Timothy D. Ireland

State Forums of Adult and Youth Education in Brazil: A Time for Redefinitions?


1. Introduction

The development of adult and youth education (AYE) in Brazil has historically been promoted by government and civil society. Government interventions have in general been directed at that large segment of the population which has not enjoyed the benefits of formal schooling. This has given rise to literacy programmes, campaigns and movements and to second chance or equivalency schooling. In official language, the term “adult and youth education” applies specifically to this modality of schooling. Civil society, on the other hand, has generally been associated with less formal approaches to education for the adult population, frequently guided by the principles of popular education. Amongst those involved in formulating and promoting educational activities are religious and trade union movements, student organizations, neighbourhood associations, youth groups and clubs for the elderly and a host of similar organizations. Whilst collective actions involving NGOs, international organisms, workers and owners, trade unionists, and popular and social movements have been relatively common in the recent history of adult and youth education in Brazil few have developed a truly national dimension and few have been capable of attempting to articulate educational initiatives developed by government and civil society. Hence the importance of the State Forums of Adult and Youth Education which have, in the last decade, been responsible for generating a national movement capable of promoting dialogue between what have at times been considered opposing camps and visions of adult and youth education.


Closing ceremony
Source: Barbara Frommann


In the broader international context, it should also be remembered that the decade of the 90s was one in which the United Nations organised a series of twelve important international conferences1 in which non-governmental organisations played a vital part. Paradigmatic examples of this are, amongst others, the UN Conference on Environment and Development (ECO 92) held in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) in 1992 and the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing (China) in 1995. The 5th International Conference on Adult Education – CONFINTEA V, came at the end of this cycle of conferences and maintained the practice of involving civil society in the process of preparation for and in the debates during the Conference.

The first expressions of what was to become the State Forums of Adult and Youth Education were inspired by the process of mobilization set in motion by UNESCO for the CONFINTEA V, held in Hamburg in 1997. In this brief paper, we intend to describe and analyse the origins and development of this movement between the two most recent CONFINTEAs (V and VI) as a useful example of innovative practice in the field of AYE. In that process we shall indicate the principal characteristics and composition of the forums. In attempting to systematize the evolution of the movement between its conception in 1996 and the present day, we shall suggest how its role has changed, what are the principal challenges faced by the forum movement and what are some of the lessons to be learned from the experience.

2. Origins of the State Forum Movement

As part of the preparatory process for CONFINTEA V in 1996, the National Adult and Youth Education Commission (CNEJA) proposed that the Brazilian national report – a constituent element of a UNESCO category II conference – should be elaborated in a participatory fashion and proposed the preparation of documents at state and later regional levels as bases for the national document. The process was to conclude with a national meeting which was held in Natal (in the state of Rio Grande do Norte) at which the final document would be elaborated and validated by the assembled delegates representing both federal, state and municipal governments and civil society organizations. The decision to include civil society in the consultation process was, without a doubt, an advance, but it was not without deep-rooted conflicts. The report which was painstakingly elaborated and approved at the National Meeting was later substituted at the Latin American Regional Conference held in Brasília in 1997, by a report prepared uniquely by the Ministry of Education. It was in this climate and during this process of mobilization that the first forum was created in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

The birth of the forum movement can perhaps be attributed to two negative and two positive motives. On the negative side, the existing central government had opted to interpret the Jomtien call of education for all as the basis of its policy to implement universal primary education for all school aged children. Adult education received scant attention. At the same time, there existed a lack of coordination between those different actors who despite the lack of federal policy continued to develop programmes and projects in the field of adult and youth education: state and municipal governments, universities, the “S” system,2 trade union and social movements. The progressive creation of state forums attempted to fill the political vacuum whilst offering a space in which the diverse providers could meet and debate forms of collaboration. On the positive side, participation in the consultative process for CONFINTEA undoubtedly furnished a concrete opportunity for mobilization as did what we might call a notion of shared responsibility – an understanding that responsibility for the provision of adult education was the duty of both government and civil society.

Although there does not exist a unique model for the state forums, they all share some common characteristics. The large majority is non-institutionalized, self-managed and self-convoked: they elect their own coordinators and decide their own agendas and calendars of activities. The majority do not have a fixed source of income. The forum is understood as a democratic, horizontal, plural and critical space for articulation in which to discuss the construction of local and national policy for adult and youth education, including financial and legal dimensions, as well as for exchanging diverse experiences in the fields of training and methodology. The confrontation between diverse theoretical conceptions and methodological proposals requires the exercise of the democratic spirit of conviviality and the recognition of the importance of plurality and diversity as the basis for a democratic society. At the same time, the forums offer the possibility for a greater degree of linkage between the different actors involved without denying the obvious differences and tensions which are not always easy to overcome. In the majority of forums, public administrations (local state and municipal authorities), universities, the “S” System, social and trade union movements and NGOs take part without necessarily “representing” formally the segment in which they are engaged. Those taking part exercise a variety of functions: popular and trained teachers (“unqualified” and “qualified” educators), activists, managers, trade unionists, researchers, students and community leaders. Given the context in which the first forums were founded, the capacity for generating political pressure was also seen as part of their fundamental mission.

3. Evolution of the Forums

Over the decade from 1996, and the creation of the first forum, to 2006, all twenty-six states and the Federal District (Brasilia) set up their own forums. The state forums in the northern region of the country were amongst the last to be established which is, at the same time, an expression of the difficulties they face due to their size and to the geophysical factors which complicate communication between their scattered populations. In several of the larger states – Bahia, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, for example, as well as in some of the smaller states like Paraíba,3 regional forums have been established in order to facilitate the participation of a greater number of people in organized activities. There are now more than 40 regional forums.

From 1999 onwards this general movement of the forums was accompanied by an annual meeting on adult and youth education (ENEJAS) which received rather ambiguous support from the federal government – the Ministry of Labour initially gave greater support than the Ministry of Education. The first edition was held in the city of Rio de Janeiro and thereafter it was held and organized by a different state forum.4 This first edition was promoted by the CONSED (National Council of State Secretaries of Education), UNDIME (National Union of Municipal Directors of Education), UNESCO and SESI (Social Service for Industry). It should be recorded that in the field of adult and youth education in Brazil, there is no register of a previous unbroken sequence of annual meetings of this duration. These meetings are prepared at state level and are carefully documented. A final report synthesizing reflections, recommendations and decisions taken is produced and widely publicized.


Material from DVV International
Source: Barbara Frommann


The agenda tends to deal with questions related to national policy on which it is considered important that the forums take a position. Like the state meetings, the national meeting represents a democratic space in which diverse ways of conceiving and practicing AYE are expressed and debated. The number of participants has grown over the years as greater support has been received from the federal government – particularly the Ministry of Education after 2003. There has been a timid effort to introduce an international element to the national meetings – in 2008 two representatives from Guinea-Bissau and two from Centre for Regional Cooperation in Adult Education for Latin America and the Caribbean-CREFAL in Patzcuaro, Mexico, took part.

In addition to the annual meetings, the forums created a national commission composed of two representatives from each state forum. This commission encountered difficulties in meeting due to lack of resources needed to guarantee the presence of representatives. At the same time the forum movement gained increased visibility and recognition. When in 2003, the National Literacy Commission was re-established the Forums were invited to take part. From 2004 onwards, with the creation within the Ministry of Education of the Secretariat of Continuing Education, Literacy and Diversity, and within that of a department of adult and youth education, dialogue with the forums was established on the basis of twice yearly meetings. The forums have also created an Internet Site (www.forumeja.org.br) which integrated a series of individual state sites and serves to disseminate information on the activities of each state as well as divulging documents, interviews, videos and other national and international news and information on the field of AYE. It is hosted by the University of Brasília (UnB) and is maintained and actualized by a small group of dedicated students.

Over the ten-year period, there has been a clear shift in the relation of the forum movement with central government. Created initially as a space of resistance and opposition in the face of sparse government investment and interest in adult and youth education, the forums have now come to occupy a position as a “privileged interlocutor” (to use the words of the site) in relation to the Ministry of Education, “establishing partnerships and contributing in the formulation and execution of actions in the field”. This productive dialogue – clearly not without its tensions – has contributed to redefine the role of the Forums.

4. Changing Role of the State Forums

This change in roles is evidently not without the concomitant risks. It is relatively easier to be opposition than to be “privileged interlocutor” and at the same time to maintain one’s autonomy and independence. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the forums in general has been their incapacity to achieve financial independence. The need to avoid “biting the hand that feeds you” whilst wishing to assert independence and the necessary distance, creates tension. The forums have, if anything, maintained a defensive stance reacting critically to government proposals whilst offering few alternative propositions. However, there is little doubt that the forum movement, despite its limitations, constitutes one of the most important expressions of AYE in recent years and has proved its capacity to mobilize and articulate during the preparations for the CONFINTEA VI in December 2009.

In consonance with the recommendations made by UNESCO concerning the importance of using the national reports to generate a genuine process of democratic discussion involving government and civil society, the Brazilian Ministry of Education and the forum movement deflagrated an exemplary process of mobilization. Consultations were held in every state during which ten delegates were elected to represent the state at the regional preparatory conferences held in Salvador (Northeast Region), Cuiabá (Central West Region), Belo Horizonte (Southeast Region), Florianopolis (Southern Region) and Manaus (Northern Region). These consultations took as their focus a document which had been produced by a small but representative team selected by the Ministry. In this way it was possible to capture a wide variety of questions produced by a diversity of actors based in different contexts. The five regional preparatory meetings were followed by a national meeting in which the same ten delegates from each state participated. The national meeting was held in Brasília in May 2009 during which the document was again debated and finally validated. This process has now been documented and published and will be available in English and Spanish in Belém in December 2009.5

Parallel to the process of national mobilization which sought not only to involve government and civil society in discussions on the initial document but also to give greater visibility to AYE and to the need for a national policy, the Forums also pressured the Ministry of Education to increase the number of representatives to be included in the Brazilian delegation as observers. This pressure had effect and the Ministry has now agreed to include one representative from each state in the official delegation.

5. A Time for Redefinitions?

On the eve of CONFINTEA VI, the Brazilian Forum Movement completes the full cycle from inception to maturity and from opposition to ally. There is little doubt that the Conference in Belém will pose new challenges for the way in which AYE is conceptualised and practised in Brazil. As elsewhere in Latin America the concept of lifelong learning has been little more than a refrain. Adult and Youth Education remains strongly linked to the notion of compensatory or equivalency education for those to whom it was denied in school age. The broad concept of adult lifelong learning as expressed in the Hamburg Declaration, despite its proximity at various levels with the fundamental principles of Popular Education, has not been translated into policy. The space propitiated by the forums would appear to provide a fertile terrain in which actors from different sectors and different traditions could present conflicting positions. It may be that the forum movement will react to the pendulum effect noted above – from opposition to ally/privileged interlocutor – and seek the middle ground.

Perhaps the most notable absence in the majority of forums is that of the principal subject of the process – the learners. Few students participate in state forum activities and their participation in the national meetings is still relatively timid. There exists no independent learners’ association as in some other countries. It is symptomatic that the Adult Learners’ Week Project has never taken root in Brazil despite several attempts.

The capacity of the forum movement to reinvent itself will depend on its potential to continue articulating the different segments of society involved in AYE, to function as an effective pressure group in relation to the federal government, to exercise the task of social control with regard to policy and to capitalise on the process of mobilization which CONFINTEA has provided. The title of the Latin American and Caribbean Preparatory Conference for CONFINTEA, held in the City of México in September 2008, synthesised with precision the challenge to be faced: “From literacy to lifelong learning: towards the challenges of the 21st century”.

Reflect Evaluation in India, 2007
Source: Casanti i Sempere


1 1990 – World Summit for Children (New York).

1992 – UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro).

1993 – World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna).

1994 – International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo).

1994 – UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States

(Bridgetown, Barbados).

1994 – International Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction.

1995 – World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen).

1995 – Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing).

1995 – Ninth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders.

1996 – Second UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) (Istanbul, Turkey).

1996 – World Food Summit (Rome, Italy).

1996 – Ninth UN Conference on Trade and Development (IX UNCTAD).

2 The so-called “S” System (the acronyms of all the organizations of which it is composed start with the letter S) is composed by organizations created by the productive sectors (industry, commerce, agriculture, transports and cooperatives) with the objective of qualifying and promoting the social well-being of its workers. The system includes SENAC (National Service for Commercial Learning), SESC (Social Service for Commerce), SESI (Social Service for Industry), SENAR (National Service of Rural Learning), SENAT (National Service of Learning in Transport), SEST (Social Service for Transport), SEBRAE (Brazilian Service of Support to Small and Medium Sized Companies) and SESCOOP (National Service of Learning in Co-operativism). All offer courses of vocational and technical education for their members.

3 Before setting up regional forums, the meetings of the Paraíba forum were held alternately in three of the largest cities in the state – João Pessoa (the capital), Campina Grande and Guarabira.

4 The only state to have received and organized two national meetings is Rio de Janeiro which hosted the 2008 edition as a form of commemorating the tenth anniversary of the first ENEJA in 1999.

5 Brasil. MEC/SECAD. Documento Nacional Preparatório à VI Conferência Internacional de Educação de Adultos (CONFINTEA VI). Brasília: MEC; Goiânia: FUNAPE/UFG, 2009.

Adult Education and Development


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