Timothy D. Ireland

That CONFINTEA VI took place in Latin America, has given Adult Education on this continent a lift. The hope that this would also alter the formal and academic nature of most government programs and involve the students and civil society organisations, has been only partially fulfilled. So that the conference will not remain without consequences, the appropriate monitoring tools, tailored to the individual countries and regions, must be developed and applied. Governments need to know that their commitment to Adult Education is under observation.

The Road from Belém (2009) to Mexico (2011): CONFINTEA in Latin America

The International Conferences on Adult Education – CONFINTEAs are, as has been frequently mentioned, processes rather than events and are components of a cycle which began in Elsinore in 1949 and has now completed more than sixty years of activities. The last Conference (CONFINTEA VI) held in Belém do Pará in Brazil in 2009 was the first to be held in Latin America and the first also to be held in an emerging country of the southern hemisphere.

Whilst the focus of this article is the follow-up process set in motion by the Belém Framework of Action, it is important to look back briefly to the preparatory process for the Conference in Latin America in order to comprehend the dynamic which characterises the follow-up process and also, for those who know little of the continent, to sketch briefly the context in which Adult Education is developed in those countries which make up the region.

Whilst for many Latin American countries the 1970s and 1980s were decades of right-wing military rule, the late 80s and 90s saw the restoration of political democracies and the continent has experienced a relatively long period of political stability and moderate economic growth. During the period in which civil liberties were considerably limited, Adult Education in the Latin American perspective of popular education was strongly associated with the struggle for emancipation and social transformation and firmly linked to social movements and civil society organizations. After a period of near abandonment by governments in the 80s and 90s many Latin American countries have begun to invest in policies of youth and adult youth education, although at levels which could hardly be termed to express priority and which frequently give greater attention to initial learning in the form of literacy than to continuing education.

The holding of CONFINTEA in Latin America was seen by many as an opportunity for both recuperating and incorporating the transformative spirit of popular education into the increasingly formal and school-oriented government activities in Adult Education and for establishing higher priority for Adult Education on the political agenda.

The preparations for CONFINTEA to some extent frustrated these expectations. Of the 41 countries which make up the Latin American and Caribbean region only 25 submitted national reports as part of the international reporting process. The suggestion by the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning in Hamburg that the preparation of national reports should be based on processes of democratic consultation was not followed in the majority of the region’s countries. Participative processes were set in motion in Brazil and Uruguay, and in Mexico and Colombia complementary and independent reports were produced. In general, the majority of these reports limited their coverage to governmental policies, programmes and actions.

The Regional Report, which was in part based on the national reports, pointed to some important questions among its conclusions and recommendations. On the one hand, the report evaluates that the quantitative and qualitative leap expected after CONFINTEA V in Hamburg was largely frustrated. Equally, it noted that the shift of emphasis from education to learning and the implementation of the paradigm of Lifelong Learning had not been evident. What has become evident is a greater institutionalization of Adult Education – with important benefits – but with emphasis being placed on school equivalency and technical and vocational education programmes. The report suggests that countries have given an exaggerated importance to literacy without due consideration for the need to guarantee continuity for those who participate in the literacy process. This has been accompanied by a lack of coordination and planning in the development of literacy programmes. In re-visiting the period between Belém in 2009 and the Regional CONFINTEA Follow-up Meeting held in Mexico City in September 2011, both the Belém Framework for Action and the Latin American and Caribbean Regional Report are important points of reference.

As practitioners we stress the need for Adult Education to be context specific, that it should attend to the learning needs of those groups by whom it is demanded and for whom it is offered. A brief characterisation of the general context in which policies and programmes have been developed since Belém in 2009 can help to comprehend the dynamics of Adult Education in the period.

Latin America is made up of 19 republics: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, and covers an area of more than 21 million km 2 . In 2010, it had a population of 580 million. Latin America is the most unequal region in the world in terms of the distribution of wealth and income. In 2009, 33.1 % of the population (183 million in absolute terms) lived in poverty, of whom 13.3 % (74 million) lived in conditions of extreme poverty. Those living in poverty are largely the subjects of Adult Education programmes.

Evidence shows beyond doubt that there exists a strong correlation between poverty and illiteracy and low levels of formal education for those 183 million who live in poverty or absolute poverty. Of that total, approximately 9 %, or 34 million, are considered illiterate and a further 20 %, or 80 million, are considered to be functionally illiterate. 1 In general, these rates are much higher for those living in rural areas and over 50 years of age. Although being close to achieving universal primary enrolment (97 %) (EFA/GMR 2010), the region has major quality and equity issues to solve, related to (a) socio-economic condition, (b) zone of residence (urban-rural), (c) ethnic identity and language, and (d) gender.

Despite the current international economic and financial crisis, growth rates in several Latin American countries have been well above the average. This has been provoked in part by rising global commodity prices allied with strong domestic demand. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), GDP is predicted to grow by 6.7 % in Argentina, by 6.2 % in Peru, by 3.3 % in Venezuela, in 2011, with Brazil bringing up the rear at 3.1 %. The labour market requires increasingly higher certification as a means of entry to the ranks of the formally employed. This could represent a shift in motivation for Adult Education from the more ideological demand for social transformation to the hard economic logic of the market place. It could also see the private sector take matters into its own hands if governments are slow to invest in the necessary basic and technical education.

As far back as the CONFINTEA V Mid-term Review Meeting held in Bangkok (Thailand) in September 2003, the final document A Call for Action and Accountability, “revealed a disturbing regression in the field (of Adult Education)” since the Hamburg Conference in 1997. This same analysis underpinned the emphasis given in Belém to the need for the implementation of policies in the field of adult learning and education.

In this spirit, the Belém Framework for Action, approved during CONFINTEA VI, established recommendations and commitments based on seven axes dedicated to adult literacy, policy, governance, financing, participation, inclusion and equity, quality and monitoring. Whilst the first six were largely the responsibility of national states, responsibility for coordinating the “monitoring process at the global level to take stock and report periodically on progress in adult learning and education” was accorded to the UNESCO Institutes for Lifelong Learning in Hamburg and that for Statistics in Montreal. At the same time, the Belém Framework pointed to the need for “initiating regional monitoring mechanisms with clear benchmarks and indicators”. There was also an important suggestion that at the national level countries should establish their own national commissions to monitor the commitments assumed in Belém. With this threefold division of labour, UNESCO – at international and regional levels – and member states were clearly challenged to translate rhetoric into action with due consideration given to the need for systems of monitoring based on improved data and information collection on adult learning and education (ALE) worldwide.

Within this agreed division of labour, the Hamburg Institute has invested in the elaboration of an overall global strategic plan for monitoring the outcomes whilst working on a matrix which indicates key elements to be tracked as well as suggesting useful global indicators for adult learning and education. Both the Strategic Plan and the Matrix were submitted for analysis and discussion by means of an online consultation in October/November 2010 and an International Meeting of Experts in January 2011. The matrix has since been used as the basis for elaborating the guidelines for renewed national reporting processes which will inform the Global Reports on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) in 2012 and 2015.

At the Latin American and Caribbean regional level, one of the first responses to the monitoring challenges was the offer made by the Mexican government in March 2010, as a member of the CONFINTEA Advisory Group, 2 to host a CONFINTEA Regional Follow-up Meeting as a means of maintaining the momentum created in Belém and of providing a focus for the initial follow-up phase. In accordance with its mandate as the office responsible for regional policy, OREALC has developed a threepronged strategy for Latin America and the Caribbean including a survey of good literacy practices in the region, the elaboration of a matrix similar to that constructed by UIL with qualitative indicators for the region and a support strategy composed of three distinct but converging proposals. The survey seeks to identify, analyse and characterise good practices and policies focused on literacy for marginalised groups.

 CONFINTEA VI: workshop



CONFINTEA VI: workshop
Source: Claudia Ferreira




The matrix is envisaged as a support strategy which can assist countries to verify the advances in the field of adult and youth education and also provide support for its development in the Region. Finally the support mechanism aims firstly to design and stimulate the delivery of courses, considering different levels of literacy and making possible different learning pathways. The second element aims to contribute to the development of systems for the evaluation of learning and for the recognition of prior learning in the perspective of a system of lifelong education. The third element seeks to contribute to the training and professionalization of adult educators.

A further mechanism which aims to improve the collection of data on Adult Education, identified as one of the weaknesses characteristic of the field, is being developed by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). This consists of a regional pilot module for the regular collection of data on Adult Education to be tested in the Latin American and Caribbean region. This module may then be expanded to other regions.

Having hosted CONFINTEA VI in 2009, the Brazilian Ministry of Education in partnership with the UNESCO Brasília Office selected the question of indicators as part of its post-conference strategy. This proposal was first presented at the initial meeting of the CONFINTEA Advisory Group in March 2010 and was then discussed with other partners including the Organization of Ibero-American States (OEI) which was also engaged in developing indicators for adult and youth education as part of its Ibero-american Literacy and Basic Education Plan for Young People and Adults – PIA. 3 A first version of the proposed system of indicators for adult and youth education in Latin America and the Caribbean was presented at an international technical meeting held in Rio de Janeiro in December 2010, specifically for that purpose. Representatives from 16 countries in the region took part in the meeting. A final version of the system of indicators was sent to OREALC in May 2011 as a contribution to the general monitoring strategy under its responsibility.

At the national level, the Uruguayan government has created an important precedent by converting what was the National Preparatory Committee for CONFINTEA VI, set up in October 2007, into a permanent National Committee for the Articulation and Monitoring of Adult and Youth Education, following the recommendations of the Belém Framework, on the basis of a Presidential decree. The Committee is composed of representatives of government and civil society.

Although the International Council of Adult Education’s VIII World Assembly, held in Malmö – Sweden, was clearly an international event, the preparatory virtual seminar organized prior to the Assembly also served as a forum for discussion of important themes which were later taken up at the Mexican Regional Meeting. The seminar was organized around four main themes: “Lifelong Learning for sustainability in a climate-changing world”; “Adult Education as a right and a profession – follow up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Education For All (EFA) goals and the CONFINTEA agenda”; “no right to decent work without decent learning” and the “Nordic Folkbildning and world wide challenges”. Whilst the questions of Lifelong Learning for sustainability and the relation between work and Adult Education were latent, the discussions in Mexico centred on the CONFINTEA agenda with the call “From Commitment to Action: taking the CONFINTEA Agenda Forward”.

The Regional CONFINTEA Follow-up Meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean took place from 25 th to 27 th May in Mexico City organized by the National Institute of Adult Education – INEA with support from UNESCO (UIL and OREALC) with the participation of 250 representatives from 48 member states. In formal terms its objectives were to:

  1. Take stock of and present concrete initiatives and measures introduced since 2009 to make progress in policy, governance, financing, participation and quality in and for adult literacy, Adult Education and Lifelong Learning;
  2. Analyse and identify enabling factors in implementing sector-wide youth and Adult Education policies and programmes developed in a Lifelong Learning perspective; and
  3. Explore and propose action points for the Regional Implementation and Monitoring Matrix, with an additional focus on improved advocacy and regional cooperation.

The meeting opened with a panoramic vision of existing strategies and initiatives for monitoring the implementation of the Belém Framework presented by UIL, the UNESCO Brasilia Office/Ministry of Education, UIS and OREALC. Discussions were then organized around four plenary roundtables based on the Belém Framework axes: policy/governance; financing; participation, inclusion and equity; and Quality in which representatives of national governments and civil society organizations took part. Three parallel working groups also discussed action points for advocacy, implementation, regional cooperation and monitoring.

What can be learnt from this first regional meeting in the CONFINTEA follow-up process? Firstly, it was undoubtedly important to have held the Mexico meeting as an expression of the political will in the region to advance in the commitments assumed in Belém. Discussions of the proposed themes established for the round tables tended to be descriptive and institutional rather than analytical and conceptual. Criticism was leveled at UNESCO for apparently presenting strategies which revealed insufficient prior articulation. Despite this impression, the four mechanisms represent different and important levels and responsibilities for monitoring: the global strategy presented by UIL, the regional matrix proposed by OREALC, the specific module for data collection presented by UIS and the proposed system of indicators elaborated by Brazil. There is clearly space and a need for national, regional and global initiatives.

A region which brings together a block of largely Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries with a block of largely English and French speaking countries whose cultural and economical profiles are disparate frequently suffers from a lack of collective identity. The parallel working groups, largely based on language, allowed the Caribbean participants to discuss common challenges and to seek collective solutions as well as establishing important channels for future dialogue.

Nevertheless, what became apparent yet again was the difficulty of involving actors from other allied spheres like health, labour, culture, environment, agriculture, housing and sanitation. Hence the central concern with the multisectorial nature of Adult Education was yet again reduced to a discussion amongst the already converted. In addition to the lack of articulation with other UN agencies, synergy with other international organisms which operate in the region was also weak. Whilst the OEI took an active part in the meeting, deeper discussions on how to coordinate the activities of the Ibero-American Literacy Plan and the 2021 Goals with the CONFINTEA agenda, with common indicators and monitoring strategies, need to be pursued.

But perhaps the most notable weakness which the Mexico meeting reflected but which was not specific to that meeting was the fragility of the participation of the learners. Although well represented by the Learners’ Association there continues to be a deep divide between discourse and action – discourse in which great value is attached to learner participation, and action, while decisions continue to be taken by policy-makers and managers based on little consultation with those directly interested.

Final Considerations

We have perhaps to admit that CONFINTEA VI caused barely a ripple on the international development agenda. The impact which was expected and for which so many people worked with such dedication has not so far occurred. The Mexico meeting reflected similar difficulties to those of the global conference. There is evident need for strong regional leadership, coordination and articulation. Monitoring mechanisms are equally essential, but clearly the responsibility for implementing policies and programmes lies with national governments pressured by civil society. As an international movement, the Global Learners’ Network is a fundamental partner in advocating for the need for ALE which meets the learners’ diverse learning requirements. The International Adult Learners’ Charter launched at CONFINTEA by representatives of the Global Network constitutes an important tool for “placing learners at the heart of promoting, developing and securing the future of Adult and Lifelong Learning”, reaffirming the right of each and every citizen to diverse forms of learning at different stages in life. At the same time, the regional university network has an essential role to play in training and research as well as in diverse forms of extension work.

The challenges remain multiple. Economic growth brings benefits but may tend to distort still further existing inequalities. At the same time, just as the movements of popular education played an important role in guaranteeing the return to civilian rule in many Latin American countries, so today adult learning and education continue to be fundamental for the health of our democracies and for guaranteeing the implementation of sustainable approaches to the continued development of our planet earth.


Torres, Rosa María (2008). “Final report: Youth and Adult Education and Learning in Latin America and the Caribbean: trends, issues and challenges” (Revised regional report presented at the Regional Conference on Literacy and Preparatory of the Sixth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VI), “From Literacy to Lifelong Learning: Towards the Challenges of the XXI Century”, organized by UNESCO-UIL/INEA, (Mexico, 10-13 September 2008).

UNESCO (2010). Regional Overview: Latin America and the Caribbean. EFA/ GMR.

UNESCO (2010). The Belém Framework for Action. Hamburg: UIL.

UIS (2001) Latin American and the Caribbean Regional Report, UIS.


1 UNESCO defines functional literacy in terms of those who have completed four years of schooling. SITEAL (2005) coins the term “incipient education” (the completion of three years of schooling) corresponding to functional illiteracy. CEPAL affirms the need of 12 years of schooling to guarantee full socially useful literacy skills.

2 A further mechanism instituted by UNESCO, not for the first time in the history of the long CONFINTEA movement. Its terms of reference conferred upon it responsibility for “guiding and supporting UNESCO in the design and implementation of the CONFINTEA VI follow-up process (which) will include support for the short- and long-term development of adult literacy and Adult Education policies and provision”.

3 www.oei.es/alfabetizacion/b/DOCBASE %20PIA.pdf – according to the PIA, its general objective is to: universalise adult literacy in the region, in the least possible time and in whatever case by 2015, and offer the young and adult population which has not concluded its basic schooling the possibility of educational continuity, at least until the conclusion of basic education, within the framework of lifelong education for all. (My translation from the Spanish)

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