Starting work in adult education and literacy in Zambia in 1964, John Oxenham took part in the great UNESCO conference in Teheran in 1965. Here he reports his impressions of the 2007 UNESCO conference in Bamako, Mali, 10.-12. September. He gratefully attended as a guest of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL). Dr John Oxenham has worked for many years for the World Bank. He now lives in the United Kingdom and is still working on adult education.

One View from Bamako – UNESCO’s African Regional Conference on Literacy in the World

Cynicism comes easily at large conferences where eloquent and strident declarations fill the air, while a sub-text of whining about neglect and under-funding permeates conversations. A UNESCO staff member asked, “Am I wrong, or is what I am hearing what I heard forty years ago?” A UNESCO newsletter noted wryly that a superlarge conference of ten years back, CONFINTEA V, recognized adult learning and education

“as key tools to address current social and development challenges all over the world. However, the recognition and strong commitment expressed in 1997 did not lead to the corresponding integration, policy prioritization and allocation of resources for adult learning and education, either nationally or internationally.” 1

What outcomes will emerge then from these fresh outlays on plenary sessions, round tables, panels of experts, reviews of good practice, caucuses – not to mention the preparatory papers, the travel, the hotels, the receptions and dinners? Will the outcomes be measurable? Will the governments of Africa strain to ensure that they allocate and actually invest three per cent of their education budgets in education for women and men who need to learn how to read and write as well? Will African governments and non-governmental bodies visibly redouble their efforts to attain the Dakar EFA goal of halving illiteracy rates – or doubling literacy rates- by 2015?

These questions are of course unanswerable now. Nevertheless, there were at least two counterweights to cynicism and pessimism. The first one was the caucus. The First Ladies of Africa, the Ministers of Education, the members of universities, the non-governmental agencies each met as a separate group or caucus and had to produce commitments that their members would strive to honour in their respective countries. A spokesperson for each caucus then declared those commitments publicly in front of a plenary session of all the participants. They put UNESCO in a position to hold each member of each of those caucuses accountable.

The EFA Global Monitoring Report that issues from UNESCO’s headquarters every year holds each and every government accountable for its progress towards the Dakar EFA goals. The device seems to have had the effect of accelerating progress towards universal primary education (UPE). Indeed, progress in the first five years since Dakar in 2000 was twice as fast as progress after Jomtien in 1990.

Will UNESCO have the nerve and will to create a similar mechanism to hold each member of those caucuses to her or his commitments on behalf of adult education and universal literacy?

A second counterweight was the presence of the non-governmental agencies. In the face of what seems the sluggish helplessness of government agencies, NGOs and CSOs press on. They do the best with what they have. They generate new ideas. They try out new methods. They produce fresh materials. They seek out more resources. Tellingly, ten out of fourteen examples of good practice came from NGOs .2 They are importunate and insistent. Perhaps that is why there seemed to be an uneasy tension between some government officials and some NGOs.

On the other hand, there was a weighty counterweight to excessive optimism. It is well known that literacy programmes, especially those of governments, tend to be low-cost, if not decidedly cheap affairs. They depend on improvisation, charity and volunteers. In that light, the “round table” on costing and budgeting might have considered whether this cheapness was productive or counter-productive. The group had as its president a Minister of Finance and as its Moderator a Division Chief from the African Development Bank. After the presentation of three good papers, the group was asked to consider as its first question, “How can costs be driven down?” What, even further!? It seems that, if the official economists and financiers have anything to do with adult education and literacy, hopes for more adequate resources for adult education had better be modest indeed. And the efforts to squeeze even more out of very little had better be strong.

Alternatively, the university caucus could help by doing the research still necessary to show – and to convince the financiers – just what investment is required in adult education and literacy to ensure just what returns in enhanced incomes, health and well-being.

Peter Mayo

Large Turn out for International Lifelong Learning Summer Institute

There were over 45 participants at the first International Summer Institute on Lifelong Learning organized by the Faculty of Education, University of Malta at the University Residence in Lija, Malta. The Institute was held on 18th and 19th September 2007. While most of the participants were Maltese, including a large number of nurses and other health care professionals, as well as teachers, there were also participants from England, Montenegro, Sweden, Finland and the United States. There was also a Palestinian participant.

The key speakers for this summer institute were Professor Peter Jarvis (University of Surrey), Professor Margaret Ledwith (Cumbria University), Professor Peter Mayo (University of Malta and Institute Convenor) and Professor Kenneth Wain (University of Malta). All have published extensively and internationally in the field. Dr Valerie Sollars, Dean of the University of Malta’s Faculty of Education, opened the summer institute which forms part of the Faculty Summer Institutes’ Programme. The Faculty’s Summer Institutes Programme is coordinated by Dr Carmel Borg, former Dean of the Faculty of Education. The Lifelong Learning Summer Institutes (to be held once a year) are being convened by Professor Peter Mayo who coordinates the Faculty of Education’s Adult Education Programme.

The themes discussed by the invited speakers and participants during the plenary sessions and workshops included the following: The meaning of Lifelong Learning in this day and age, Lifelong Learning and Health, Lifelong Learning and Work, Lifelong Learning and Aging, Lifelong Learning and the Community, Lifelong Learning and Women, Lifelong Learning and Migration.

The International Summer Institute on Lifelong Learning was the second activity of this kind organised by the Faculty this summer. In July, an equally successful summer institute on Students at Risk took place and the key speaker was Professor John Portelli from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education University of Toronto, Canada.

1 UIL Nexus 2007 Special Issue, August 2007, Hamburg, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

2 UIL. 2007. Making a Difference: Effective Practices in Literacy in Africa. Hamburg, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.