Adama Ouane

Adult Education for a Viable Future: Implications for Financing and Policy

1. Introduction

Since 1949, the five International Conferences on Adult Education (CONFINTEA I –V) have drawn the world’s attention to adult education as a fundamental human right. Adult learning and education are a component of lifelong learning. It caters for the demands of adolescents, young people, adults and seniors alike. Ultimately, it is about providing learning contexts and processes in formal, informal and non-formal contexts that are attractive and responsive to adults as active citizens, in the family, in community and social life, at work and, not least, as self-reliant autonomous individuals building and rebuilding their lives in complex and rapidly changing cultures, societies and economies.

In spite of the widespread poverty and lack of access to literacy and basic education that affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide, adult learning and education is now more than ever emerging as an empowering tool capable of liberating and harnessing the creative forces of people, the potential of communities and the wealth of our nations in a situation of global crisis.

Even though their priorities in adult learning and education may differ, countries are united in seeking to improve the quality of life and in recognising that there is a global dimension to all the challenges that will confront us in the coming decades. Only with an informed, literate and active citizenry can we meet the challenges of our society effectively – and this can only happen by making adult learning and education the focus of policy and action, as a transversal agenda that cross-cuts policy domains and resource allocations. Ideally, adult learning and education should be integrated into a comprehensive lifelong learning system that is backed by an open and dynamic mechanism of recognition, validation and accreditation of all forms of learning, whenever, wherever and however it takes place, and that pays special attention to non-formal, informal and experiential learning. Adult education, as an inalienable human right, should be enshrined constitutionally by all countries.

Adult learning and education are an essential means of achieving the internationally-agreed development goals of Education for ALL (EFA), the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD), the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD) and the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE). However, in none of these efforts has there been a designated role for adult learning and education beyond basic literacy and life skills. Encouragingly, the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) sets out a broad mandate in which adult learning and education can play a highly visible role.

2. Fulfilling the Right to Adult Learning and Education

2.1 The right to Education for All

Adult learning and education comprise a powerful way to move towards alleviating poverty, improving health, promoting peace and democracy, fostering inclusion, achieving environmental awareness and helping people to adapt to the rapid advances that our societies are facing.

The 1997 Hamburg Declaration stated that adult learning and education is “a joy, a tool, a right and a shared responsibility”.1 This can only be effective if it is translated into relevant, qualitative, meaningful learning and achievement for all. Its guiding principles should be inclusive education, education for sustainable development and lifelong learning. Further, taking into account all that adult learning and education implies is crucial to public policy-making because of the wide range of needs they address and the range of actors and policy areas involved.

2.2 Meeting the demands of marginalised and special groups

Basic learning needs for human development are multifarious, complex and constantly changing. They concern all people of all ages, and involve a wide range of competencies, values and experiences that must be further developed. Learning needs and demands cannot be fully met by one type of institution or one particular form of education. Rather, they are addressed through multiple educational modes, diverse learning situations (home, community, workplace, school, place of leisure, and so on) and a variety of media (books, computers, games and others). Consequently, there must be diverse and flexible forms of provision and a strong cooperation among them.

Each individual and every group has different learning needs and demands, interests, strategies and styles, all of which can be hampered by various obstacles, exclusion being among the most severe. In order to overcome such barriers, it is therefore important to identify these needs and interests, and to adopt the most appropriate strategies, content and modalities to address them in each case. Inclusion thus emphasises groups of learners who are most at risk of marginalisation, exclusion or underachievement.


Adama Ouane
Source: Barbara Frommann


Hence, policies must ensure that all citizens, whatever their social or economic background, have opportunities to access knowledge and facilities as fully and freely as possible in school and society as a whole, to participate completely, to achieve at the highest level and to enjoy a high quality of life. Inclusion is the full manifestation of the effective exercise of the right to education and learning. It is about learning to live with diversity and learning to learn from difference, not only in a certain period but throughout the entire life-cycle in a variety of contexts.

Programmes targeting various marginalised and excluded groups have often functioned outside the mainstream. Many have centred on special measures, specialised institutions and specialist educators. Too often, such programmes have succeeded only in producing second-rate educational opportunities that offer few or no possibilities for further study. In these cases, the result has been exclusion.

It is not enough merely to facilitate access and increase inputs. Reducing drop-out rates or increasing participation levels are also not sufficient. Measures to improve quality can only be effective if they are translated into relevant and meaningful learning and achievement for all. Since the poor have to start from a position of greater economic and social disadvantage, which has a negative impact on learning, efforts must be made to ensure that quality and equity gaps are reduced. What the poor need is not remedial education, just high-quality education, tailor-made to meet their learning needs and demands.2

3. Preparations for CONFINTEA VI

In December 2009, CONFINTEA VI will take place in Belém (State of Pará), Brazil, under the title “Living and Learning for a Viable Future – The Power of Adult Learning”. Its overall purpose will be to draw attention to the relationship and contribution of adult learning and education to sustainable development in all its dimensions – social, economic, ecological and cultural – as well as to push forward the recognition of adult learning and education as an essential and enabling factor for lifelong learning, thus consolidating the paradigm shift that took place in the wake of CONFINTEA V.

The CONFINTEA VI preparations resulted in a vast stock-taking exercise and led to policy reviews, institutional changes, trend-setting and the identification of innovations, difficulties and challenges. A total of 154 UNESCO Member States (out of 193) submitted National Reports on the development of adult education in their countries since 1997. These were used as a basis for a synthesis report for each of the five UNESCO regions. This exercise led to the preparation of the first Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE).3

Five regional preparatory conferences have examined policy, governance and financing for adult learning and education; inclusion and participation; quality in adult learning and education; and literacy and other key competencies. They point to some progress in the development of adult learning worldwide. Comprehensive policies in some countries have resulted in integrated adult learning and education systems within the perspective of lifelong learning. Some examples are mentioned in this paper.

The CONFINTEA VI National Reports demonstrate the immense variety of adult education provision on offer. Globally, basic education remains the most dominant form of adult education, followed by vocational and work-related education and then by life-skills and knowledge generation activities. There are many regional differences in the pattern of provision, with basic education being the principal form in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab states and Latin America and the Caribbean, while in Asia and Europe, vocational and work-related educational activities tend to prevail.

4. Financing Adult Education

Adult learning and education are a valuable instrument which brings social benefits by creating more democratic, peaceful, inclusive, productive, healthy and sustainable societies. Significant financial investment is essential to ensure the high-quality provision of adult learning and education. Nonetheless, government investment in adult learning and education remains very low. The growing trend of decentralisation is not matched by an appropriate allocation of resources at all levels. The funding of adult learning and education is seldom based on an adequate needs assessment, research data or cost budgeting.

Improving the financing of adult education was one of the key commitments made in the CONFINTEA V Hamburg Declaration. Participants undertook to improve adult learning and education by

“seeking to invest, as proposed by the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, at least 6 per cent of Member States’ gross national product (GNP) in education and by allocating an equitable share of the education budget to adult education…By proposing that each development sector (e.g. agriculture, health, environment) assign a share of its budget to adult learning”.4




The lack of hard data cited in the CONFINTEA VI National Reports prevent us from gaining a global picture of whether or not countries have achieved the 6 per cent benchmark or, following on from this, whether they have allotted an equitable share to adult education. Out of 154 National Reports, only 57 countries (37 per cent) provided information on the share of budget allocated to adult education.

5. Examples of Adult Learning and Education Policy Since CONFINTEA V

The period following CONFINTEA V was marked by a growing demand for vocational and skills-based adult education. Provision in the intervening years has attempted to meet demands for marketable competences and self-employment. This has been to the detriment of citizenship, social and political emancipation of the kind advocated by traditional liberal adult education. Although some progress has been made in this domain, it has been very limited. Most countries have improved participation rates and gender equity, and have innovated with new programmes, pedagogies, and delivery methods. But the scale of programmes remains small, reflecting their low status in the eyes of most countries. Targets for adult learning and education have failed to appear among the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), signalling their low policy importance at the global level. The pervasive global financial and economic crisis is further limiting support for programmes that are already considered to be marginal.

The "EFA Global Monitoring Report 2009" explored a range of issues in non-formal education, where much adult learning activity takes place. It found evidence in several countries of significant disparities in provision according to location, age group and socio-economic status. It also found that national history has heavily influenced approaches to provision. While Mexico, Nepal and Senegal, for instance, see non-formal provision principally in terms of adult education, Bangladesh and Indonesia take a broader view, stressing flexibility and programme diversity to complement formal education. Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, the Philippines, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia, meanwhile, largely conceive of non-formal education as any structured learning activity taking place outside the formal education system.5

There is a lack of more integrated approaches to adult learning and education that address development in all its aspects (economic, sustainable, community and personal). Gender mainstreaming initiatives have not always led to more relevant programmes for or greater participation by women. Similarly, adult learning and education programmes are rarely responsive to indigenous peoples, rural populations and migrants. The diversity of learners, in terms of age, gender, cultural background, economic status, unique needs (including disabilities) and language, is not reflected in programme content and practices. Few countries have consistent multilingual policies that promote mother tongues, yet this is often crucial for creating a literate environment, especially for indigenous and/or minority languages.

It is no surprise that adult education provision in the South is very much centred on literacy programmes, given that majority of the 774 million who do not have basic reading and writing skills live there.

With the exception of the Nordic countries and those with established lifelong learning systems (such as the Republic of Korea), we may draw the following conclusions: 1. public provision is restricted to achieving minimum goals at the lowest level; 2. provision beyond the "minimum" tends to be offered by the private sector, commercial providers or non-governmental organisations whose offerings are subject to the laws of supply and demand; 3. provision is generally temporary and may be abandoned at any moment; 4. supply depends upon needs and resources; and 5. an elaborated and stabilised structure for governance for the provision of adult education is not in place.

As the above indicates, while governments remain the main providers, there are other stakeholders who are clearly associated with particular forms of adult education, ranging from basic literacy and vocational education to awareness-raising with regard to health, women’s rights and gender equality. These provisions, often funded by international NGOs, are both more flexible and wider in outreach.


Rolf Lindenthal /
Heribert Hinzen /
Rita Süssmuth /
Adama Ouane
Source: Barbara Frommann 


Aside from the public-private provision balance, a key concern is the scope and coverage of the programmes on offer. Even though a variety of programmes is evident in many countries, the issue of who benefits needs to be raised. Often, such programmes continue to marginalise rural and indigenous populations, Afro-descendents, migrants, people with special learning needs and prison inmates, maintaining or even deepening inequalities rather than reducing them.6

The following lists some examples from National Reports that paint a mixed picture of progress since CONFINTEA V.

As far as the sub-Saharan African region is concerned, several innovative policies and programmes have had a positive impact on adult learning and education, for example Namibia's National Policy on Adult Learning (2003) and Eritrea's National Policy on Adult Education (2005). Cape Verde has systematically developed adult learning and education policies, legislation and administrative frameworks (1998, 1999, 203, 2006, 2007, 2008). In 2001, Benin launched a national policy on literacy and adult education, which contains the new vision, mission, objectives, strategies and resources needed to reach the defined goals by 2010. In 2006, the Ten Year Plan for Education indicated that this national policy on literacy and adult education needed to be linked to formal education as well as to other development sectors. Burkina Faso appears to be a very favourable policy environment with 1. its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (revised in 2003); 2. a Ten Year Plan on Education, one of whose objectives is to promote literacy; and 3. a specific policy on literacy and non-formal education. In Cameroon, there is no clearly defined law on adult learning and education, but related laws were passed in 2004 and 2007 to cover literacy and professional training. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are also no specific policies on adult learning and education, but we do find related Executive Orders which touch on professional training centres for the young.

Within the European region, following the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning and the related Action Plan, awareness of the key role of adult learning and education has increased in the majority of the countries. Moreover, 17 out of the EU 27+ countries have adopted overarching lifelong learning strategy statements in response to the Lisbon Strategy. Policies on adult learning and education exist in virtually every country in the region. In the context of EU benchmarks, participation rates for adults have increased from 7.1 per cent in 2000 to 9.7 per cent in 2007.7 Lifelong learning is becoming a reality in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. However, in 2007, eight countries were still preparing overarching strategy statements and seven countries were still pursuing lifelong learning policies without an encompassing, overarching strategy. Cyprus and Romania, which have yet to complete overarching strategies, point to the challenges involved in generating national debate and in responding to the perspectives of different interest groups. The latter notes that, apart from vocational training, adult learning and education are not the "subject of coherent strategies, policies and specific regulations". Overall, a key challenge in the majority of EU 27+ countries is policy implementation.

In Asia, several countries are beginning to develop systematic approaches to adult learning and education guided by a policy framework, for example, the Philippines’ Alternative Learning System (ALS) and Thailand’s National Education Act of B.E. 2542 (1999) and amended Act of B.E. 2542 (2002) that strive to make non-formal education more inclusive and integrated into lifelong learning. The Republic of Korea has implemented a lifelong education strategy in order to build a learning society where all citizens may find adequate learning opportunities in any place and at any time of their choosing (Lifelong Education Act of 2007). Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand have come close to achieving universal education at primary and secondary levels or beyond. These developed countries are prioritising efforts to upgrade citizens’ vocational and technical skills and to broaden the scope of continuing education at the tertiary level. However, overall progress in adult learning and education is constrained in the region by a lack of specific policies and strategic implementation plans. Also, affordable opportunities for enhancing skills are limited and insufficient to promote adult learning and education in the sub-region.

In the Arab States, although the number of illiterates has fallen from 64 million to 58 million, conflicts and foreign occupation have led to social, political and economic instability and the loss of material and human resources. Women in the region are still under-educated (50 % are illiterate). They are also disadvantaged in terms of citizenship rights, legal rights, representation in professional and technical positions, as well as parliamentary and ministerial representation. In the region there are poorly-developed definitions and concepts of literacy and adult education and few integrated approaches. In addition there is a lack of coordination between the ministries responsible. Policy for adult learning and education in the region is notable by its virtual absence. However, some coordination of formal and non-formal education is evident (for instance, Moroccoâ's Prime Minister chairs the national committee on literacy and non-formal education). There is an increase in the number of programmes aimed at people with special needs: for example, Sudan makes reference to Bedouins and Algeria to disabled people as special target groups. There is also an expansion of partnerships between the public sector and civil society, and promotion of networking between NGOs within the region.

Latin America and the Caribbean is a profoundly heterogeneous region with 71 million people living in extreme poverty and a further 200 million in poverty. In Latin American countries, a policy shift to prioritise investment in children's primary education can be noted. From 1990 onwards, the EFA initiative adopted an expanded vision of basic education, and donor organisations began to fund adult learning and education reforms and programmes in the region. Hence, there have been significant advances at the legislative and policy levels in the majority of the countries with regard to the recognition of the right to education and to linguistic and cultural diversity: e.g. Jamaica (Lifelong Policy 2005), Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela have existing literacy plans, programmes and campaigns that use the Cuban Yo Sí Puedo system. There has also been some institutionalisation of provision for completing and certifying primary and secondary education for young people and adults, in some cases linked with vocational training programmes, as in Chile's Califica programme, in Argentina (government programmes linking literacy, basic education and work) and Colombia (a special programme operating in several departments of the country, with OEI support). In Brazil the "Fishing Letters Programme" provides literacy training for fishermen and women, and the Literacy Inclusion Project links literacy teaching to entrepreneurial activity.

Overall, although the diversity of adult learning and education policy, governance, participation and delivery makes it difficult to envisage a clear path forward for adult learning and education, efforts involving civil society, social partners and the private sector could play a significant role in fostering local-to-local knowledge production and exchange, thereby placing learners more insistently at the core of interventions and action. This implies another form of governance based on decentralised and multi-agency partnerships between governments and other stakeholders, whereby accountability is ultimately entrusted to learners and their communities.

6. The Potential of CONFINTEA VI

Despite the progress made, the national reports and the "Global Report on Adult Learning and Education" (GRALE) produced for CONFINTEA VI show that a range of new social and educational challenges has emerged alongside existing problems, some of which have worsened in the interim, nationally, regionally and globally. Crucially, the expectation that we would rebuild and reinforce adult learning and education in the wake of CONFINTEA V has not been met.

There is too little far-sighted and adequate financial planning in place for adult learning and education to make telling contributions to our future. Furthermore, the current and growing trend of decentralisation in decision-making is not always matched by adequate financial allocations at all levels, or by the appropriate delegation of budgetary authority. Adult learning and education have not figured strongly in the aid strategy of international donors and has not been subject to ongoing efforts in donor coordination and harmonisation. Furthermore, debt relief has not yet markedly benefited adult learning and education.

The following lists the expectations of CONFINTEA VI with regard to the financing of adult learning and education:

a) The CONFINTEA V agreement will be implemented to ensure that at least 6 per cent of GNP is allocated to education, and funding is earmarked for adult learning and education.

b) Existing educational resources and budgets will be pooled and applied across all government departments to meet the objectives of an integrated adult learning and education strategy.

c) Incentives will be created to promote new sources of funding from the private sector, NGOs, communities and individuals, without prejudicing the principles of equity and inclusion.

d) Investment will be made to prioritise the participation of women and rural populations in lifelong learning.

In support of these strategies, international development partners are expected to:

e) meet their commitment to filling the financial gaps that prevent the achievement of all EFA Goals, in particular Goals 3 and 4 (youth and adult learning, adult literacy); and

f) increase the total funds for adult literacy, learning and education in their aid programmes (including debt swap or cancellation, the creation of a designated transnational fund for adult literacy and the incorporation of adult literacy into the EFA Fast Track Initiative).

7. Conclusion

This paper has set the backdrop against which the deliberations of CONFINTEA VI in Brazil will take place. It points to the need to translate into deeds the fine words and resolutions of previous Conferences and initiatives. The fact of the matter is that, although there have positive developments in some parts of the world, these are too few, too intermittent and too often insufficient to do more than scratch the surface of the need for a real commitment to sustained policy which guarantees adult learning and education as a right for all.

If adult learning and education are to fulfil the demands of a rapidly-changing world - to support people, communities and economies - and if the adult education offered is designed to meet the needs for equity in access and participation, then appropriate policies and levels of funding must be set to ensure the quality of provision, the professionalisation of adult education teachers and the adequacy of infrastructure.

Public financing alone will almost certainly not be enough. Increasingly, governments will need to seek to work with private enterprise, with civil society, with international donors and with learners themselves to identify new models of funding and provision.

It is estimated that every year added to the adult population's education leads to an increase of 3.7 per cent in long-term economic growth and a 6 per cent increase in per capita income. However, adult learning and education are much more than a social cause or an item on a budget agenda. They are a genuine investment in hope for the future that will benefit the lives of millions of people across the globe.


1 UNESCO (1997) “Adult Education, The Hamburg Declaration. The Agenda for the Future” Fifth International Conference on Adult Education 14-18 July, Hamburg, UIL p.7.

2 Torres R.M. (2002) “Lifelong Learning: A Momentum and a New Opportunity for Adult Basic Learning Education (ABEL) in the Developing countries p.21 (draft version).

3 UIL (2009) “Global Report on Adult Learning and Education” (GRALE) to be published in autumn 2009.

4 UNESCO (1997) op.cit., p. 26.

5 UNESCO (2008) "EFA Global Monitoring Report 2009", p. 91.  

6 UIL, 2009, Draft of "Global Report on Adult Learning and Education" (GRALE), to be published in autumn 2009. 

7 UNESCO (2008) "Pan-European Statement on Adult Learning for Equity and Inclusion in the Context of Mobility and Competition", CONFINTEA VI Preparatory Conference in Europe, Budapest, Hungary, 3-5 December 2008. 


Adult Education and Development


DVV International operates worldwide with more than 200 partners in over 30 countries.

To interactive world map

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.