movements in Latin America. Today the struggle has become more obvious as the forms of exclusion and denial of human rights have become more subtle and complex.
The fact that op pressed sectors of society are in the process of organ izing themselves in order to defend and promote their rights does not mean that those rights have already become a reality for people in general or people within the organi zations themselves. Contradictions still remain. Individuals who lead the struggle are still perpetrators of violence in their homes. They still exhibit authoritarian behaviour within their own organizations. And the process of organization alone cannot automatically rid society of domi nant, individualist, racist, and sexist culture unless it is accompanied by a process of internal liberation, of “driving out the oppressors that we house within ourselves”, as Paulo Freire tells us.
During the era of dictatorships, and even up through today, the various social move ments have placed more priority on carrying out protests and vindicating sectoral injustices than on proposing alternatives designed to provide more strategic orienta tion. The explanation for this could lie in the belief that no alternative exists to the neoliberal model, and that the best that can be done is to secure improvement in the protection of a number of rights, for instance through an increase in wages, more comprehensive coverage in the areas of health and education, greater attention to the needs of children and the elderly, or the appropriation of land to peasant farmers and indigenous peoples. All such efforts are being carried out without questioning the system and in keeping with the logic dictated by the “reduction and alleviation of poverty” model.
On the conviction that “a different world is possible”, that it is possible to develop an alternative to the market model and build a different kind of globalization, the various social movements, civil society and a number of progressive governments in Latin America have undertaken the task of designing new experimental forms of economic development (including “solidarity economy”, “social enterprise”, or “fair trade”), alternative forms of political organization (such as indigenous self-determination, the Union of South American Nations, for example), and social services of a new kind. The conviction also exists that such changes can be brought about by peaceful means, by “influencing public policies” on the sectoral level in sectors such as health and education among others, as well as on a global level through constitutional amendments brought about by constituent assemblies, for example, or through transformation of the regional development model through initiatives such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of Our America (Span ish: Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América or ALBA – which also means “dawn” in Spanish), an international cooperation organization based upon the idea of social, political, and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The human rights struggle in Latin America has adopted “popular education” as one of its fundamental strategies.
Popular education can be defined as a pedagogical current, inspired by Paulo Freire, which responds to a great multiplicity of social and educative practices according to different contexts, actors, and topics. As such, it is a heterogeneous education movement that is in a permanent state of construction.
While recognizing that the practices of popular education are heterogeneous and that the construction of popular education discourse is embedded in a historical context, we can nevertheless identify a set of common underlying characteristics in all its different forms: a critical attitude toward the prevailing social system, an ethi cal and political orientation of an emancipatory nature, solidarity with the popular sectors and movements, the intention to enable them to become their own political actors by raising their level of consciousness and their personal sense of self, and by using participatory methods based on dialogue and critical thinking.
This implies a “methodology”. By this we mean the concept of teaching and the forms of learning that popular educators develop to achieve the objectives of emancipation taking into account that learners are “subjects” of their own learn ing process, and that the topics of learning must relate to their reality in specific situations and contexts. It is necessary to comprehend the methodology of popular education as a strategy designed and applied by educators to enable specific actors to develop a critical and emancipatory consciousness in specific contexts. “Methodology”, in the sense used by Paulo Freire, is the application of an ideologi cal and pedagogical vision in a concrete and coherent manner.
As a concrete application, the methodology of popular education is more than a mere mechanical application. It is a “construction” and an art. It has been ex tensively discussed whether there is just one methodology of popular education or many. The answer to this is that popular education in Latin America shares certain common characteristics, despite all its different applications and currents:
As pointed out in the foregoing, popular education places special priority on developing the area of human rights. In this sense, popular human-rights educa tion shares visions and strategies with the broader popular education movement. Nevertheless, there have been a number of relevant but little known developments in the area of popular human-rights education pertaining both to pedagogy as well as methodology. These developments will be discussed in the following sections.
Pedagogy of resistance is a theme of popular education developed by Claudia Korol and the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” in Argentina. The popular education movement in Argentina has provided continuity to the fight against impunity for the crimes committed during the military dictatorship in its persistent and unwaver ing demands for justice and punishment of the guilty. The mothers of the young people who were murdered and “disappeared” during the Argentine dictatorship in the late 1970s have become well known for their permanent vigils before the government palace, the so-called “Pink House”. Meanwhile the movement has joined forces with the piqueteros in their struggle for the right to work. Frequent encounters and workshops are held around issues relating to sexuality, gender, and subjectivities.
Materials for students in Bolivia, Source: DVV International
Reflection in this context concentrates on “resistance” to a social system that has followed the strategy of immobilizing the consciousness and subjectivity of the op pressed. The idea is to become conscious of this “cultural war” and to foster active resistance on the part of the oppressed (“feminisation of resistance”). In a process of self-transformation, individuals prepare themselves to exert greater influence within their liberation movements.
The main activities and techniques used in this connection include workshops, street protests, and demonstrations [the so-called cacelorazos in which protestors call attention to their causes by banging on kitchen pots (cacerolas)], assemblies, and the elaboration and distribution of popular education workbooks.
The central component in the “Pedagogy of Citizenship” is the right to participate and to make decisions, which was denied under the dictatorial regimes and re pressed under “controlled democracies”. The object of this educational focus is to empower social subjects to develop their capabilities, to enable them to exert their influence, and to give the majority of the population access to the full exercise of their rights. In this way traditional elitist and authoritarian political culture can be transformed into a culture that is genuinely democratic.
The development of empowerment for participation takes place in every sphere and on every level – both macro and micro. On the micro level there is “education for local power”. On the macro level, citizens are being capacitated to influence public policies and take effective part in initiatives such as the “Constituent As sembly”.
Pedro Pontual, the Brazilian president of the Latin American Council for Adult Education CEAAL, has identified “pedagogy of democratic administration” as an essential aspect of education for citizen participation.
The pedagogy of citizenship has the following characteristic traits: a) It is geared to the public sphere and seeks to build autonomous and critical citizens equipped with communication and argumentation skills that prepare them to take an active part in the institutions of civil society and to work to gether to exercise collective control over governments and resolve conflicts peacefully and democratically. b) It gives the people, as actors in civil society and in government organs, access to tools designed to help them develop the skills they need to exercise new forms of power that demand transparency, the capacity to listen, the ability to enter into dialogue with others, and the recognition of the legitimacy of others. c) It facilitates the acquisition of knowledge of a technical and political nature, increasing the ability of citizens to act as agents in the process of defining and creating public policies. d) It helps citizens learn more about the territory in which they live (their neigh bourhoods, their cities and their regions) and the diverse features of that territory, which in turn facilitates integrated action in crafting public policies while fostering participation and the acquisition of personal self-control. e) It develops self-esteem, the skills of interpersonal communication and relations, motivating the people to participate in collective actions of creation and ap propriation of public spaces. f) It develops the values of solidarity, justice, unity, respect for others, tolerance, humility, hope, openness to new ideas and experiences, and amenability to change as elements of a universal ethics, which must form the basis for educational activities that that foster active citizenship and a participatory democracy.
Popular educators in Latin America have come to employ a large variety of tech niques, strategies, and methods to support the effectiveness of popular citizenship education. Some of the more notable models include processes known as “negotia tion of conflicts”, “participatory budgeting”, “strategies of influence”, and “legisla tive theatre” (August Boal). Many of the techniques created by popular educators are designed to encourage citizen participation in the building of an alternative and transformation-oriented form of power.
This specialized area of popular education underlines the conviction that the con cept of equal rights necessarily implies recognition of the “right to be different” as a fundamental right. In the past as today, whether a matter of culture, sexual orientation, generation, physical condition or intellectual capacity, difference was always a reason for discrimination and exclusion in our Latin American societies. The culture that we have inherited, besides being elitist and authoritarian, is racist, patriarchal, and adult-oriented. Popular education itself, as critical as it is of this culture, could not at the present time create a pedagogy and methodology that takes diversity into account. As much as rationality and critical reflection are ex tolled in enlightened discourse, it is as though the supreme expression of humanity were a veil that prevents the plurality of faces to be seen, and the voices of others to be heard.
The changes in direction that we are experiencing today toward a more tolerant society and openness to diversity, indeed the very transformations that are taking place in the construct of popular education, have only been possible due to upris ings organized by others – initiatives such as the indigenous movement “Abya Yala” (the original name for America), the resistance against 500 years of European colonization, all the different currents of the feminist movement, or the youth rebel lions. The explosion of identities has also had an impact on popular education, enriching the concept with specializations such as ethnic education, bilingual and intercultural education, anti-sexist education, and third-age pedagogy.
The pedagogy of diversity seeks not only to recognize the plurality of identities and the right to difference but also to incorporate them as fundamental components in the process of learning. The challenge of diversity is not merely ideological. It is also a challenge to pedagogy and methodology. Culture and gender are not just topics. They are ways of being, ways of perceiving the world, ways of acting and communicating. They are identities and subjectivities, and this has a profound influence on the act of learning.
With respect to methodology, the pedagogy of diversity deals, above all, with life experiences, daily existence, and subjectivity. The most important strategic methods in this area are “qualitative research”, “participatory research and ac tion”, “systematizing experiences”, “dialogue of knowledge”, and “the process of deconstruction”.
Education for Peace emerged in Latin America as a response to the violence perpe trated during the course of armed conflicts (as in Colombia, Guatemala, or Nica ragua) during which scores of civilians were killed and even more were expelled from their homes and villages. It also addresses torture, domestic violence, and other forms of physical and psychological violence. This area of education is also sometimes called the “pedagogy of non-violence” or the “pedagogy of conflict”.
It is an approach that concentrates on the denunciation of structural as well as interpersonal violence including poverty, war, or the subjugation of one human being by another (as in slavery or male domination over women), while promot ing the values of active non-violence, dialogue, universal human dignity, justice, and solidarity. With respect to methodology, education for peace emphasizes the methodology of dialogue, the cooperative and non-competitive negotiation of conflicts, methods and techniques as well as an open style of communication that is non-judgmental and without prejudice toward others.
Pedagogy of Tenderness is a specialization that developed as a response to extreme situations of desolation and vulnerability produced by the systematic violation of rights. It is the situation of street children – the youngsters who work in the mines and factories, or on the streets as shoe-shiners, hawkers, or newspaper peddlers, the youngsters who ride the mini-busses and call out the destinations for passengers. … But it is also the extreme situation of battered and violated women, of the physically or mentally handicapped, the psychologically disturbed, the elderly, the indigenous women who migrate to urban areas in the vein hope of finding employment, the peasant women from Norte Potosí and Sucre who wander the streets of Bolivia’s major cities, the drug addicts, the alcoholics.
Such situations of vulnerability require attention of a very special kind in the work of popular education. And that is precisely what “pedagogy of tenderness” strives to provide. It is the art of educating and teaching with affection and sensitivity. It seeks not to hurt, but to treat each and every person as a valuable and unique individual who is one-of-a-kind.
Pedagogy of tenderness concentrates on the construction and reconstruction of self-esteem as the first step toward consciousness-raising and transformational ac tion. It requires an affective attitude, compassion, sympathy, faith, and dedication to others – in other words, an attitude of “understanding”. This is where pedagogy and therapy go hand in hand – by caring an integral part of learning.
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Palma, D.: “La sistematización como estrategia de conocimiento en la educación popular. El estado de la cuestión en América Latina”, in: Papeles del CEAAL, No.3, Santiago de Chile (1992).
1 Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Director of the Institute for Social Studies at Coimbra and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He is a world authority on the relationship between law, globalisation and social justice.
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