John Aitchison

The paper was presented at the SADC (Southern African Development Community) conference on Adult Basic and Literacy Education held in Pietermaritzburg on 3–5 December 2002. What are the implications of Lifelong Learning for Southern Africa, a region with a very high illiteracy rate? How can the situation be improved? John Aitchison discusses the results and remaining challenges of the work of the SADC Technical Committee on Lifelong Education and Training. The author is Professor of Adult Education and Director of the Centre for Adult Education at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

Adult Literacy and Basic Education: A SADC Regional Perspective

Lifelong Education Within and Outside the Southern African Context

In its terms of reference, finalised and adopted by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Technical Committee on Lifelong Education and Training at its Second Meeting in Maputo in April 2002, the committee noted a seemingly insoluble contradiction: 

  • Lifelong education and training is necessary because of the rapid obsolescence of previous education and training as a result of technological (and particularly information technology) developments and globalisation.


  • There is a lack of the very foundations for such lifelong learning because of illiteracy and innumeracy in SADC member countries.

It is this contradiction, this conundrum, that I see as a starting point for this conference on cooperation on the matter of adult literacy and basic education within the region.

The Context of Illiteracy and Lack of Basic Education for All

It is a commonplace that Africa is the continent most burdened with illiteracy and a lack of basic education for all. The SADC Protocol on Education and Training signed in September 1997 highlighted the need to address the educational needs of people who either do not have the liberty to attend full time learning or are past the age of basic education, or whose skills need to be upgraded. Member states recognised the need for and re-affirmed their commitment to the achievement of universal literacy and numeracy in all the SADC countries. Economic difficulties and the AIDS pandemic have made this situation worse over the last decade and it is generally acknowledged that the resounding declarations and calls for action to ensure Education for All made at Jontien and reaffirmed at Dakar in 2000 have been poorly implemented.

The Context of Globalisation and a Premium on Highly Skilled Workforces

At the same time, we in Africa are constantly bombarded with warnings that the new information and communications technology-based global world order requires every nation to have a highly educated and skilled workforce (or, in this competitive, survival of the fittest environment, to suffer the consequences of not being so endowed). In practice, because of the rapidity of technological change, a highly educated and skilled workforce is one that is continuously engaged in lifelong education and training. In response to this need, the SADC Protocol on Education and Training further agreed that the region commit the requisite resources to support lifelong education and training.

Consequences of this Situation

Although one must be careful not to overestimate the power of education and training to transform and better societies – education’s power to transform reality can only be effective in partnership with and supported by transformation and renaissance in economics, politics and culture – clearly the continuing failure to effectively address the undereducation of millions of the region’s adult citizens can lead to two equally disagreeable conclusions:

  • All the people of this region will be left behind because we lack the educated and skilled citizenry needed in the world we live in; or


  • Though small highly skilled and educated elites will “join the world”, the great mass of our people will be increasingly marginalised and discarded as not merely useless for participation in the new global learning society but as real hindrances to regional development.

It became very clear in the country papers presented at this conference that the plans, strategies and resources currently operating to prevent the above two negative outcomes are, at best, simply stopping the situation getting worse, and at worst, not coping at all with a worsening situation. It is vital that this negative position is turned around – and it is our task to see that it becomes so.

Encouragement for action, apart from conference participants’ own identification of the challenges facing us and their commitment to responding, comes from the United Nations General Assembly’s decision to implement Resolution 56/116 of December 2001 on the United Nations Literacy Decade: Education for All for which a draft plan has been developed (See the United Nations General Assembly document A/57/218 of 16 July 2002) for the period 2003 to 2012.

The Technical Committee’s Attitude to the Contradiction

The Technical Committee on Lifelong Education and Training (TC- LET) grappled with this contradiction between a high vision of lifelong education and the lack of a foundation for actual lifelong education. This is seen most clearly in its efforts to define lifelong education and training. An initial difficulty facing the Technical Committee was that the term lifelong education (or lifelong learning) tended to be interpreted in two very different ways, ways that themselves reflect this contradiction between the high levels of adult illiteracy in Africa and the situation in highly educated and skilled societies of other parts of the world.

One common understanding is that lifelong education is a somewhat euphemistic label for traditional literacy instruction and similar forms of adult basic education. So adult education or adult basic education and training units or directorates charged with running literacy and basic education campaigns for adults might now be renamed Lifelong Education units. Little would change in the lowly position that adult literacy provision has when competing with the voracious demands of the schooling and higher education system.

The other common understanding was that lifelong education and training was a vision of what could be in a world in which all would have access and opportunity to engage in education and training throughout their lives as and when needed and in which countries were increasingly dependent on, and investing in, a knowledgeable and skilled citizenry. In practice this might mean that lifelong education was simply seen as impractical, given the current resources of the poorer countries, or might be applied to cutting edge, high tech continuing education for the already well educated.

The problem for the Technical Committee was that these two understandings seemed, at a practical level, to be very distant from each other. For our region they needed to be brought together.

The Technical Committee then developed a definition that recognises that Lifelong Education and Training (LET) covers the whole spectrum of basic education, secondary education, higher education, out-of- school education, adult education and skills development whilst at the same time acknowledging the urgency of providing the foundations for lifelong learning through literacy and adult basic education.


Towards a Definition of Lifelong Education

Lifelong education is a comprehensive and visionary concept which includes formal, non-formal and informal learning extended throughout the lifespan of an individual to attain the fullest possible development in personal, social and vocational and professional life. It views education in its totality, and includes learning that occurs in the home, school, community, and workplace, and through mass media and other situations and structures for acquiring and enhancing knowledge, skills and attitudes.

No country has as yet achieved this full goal of a lifelong learning system and it remains as a visionary call for an open learning society, operating through a multiplicity of educational networks. A key purpose of lifelong learning is democratic citizenship, connecting individuals and groups to the structures of social, political and economic activity in both local and global contexts.

Lifelong education builds on and affects all existing educational providers, and extends beyond the formal educational providers to encompass all bodies and individuals involved in learning activities.

Lifelong education means enabling people to learn at different times, in different ways, for different purposes at various stages of their lives and careers. Lifelong education is concerned with providing learning opportunities throughout life (and hence pays special attention to all forms of adult and continuing education), while developing lifelong learners (and hence must address the foundations young people receive in formal education for engaging in lifelong learning).

Lifelong education, in response to the constantly changing conditions of modern life, must lead to the systematic acquisition, renewal, upgrading and completion of knowledge, skills and attitudes, as required by these changes.

In contexts where large numbers of adults are illiterate or lacking a be largely upon providing the foundations for lifelong learning to such disadvantaged or marginalised sectors of society.

Though such a focus is necessary and right, it is necessary to avoid the concept of lifelong education being confused with or simply seen as an equivalent term for adult education, for, to be viable, lifelong learning’s foundations should be laid in childhood and youth and in what happens in schooling systems. Though many adult learners have not previously been encouraged to develop as independent, critical thinkers through their schooling (where they have completed it), it is essential that the schooling system, including educare, and higher education, inculcate the attitudes and competencies vital for lifelong education. If lifelong education is to become effective in SADC countries, its principles need to suffuse the whole education  and training systems.

The Major Challenges

In the light of this definition and an intelligent reading of the global and regional contexts, the Technical Committee therefore identified two major challenges:

  • Firstly, to have constantly a vision before it of a learning region in which all citizens are supported in lifelong learning – so that they are, indeed, able to participate as full citizens of the world. Therefore, the Technical Committee will be responsible for initiating, and ensure the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of, a variety of activities related to Lifelong Education and Training in the region.


  • But, secondly, because of the situation of educational disadvantage in the region, the Technical Committee must work towards and prioritise the achievement of universal literacy and numeracy as the foundation of Lifelong Education and Training in the SADC region.

Meeting these challenges can be broken down into a whole set of tasks, including:

  • Clarifying the concept of lifelong education and training so that it is recognised as relating to all education (not just literacy or out- of-school programmes) whilst at the same time giving due priority to ensuring that the basic foundations of lifelong learning, namely literacy and numeracy, are accessible to all people in member states


  • De-stigmatising non-formal education (particularly when it is linked to livelihoods development)


  • Encouraging all member states to revive the use of radio and other media to propagate lifelong education and training programmes


  • Developing an advocacy document on Lifelong Education and Training for the region and encouraging the drafting of national advocacy documents


  • Identifying the centre of specialisation to carry out research on baseline information on activities of lifelong learning in all member states


  • Dealing with obsolete or outdated curricula, materials and teacher training methods and encouraging the development of modest and actually workable qualifications frameworks and systems of certification and articulation


  • Developing, funding and implementing a five-year strategic plan that takes into account the priority areas for action (and including the HIV/AIDS issues and the impact of HIV/AIDS in the field of lifelong learning)

A Digression – The SADC Technical Committees Relating to Education and Training

Before proceeding to say something about the plans developed by the Technical Committee for Lifelong Education and Training, it is necessary to say something about these technical committees and the SADC Human Resources Development Directorate.

The SADC Protocol on Education and Training made provision (Article 11) for a sub-section for Co-operation in Education and Training of the Human Resources Development sector and the setting up of a number of technical committees, seven in all, to deal with:

  • Basic Education (Primary and Secondary levels)


  • Intermediate Education and Training


  • Higher Education and Training and Research and Development


  • Lifelong Education and Training . Training Fund


  • Certification and Accreditation


  • Distance Education

Following the pattern of membership for all the technical committees (Article 13 section d), the Technical Committee on Lifelong Education and Training would comprise one representative from each member state in at least one each of the following categories: ministry official responsible for adult education; management development and training institutions; non-governmental organisations with a key stake in lifelong education and training; private sector; student organisations. Expenses of country representatives were to be paid by the individual countries. The committee would be supported by the Human Resources Development Directorate’s Sector Co-ordinating Unit (SCU).

The system of technical committees was only getting off the ground when, probably due mainly to financial constraints, the whole system came under review and was drastically restructured. The various SADC directorates, previously based in a number of member states (Human Resources Development was sited in Swaziland) were to be downsized and consolidated into four new ones (including a Directorate on Social and Human Development and Special Programmes), all to be based in Botswana. The Protocol on Education and Training will have to be redrafted (by December 2003), and at the moment there is a lack of clarity on the future because a new Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP) is to be drawn up by May 2003.

The technical committees were no longer going to be supported as such. I use that phrase “as such” intentionally, because, though in one sense the technical committees are to be disbanded and have been instructed to smoothly wind up their business under the old coordination structure, it has been suggested that they can continue if they can find their own means of support. The most recent meeting of the Technical Committee on Lifelong Education and Training has argued strongly for an interim arrangement to enable the continuation of the committee’s work.

What Has Been Done So Far to Meet these Challenges – Achievements of the Technical Committee

To return after that digression on the SADC education and training co-operation and support structures, what has the Technical Committee on Lifelong Education and Training done in the short period of its existence within which it has only held three meetings (November 2001, March 2002 and October 2002)? These meetings were indeed successful in gathering a range of information from country reports (though all three meetings were marred by less than full attendance (seven member states at the first meeting, six at the second and third), and it was reported that most countries which had attended the Technical Committee had formed Lifelong Education and Training National Committees and that a number were reviewing or explicating their Lifelong Education and Training policies. The Committee approved a definition of Lifelong Education and Training (see above) and drafted, revised and approved a Strategic Plan and an Implementation Plan.

The Two Plans

The Strategic Plan for Lifelong Education and Training 2002-2006 is a detailed 30-page document. The strategic plan breaks down the tasks to be done into ten strategic objectives and associated programmes.

The Implementation Plan for Lifelong Education and Training 2002–2004 outlines some priorities for action over the next two years.

Clearly these two documents will remain lifeless unless there is a continuation of the work of the Technical Committee and some kind of co-ordination and co-operation mechanism to make things happen.

If one examines the Implementation Plan it becomes clear what the Committee saw as important activities and what priorities they identified. The priorities were advocacy, funding, training, accreditation (and the research required to support all of these priority activities). The activities included the following:

  • Research and building up detailed information on literacy and adult basic education in the region (something which this conference plays a crucial role in) and reporting on it in regional and national surveys


  • Undertaking audits of materials development (2003) and trainer and practitioner development (2004) capacity in the region


  • Holding of a number of regional consultations (on adult literacy and basic education) (2002); on curriculum and materials development for adult literacy and basic education (2003); and trainer and practitioner development (2004)


  • Development of advocacy and funding strategies and documents (2003).

What is to Be Done?

The SADC Protocol on Education and Training created the possibility of co-operative action using adult literacy and basic education as a vehicle in the socio-economic and political transformation of a region and to highlight the demand for collective efforts and international support if basic education for all is a priority in the next decade. The Technical Committee on Lifelong Education and Training set up under this Protocol provided a base such for collective action. Although regional support from the SADC is now in a state of restructuring and flux, the Technical Committee argues strongly for ongoing activities and hopes that this conference will support this and endorse its Strategic and Implementation Plans and request that this University plays a role in providing an interim mechanism of support for regional action. In addition, of course, national and regional political will and determination remain necessary in the struggle for an illiteracy-free region together with a framework of well-planned strategies. At an international level we have the United Nations support for a Literacy Decade for Education for All.

Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.