Harbans S. Bhola

To understand the poverty of nations, political economy analysis should be undertaken within the systems theory perspective, covering systems and structures from the global to the local. Adult educators must become committed activists in behalf of the poor and build an overall system for advocacy and delivery of adult education that is comprehensive and commensurate with the challenges thrown up by the present world system. While appropriate adult education would have to be a necessary component of efforts of poverty reduction, it is by no means a sufficient stimulus or strategy for changing existing conditions of poverty. Poverty reduction needs both adult education and congenial changes in the political and economic systems and structures of inequality in which the poor may be entrenched. Harbans S. Bhola, who is already familiar as an author of contributions to AED, is Professor Emeritus of Education, Indiana University in Bloomington, USA.

Adult Education for Poverty Reduction: Political Economy Analysis from a Systems Theory Perspective

Adult Educators as Activists

The poor and the powerless are capable of discontent, but they are not always able to organize themselves to demand social justice. They need help from selfless teachers and activists. In the present context and conditions in the developing and the developed world, adult educators seem to be the best hope for the world’s poor. Unfortunately, while adult educators have understood the deprivations and indignities of the poor living in conditions of poverty, they have been satisfied with offering them dialog and discussion on education for development. But that is certainly not enough. Adult educators will have to redefine themselves as activists in behalf of the poor. They must commit to combining pedagogy with politics.

Systems Theory Approaches

Effective social interventions must be informed by relevant and robust theory. In this age of Globalization wherein all nations seem to have been integrated into one world system, adult educators must work with systems theory approaches to be able to include in their concerns all at once, all relevant systems, subsystems and structures, linked with each other both vertically and horizontally. Again, to put adult education to work in poverty reduction and ultimately to lead to sustainable development, we have to think of the condition of poverty as “a constructed system” of political, economic, and social arrangements imposing on the people particular schemes of inclusion and exclusion from opportunities and assets. We have to think of poverty alleviation for sustainable development also as a problem of “operational system design” – accommodating contexts and conditions, configurations of agents and agencies, and resources covering the material, motivational, intellectual, and institutional. And, of course, we will have to design, implant, and implement “an adult education system” that is comprehensive and commensurate with needs of the poverty eradication system; and which is fully interfaced with the poverty eradication system.

Finally, the social-scientific has to be joined with the spiritual in developing strategies for motivation and mobilization of the rich who may not be willing to part with any portion of their wealth, and privileges attached to wealth.

Political Economy Analysis

Systems theory can not only subsume all systems and structures, but it can also accommodate discussions of the dynamics of all processes: ecological, cultural, political, social, economic, educational, and technological. With systems thinking in the back of their minds, adult educators should be able to conduct political economy analyses: i.e., analyses of power relations and patterns of exclusion and inclusion that oppress the poor and privilege the powerful within the boundaries of particular systems and structures. They should be able to see how particular distributions of power are joined with distributions of status, economic, cultural and educational goods in the society. It should be stated here that not all of the tasks involved in boundary setting of systems and structures, and not all of the political economy analyses, will have to be conducted by adult educators by themselves from scratch. An immense amount of work has already been done in this regard by social scientists and is already available – and is indeed becoming more and more easily accessible through the Internet.

There is a caveat here. More often than not, political economy analyses at the international, regional, and national levels will simply have to be accessed for reading and review and to learn from. However, adult educators will have to learn to transfer their learning and insights to do political economy analyses at the lower levels of social systems in the districts and communities. Such political economy analyses should not be planned to satisfy academic research criteria but should be seen as practically oriented, “Participatory Socio-economic Appraisals.”

The Role of the Powerful and the Rich in Reducing the Poverty of the Poor and the Powerless

The dialectic between adult education and poverty reduction cannot be assumed to be suffused with morality and charity. Within nations, the privileged minorities aspiring to acquire standards of living now enjoyed by the West are in no hurry to improve the living conditions of the poor majorities living on the edge of starvation. Between the developed and the developing nations, there is no sense of urgency either on the part of the rich nations to surrender their princely life styles and extravagant levels of consumption. They are generous with rhetoric but in reality the flow of assistance from rich nations to poor is quite stingy. Globalization with its free market mantras has conjured up even greater riches for the rich, leaving the poor even poorer. Levels of international debts to be paid by the developing nations to developed nations and development Banks have become untenable. Special schemes for helping the heavily indebted poor countries with debt relief are proving to be frauds.

Rays of Hope and Rings of Darkness

There were rays of hope in the United Nations Millennium Declaration of September 2000, which proclaimed: 

“We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women, and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subject.”

Along with the great goal to halve the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015, the family of nations also promised to achieve the related developmental goals: to achieve universal primary education; to promote gender equality and empowerment; to reduce child mortality; to improve maternal health; to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; to ensure environmental sustainability; and to develop a global partnership for development. It should be stated here that the Millennium Declaration talks of the one billion people living in an “abject and dehumanizing condition of poverty”, and forgets another one billion who are starkly and equally hopelessly poor.

Anyway, the ray of hope offered by the Millennium Declaration is surrounded by a ring of darkness and despair. A systematic evaluation of the progress in achievement of the Millennium Goals presented to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, during January 2004, concluded that “the international community is putting in barely one-third of the effort needed to achieve internationally agreed goals” – which were neither lofty nor generous to begin with. Neither the international organizations, nor national governments, nor the civil society, nor the private sector had kept their promises to rise to the occasion and meet expectations.

Getting Things Done: an Agenda for Education and Resocialization of Adults

It bears repeating that poverty reduction is not merely an educational matter; and yet it is education that must serve as the instrument of priority for ideological re-direction, and structural change in politics and economy at all levels from the global to the local. That would imply education of the governing classes and their bureaucracies, and, of course, of the leadership at all levels of the civil society. That is a serious challenge for all adult educators all over the world.

Adult educators, of course, must not keep on talking to other adult educators, but must develop collaborations with all others who are engaged in counselling and guidance, education and extension, and enculturation and socialization of adults. It is particularly important for adult educators to learn to work with religious leaders and preachers. Fundamentalism in the religious communities of all religions around the world has acquired alarming proportions. The events of the last few years should show us all the dire consequences of leaving matters of the soul to the uneducated, narrow-minded, self-proclaimed men of God claiming to be the chosen messengers of their superior God, preaching the only true religion – conditioning and brain-washing impressionable young men and women to die for “The Cause”. As adult educators we need to teach the equal sacredness of all religions of the world, of the glory of the Almighty One, unknown and unknowable, named variously as Ishwar, Buddha, Jehovah, God, Allah, Waheguru, Mungu, and much else by different peoples – depending on the accidents of their birth in particular families and in specific ethnic and language communities.

The System of Adult Education

To mobilize, socialize and educate all stakeholders involved in poverty reduction projects, adult educators must create a system of adult education and training that interfaces with the totality of the existing world system of politics and economy and fulfills the needs of lifelong education of politicians, civic leaders, bureaucrats, community leaders, heads of families, individuals, and adult educators themselves! At the upper levels of the system, their work will be of advocacy for structural changes and expansion of appropriate programs of poverty reduction and adult education. At the lower levels in sub-national regions, districts, communities, families and with individuals, adult educators must engage themselves directly in the roles and tasks of actual mobilizing, socializing and instruction of individual adults and groups of adult learners.

In the following, we will provide a sense of what needs to be done, and what adult educators should do at various levels of the system.

At the international/global level: the agenda for adult education for poverty reduction

Adult educators must reinvent themselves as activists in behalf of the poor and the excluded everywhere in the world. They must lobby for peace and insist that the “dividends of peace” are allocated not to tax reduction for billionaires, millionaires and the upper classes who can easily afford to pay their due share for nation building, but instead to poverty reduction, arresting HIV/AIDS and other diseases, and the education of adults (and children).

Adult educators should lobby for the United Nations system to assume and deliver more effective governance globally and engage more aggressively in the tasks of nation building across the world.

Indeed, the UN System should become the mechanism for the transfer of wealth from the super-rich North to the abjectly poor countries and communities in the South. The rich nations of the world must fulfil their promise of contributing 1 per cent of GNP to development assistance to the developing world, and should in fact continue to raise this proportion. The receipts of the “Tobin Tax” (a proposed tax on international capital transfers to stem currency speculation and attempts to distort market conditions in poor and weaker nations) should also flow back to the poor through the UN family of institutions.

Adult educators at the international level need particularly to work to persuade UNESCO to resume its historical role in the promotion of adult education worldwide. At its inception in 1946, UNESCO rightly proclaimed itself to be an Adult Education Organization for the World. Half a century later, the passion seems to have cooled and indeed leadership for adult education has shifted to others relatively rich in resources but lacking in commitment to adult education.

The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the international level also require the attention of adult educators. Adult educators must establish and articulate their presence at the global level, using institutions such as the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE). The ICAE has a long and distinguished history and needs once more to resume its role with even greater strength than ever before.

The major professional task facing adult educators is promotion of adult education itself. Adult educators have to emphasize and reiterate the role of adult education in relation to formal education and indicate that basic formal education for children by itself will not bring about socio-economic development.

Formal education prepares children for future life as citizens and workers. Adult education prepares adults to participate in life and work, and politics and praxis now. Recent evaluations in Uganda and elsewhere have shown that adults who went to school when young are coming back to adult literacy classes to refresh their literacy and numeracy skills and to learn development knowledge which they never got at school and which they are not getting from anywhere else.

At the national level: the agenda for adult education for poverty reduction

Adult educators at the national level have to continue to play their historic role as progressives, carrying the label of liberalism with pride. Their interest should cover both the urban and the rural; and they should insist that the wealth produced by modernization of the urban economy is put to the service of the rural economy, which should also be modernized, using appropriate technology.

Adult educators must help in the discussion and definition of development in the context of their own country. Democracy, human rights, equitability should all be non-negotiable. Poverty reduction may demand land reform, transfer of assets among classes, and the recognition of the state’s obligation to provide basic education and basic health for the nation’s peoples. The welfare state should not be a dirty word!

The institutional and action agendas for adult education at the national levels will be similar to the agenda at the international level. First and foremost, adult educators will have to assume an important advocacy role in behalf of adult education. In doing so, adult educators will have to remind the politicians and policy actors in their countries that the democratization and modernization promised to the peoples of the world in almost all of the world’s constitutional documents, are not possible without education. Traditional knowledge with all its virtues by itself will never give us a knowledge-based society at this point of time in the history of human civilization. We will need “modernizing” education both in schools for children and in out-of-school settings for adults to enable them to participate in the political, economic and cultural processes of societies.

To give the necessary visibility to adult education, it may be necessary to establish separate ministries of adult education in each of the developing countries. A National Commission of Adult Non-formal Education may be necessary to bring together all the governmental institutions that provide “education to adults” in literacy skills, in citizenship, health, agriculture and cattle farming, and to communicate any other body of knowledge needed for livelihood and participation in local institutions.

Equal attention should be paid to the creation and maintenance of a civil society. Adult educators must establish a presence in their nation’s capital. Every country should have an active adult education association, with its roots going deep into communities through a network of community-based organizations (CBOs) all around the nation.

Universities have to serve as the nourishing grounds for adult educators. They have to train generations of adult educators to teach facilitators to guide adult classes, and supervise adult education work. They must train functionaries who can design adult education programs and produce materials needed for a whole array of appropriate adult education programs. Finally, they have to train cadres of evaluators and researchers who can fulfil all of the R&D needs of adult education in the country.

At the provincial/state level: the agenda for poverty reduction

Except for small island microstates, most countries will consist of provinces (or states, or districts) organized on the basis of historical, geographical, or ethnic realities. Provincial programs of adult education will have to be contextualized without, of course, becoming discontinuous with the national and international agendas. It is important to note, however, that in developing plans for poverty reduction at these levels, we will need to become indigenous: we will have to use alternative concepts of development, new definitions of poverty and relative poverty, and to assume a morality of frugality to be able to work within existing scarcities that we often face in poor countries.

NGOs at the provincial level should work to encourage the development of local adult education institutions at the community and school levels. They should also undertake directly the work that cannot realistically be conducted at the local levels: to do advocacy with the government for expanding adult education programs for poverty reduction; to train field workers/facilitators; to produce training materials for facilitators and instructional materials for learners; and finally to help develop monitoring and evaluation mechanisms at the levels of centers, communities and districts.

At the district level: the agenda for poverty reduction

A district typically is of a size that is suitable for establishing networks and patterns of participation in zones and communities to make democracy real in the lives of people; and to undertake district level economic opportunity analyses for improving the economic conditions of the people. The results of such an economic opportunity analysis can then be shared with both the providers of development services and with home makers, farmers and workers. Skills needed by individual adults and groups to avail of the new economic opportunities can be taught and matched with small credit schemes.

It is also at this level that the core of a system of monitoring and evaluation of adult education for poverty reduction will have to be established.

At the community level: the agenda for poverty reduction

With modernization, integration of economies, availability of work outside the community, and availability of public transportation having become the common realities in our lives, the concept of community itself has changed. Adult educators to be helpful at community level, must begin with a socio-economic analysis of the community, paying due attention to the porous borders of today’s communities. The community analysis should show the causes and structures of poverty in the community. Communities may be poor because of their geographical location in regard to distance from the main road or the railway station. Within the community, there may be structures that keep people in poverty for reasons of caste and creed, and denying land and demanding labour.

Enlightened community leadership can create communal work for improved conditions in the communities. Also, several programs that have promise for poverty reduction can be planned, such as: child care centers, feeding and schooling projects for the HIV/AIDS orphans, reproductive health seminars, establishment of a hospice for the terminally ill, etc.

Within the family: the agenda for poverty reduction

Families in addition to being locations for enculturation and socialization are also important economic units. Gender is an important factor in the political economy of the family. Most of the families in the world are male-headed, and the male is considered the bread winner, irrespective of the contribution of the female in growing and preserving food. The females in the household are kept “poor” because in many cultures they are not allowed to inherit property. They are disadvantaged in many other ways. They eat only after the males have eaten and thereby are apportioned lesser amounts of food and some nutritious food is totally withheld from them. Customarily, they may be denied access to both education and health, thereby seriously affecting their life chances and opportunities.

With a worldwide chorus of voices in favour of women’s development in our times, adult educators do have a chance to work for poverty reduction of women, presently living in double jeopardy. It is now being said that national development is indeed women’s development; and poverty reduction of women is poverty reduction of the family. There are several important things that can be done for poverty reduction in the family. Women, for example, should be the recipients of educational (and material) inputs for family spacing, helping children stay at school, maintaining family health, and growing vegetables and preserving food. Women should also be assisted with marketing of produce and craft objects that they may want to produce to sell.

Community leaders should work strenuously to organize community opinion against excessive drinking and use of drugs by men; huge expenditures on dowry, weddings and funerals; and against incurring debts and borrowing from predatory money lenders. In a poor family, widows become the walking dead, and the disabled may suffer from terrible neglect. Special attention should be paid to this. To succeed in what is proposed above, both men and women would need to be sensitized and organized. For this, organizing “family focus groups” seems like an important initial strategy.

Individual Praxis for Poverty Reduction

The first challenge for adult educators at the individual level is what Paulo Freire called conscientization – consciousness-raising – that is, helping adult men and women who may be resigned to the condition of their poverty, to become aware and understand the political economy of their own poverty. Only by understanding these structures, can the poor avoid their own exploitation at the hands of officials, preachers, shopkeepers, money-lenders, and middle men.

Related with the above ideas is the need to inform these individuals about the development services made available in the area by government functionaries and NGOs, but which are not being accessed by individuals in rural and urban areas. These issues have often not been faced because they are considered too sensitive to handle but they must be boldly encountered. Small family norms must be discussed and how and where to get help for contraception should be talked about as well. HIV/AIDS and other venereal diseases must be discussed, pointing to the consequences of unsafe sex for the individual personally and for spouses and children in the family.

Most importantly, adult educators must work with all relevant others in the community (and within the larger district boundaries) to create renumerative work and other means of livelihoods. All opportunities for self-employment within the community should be explored. Adult educators should remember that if people do not have work they will invent corrupt work such as thieving, drug pushing, prostitution, etc. In too many cases poverty is induced or accentuated by bad habits of excessive drinking and smoking. These problems should be discussed forthrightly and social disciplines imposed if possible.

Is there hope?