Paul Bélanger

The keynote address on the final day was by Paul Bélanger, President of the ICEA and former Chair of CONFINTEA V. His speech is a forceful plea for the importance of Adult Education and Lifelong Learning. Only through education can Civil Society solve problems such as poverty, disease, and conflicts in a globalised world. Quick action is necessary. But how can these objectives be achieved? Paul Bélanger lists important cornerstones.

From Words To Deeds

First of all, I would like to thank UNESCO for inviting me, as President of the International Council of Adult Education (ICAE), to give this address. With other representatives of civil society organizations, we have come here to work with you to advance the right to learn throughout life. Because we are convinced that the continuing development of knowledge and skills within the adult population is one of the most strategic investments that societies today are called upon to do.

And this is urgent, otherwise mankind will not have the means in itself to face the challenges ahead. The deadly conflicts that arise, as was the case last night in two African countries and as we see too regularly on all continents, show us that without a society which is informed and strong inside, such disasters are inevitable.

Yes, without widespread freedom to learn, without strengthening the foundations of diplomatic skills daily, the opportunity, regardless of the country, to resolve conflicts other than with the shedding of blood becomes practically impossible. Adult Education is an essential tool for peace.

But how can we really invest in Lifelong Learning for all people in civil society?

During the deliberations leading to CONFINTEA VI, the international, national or non-governmental partners all agreed that at this sixth international conference on Adult Education, words will have to lead to deeds. The watchword in each and every one of the partners quickly became and remained in this final session of CONFINTEA VI “from from words to deeds.”

But to really move from words to deeds, two questions arise. First: Why is it important and urgent that adults and youths outside school develop their potential? And second: How to proceed to action, how to make it possible now?

1. Why has it Become Necessary to Extend Education throughout Life?

The why or rather the whys are important because they are at the root of the political will which this conference demanded from all of us.

Then why invest in developing the capacity for initiative in adults, increasing their capacity for action?

First, because the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals, the MDGs, are not achievable without the active and informed participation of ALL people. You cannot fight HIV/AIDS without prevention. We cannot stem the meteoric rise of this pandemic, as we did malaria, without an informed public aware of preventive measures, without active education and health promotion. This is called Adult Education.

We cannot achieve universal primary education for all children in the world without the active participation of parents and without giving them the means to be equipped for this purpose, without educating the parents. This is also called Adult Education.

We will not be able to reduce hunger in the world, to overcome the food crisis, without allowing farmers, tillers of the soil, to increase the yield of their land without investing strongly in the expansion or popularization of agriculture. And that is called Adult Education.

In the statement of objectives of the Millennium Development Goals, education of adults and youth outside school is not mentioned anywhere, but in fact it is everywhere an underlying condition for their realization. We will not be able to address the eight key challenges that humanity has been faced with at the beginning of this millennium, if 20 %, 30, 40 or worse, 60 % of the adult population does not have the opportunity to equip themselves to compete. None of the Millennium Development Goals can be achieved without the active involvement and therefore without the education of the youth and adults.

Why, in the midst of an economic crisis, have some countries decided to invest in adult learning? Because they have recognized that this is an essential strategic component for emerging from the crisis. The continuous training of the workforce is not a luxury or a social expenditure, it is an indispensable response to revive industry in the context of a global market in upheaval. We must stop the macroeconomic policies that want to prevent countries from investing in the improvement of their workforce in order to better prepare themselves to get out of the crisis. These macro-policies do not seem to recognize that the required changes in the methods and techniques of production and in the organization of work cannot be achieved without an accelerated improvement of the basic skills of the population. Businesses require it to reposition themselves, the workers want it in order to protect their right to work, and migrant populations need it to be qualified in the host country and, at first, to learn the language. It is the same in the informal economy, where the women and men who work there, in order to survive, must also increase their competence. Now, it is necessary to name all this work for qualification Adult Education.

Basically, why recognize this right of women and men to education throughout their lives if not because we all have the right to live in dignity. Today the ability to continue to learn, for people no matter where they are on the planet, is not a superfluous hobby reserved for a privileged minority. To learn, to increase their autonomy, it is necessary to enjoy this freedom to question, and to learn its advantages; it is to rediscover self-esteem and consequently that of others; it is to enable every citizen to strengthen their sense of personal efficacy; it is to experience the joy of learning. The right to learn is not a luxury but an intimate energy source which has become socially necessary in order to continue in our contemporary societies, to build and construct our communities. We are all entitled to live at the height of human intelligence. We all have the right to learn to be, to learn to become, to learn to live together. To posses the power to direct our lives through all the transitions that lie ahead is quite a legitimate aspiration. Lifelong Learning cannot be lifelong and life-wide, if it isn’t life-deep as well. That is profoundly Adult Education, and that is why education throughout life has become a fundamental right.




Paul Bélanger
Source: Björn Otte, UNESCO




If the need for education throughout life is increasingly convergent, it is also because it has become an essential tool for development of our societies, a society which cannot remain without a reflective state of continuous awakening of civil society, a society where the welfare of the state cannot be maintained without becoming participatory. And it is about participation, about increased information and a greater capacity to act. Yes, Adult Education has become a fundamental prerogative because it has become necessary in order to exercise all other rights: the right to health, to work, the right to a healthy environment, to protection against discrimination by gender, sexual orientation, age, etc.. Therefore, recognized as a legal right and thus justiciable, the basic training of adults will be accessible across the planet; and this generalized increase in skills will become a powerful tool for socio-economic development and an improvement in the quality of life.

We cannot wait 35 years for the adult population to increase its basic education, which is the amount of time required to do so through only the education of the young. It is now, inside the adult generation, that we must act. Already today, 80 % of the adult population of 2021 has already left school and completed their initial training. Societies in the South as well as in the North, cannot wait until CONFINTEA IX – in the year 2043 – in order to raise the level of basic skills of their adult population. It is now, during the next five or ten years that today’s adults need to acquire new skills and capacities. Certainly, the initial training is essential, it is the foundation for further learning throughout life. However, this training at the beginning of life is no longer enough. The biographical journey is too uncertain, the transitions too numerous, the contexts too changeable. If the educational journey of today’s population stops when the youth get out of school, it will be catastrophic. And yet, yes, and yet the annual reports of UNESCO about Education For All show that adult basic education remains, and I quote, “tragically underfunded.”

Our concern in this sixth international conference on Adult Education is also the continuous increase in social, cultural and economic productivity of our societies. Civil society organizations do not refuse to talk about productivity. This requirement has been and continues to be a driving force behind the ascent of human beings from the beginning of Homo sapiens to today. The capacity for action and initiative of men and women has been and is still more than ever the strategic resource, not only the most beneficial, but also the most renewable. But we must not forget what is unfortunately often done today, that there can be no sustainable increase in productivity without equitable distribution of its fruits. One cannot have sustained participation of collective intelligence without an equitable distribution of benefits and products, unconditionally, so all can equip themselves to contribute.

And that is why it is important to rectify this situation and invest in education throughout life, especially since the return on such investment is exponential, because of the tendencies observed in the reproduction of expanded curiosity and knowledge in living and working communities. Humanity will not survive its food, economic and ecological crises, and the inevitable clash of its cultural multiplicity, if all the citizens of the world do not have space and the resources to learn new ways to produce and live together. And this steady increase in productivity through a continuous renewal of knowledge and skills also goes by the name Adult Education.

You see, the “why invest” in education throughout life is becoming increasingly evident. But how can it be done?

2. How to Do it?

Today, the question of how has become equally if not more important than why. More important of course because the solutions are not simple, but also because failing to respond effectively, it will not be possible to carry out the major changes that the future requires us to do now.

The first step is to give ourselves a broad view of the current scope of Adult Education. A vision that immediately includes the whole set of activities of education and Adult Education from literacy to the continuing professional development of doctors and engineers, through to work-related training, language learning, health and environmental education, agricultural extension, not to mention the vast field of popular education, and this in a perspective of active education all through the course of a lifetime – a broader vision of continuing education that can be translated into all fields of human activities along with the need for people to have a greater capacity for initiatives, which also takes into account, in all these areas, of the development of favorable educational environments, of contexts of activity which stimulate curiosity, call for and encourage individual and collective initiative, which confer the love of learning, and which arouse the need to improve still more.

The second practical step is the adoption of policies and laws which explicitly recognize that the reality of education in our country is constantly changing, where the number of adult learners who demand specific learning exceeds the number of young people in school, high school or college and universities. It is necessary, therefore that the Ministry of Education adopt policies that put Adult Education as the first responsibility for basic training, for continuing professional education, including remote access and training for adults to postsecondary education and university. But also with the adoption of policies which also identify the training activities of adults in other departments: expanded agriculture, farming, promotion of health, educating inmates about justice, promotion of a reading culture, the activities of the ministries concerned with the conditions of women, the environment and social welfare, without forgetting the ministries of employment and immigration. In order to achieve this inevitably inter-ministerial mission for the education of adults, a new function of communication, synergy and voluntary coordination is needed for which the Ministry of Education is asked to perform a key role. Investments in Adult Education will only bear fruit to the extent that this effort will establish arrangements to facilitate through information, the reception, the reference, and the recognition of achievements and the Adult Learners’ Weeks, the difficult expression of this large demand for training, and to ensure the transformation of learning into action, that is to say, there where we can really measure the impact the collective effort required.

Internationally, the decision of this conference to review by 2012 the UNESCO normative instrument, the 1976 recommendation on the development of Adult Education creates an important space for renewing the vision of Adult Education and recommending legislative and economic measures to facilitate the exercise of adults’ right to learn. In this respect the great expectations of UNESCO and its Institute of Lifelong Education are to combine the various UN agencies following this conference.

The third course of action is the mobilization of all actors, government, economic and civil society. Without this mobilization, adoption of legislation and government programs cannot give the expected results. Our observations show, it is to the extent that the need to raise the competence of the workforce is mutually recognized by employers, unions and the organizations of social services, that continuous training policies become effective. The active role of civil society organizations also makes a difference, not only in the “make them do” and “doing with,” but also in development of policies and programs and oversight activities. It is also up to associations of adult learners, a growing movement in all regions of the world to recognize the specific conditions of adults, to reconcile the difficulties between family, work and training. Several global networks have been created around and outside of the International Council of Adult Education in recent decades to awaken public opinion, educate decision makers and help to organize people in the field: I think of the Global Campaign for Education, the Women’s Action Group, the Gender Education Office, the Adult Education Hall of Fame, the Global Forum on Lifelong Education and of course the Forum of Civil Society on Adult Education and Popular Education, which held its first global session in the days preceding this conference.




Source: Björn Otte, UNESCO



A fourth way of action, although the most difficult, is essential, and that is the mobilization of financial resources and personnel. We cannot achieve anything without first developing and adopting action plans specifying the objectives to be achieved, the budgets to be allocated for this purpose and then putting that together into national legislation. How is it possible to talk about funding without mentioning concrete figures? It is necessary that the principle financial mechanisms for Education for All, like the Education Fast Track Initiative explicitly supports goals 3 and 4 of EFA, namely adult literacy. The well-known demand to spend 6 % of the national education budget on Adult Education is realistic from a budgetary point of view and necessary for socio-economic development. Similarly, the consensus now is that the target agreed in the Millennium Development Goals to allocate 0.7 % of GDP to international aid and the proposal to invest 6 % of the part devoted to education in developing the skills of the general population is the minimum necessary to implement the shift needed. Budgets are an expression of political will.

Can someone explain to me how a country which is the third largest gold producer in the world cannot find money to fund, as is required, literacy for adults in its own country? Can you understand how a country which is the world’s leading producer of bauxite says it could not fund the basic training demanded by its women and men? Nor can I understand how a country can agree to drain its oil reserves in less than two decades, that is to divest itself of non-renewable resources without investing the funds this temporarily released to invest long-term in the most renewable resource in its possession, the people, their capacity for initiative, their intelligence? Please, revise the budgets allocated to increasing armaments in favor of the most promising investment, investment in the creativity of the people.

Investing in Adult Education also requires investment in training and working conditions of those who work in the field. The issue is the quality of training and thus the efficacy of the domestic investment.

The fifth and final course of action is to monitor, and check the results. First, as we have said, clear targets must be set that can guide the action and make the necessary adjustments. Precisely because the solutions are not simple, it is important that transparent mechanisms are introduced to the monitoring of our actions and reports are made regularly to all public and private stakeholders in society. Yes, what counts, and we all agree, are the results and their value, not the rhetoric.


In 1997, we held CONFINTEA V following the major peaks of the Rio declaration on the environment in 1992, the Cairo Conference on Population in 1994, Beijing on the status of women in 1995, Copenhagen on social development in 1996. Over a third of these global summit recommendations were calls to increase the initiative capacity of the adult population. CONFINTEA V was carried by this movement and was to respond. This fifth conference produced a consensus on a broad and dynamic vision for Adult Education, but actions that followed, though real, have really not been up to the expectations formulated in the Agenda for the Future. Twelve years later, CONFINTEA VI takes place in a completely different context. It takes place at the very eve of the Copenhagen conference on the future of the climate on our planet, a context that makes it a more expectant title that the one UNESCO Hamburg gave this conference: Adult learning for a viable future. If the Copenhagen summit succeeds, education for adults will become obligatory in order to turn around how to live, produce and consume. If the summit fails, Adult Education will be even more necessary to enable the human community of the 21st century to recover, to learn and exercise their civic participation to ensure the future of the planet for our children and our grandchildren, for Jules, Marius, Luca and all the others.

The planet will only survive if it becomes a learning world.

Yes, we must take action, it is feasible and has become necessary.

We must move forward. And as Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

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