If we don’t look at how to finance Adult Education, we can forget about the post 2015 agenda

David Archer
ActionAid, United Kingdom



– Goals around Adult Education are often the first to be dropped in the face of political prioritisation or economic austerity, so what can we do to secure a space for it in the post 2015 sustainable development framework? In 2000, adult literacy secured a place as one of the six Education for All goals agreed in Dakar – only to be dropped within six months as only two of those goals made the grade as Millennium Development Goals. To avoid the same happening in 2015, adult educators may be best focusing their energies on the struggle for a credible approach to financing the development agenda – through macro-economic reform and tax justice. It is only if we win these struggles that we will see significant new investments in Adult Education.

There are many ways in which the case for Adult Education can be made as an integral part of in the post 2015 sustainable development agenda. We can argue that Adul tEducation is fundamental to achieving the five transformative shifts that the High-Level Panel identify in their report from May 2013: that Adult Education is essential if no-one is to be left behind, is vital for achieving sustainable development, for transforming economies, for building peace and holding public institutions to account. Equally we can argue for Adult Education as the connector to other goals, whether ending poverty, empowering women, ensuring healthy lives, increasing food security, promoting sustainable livelihoods etc. We can (and we should) present strong arguments and credible evidence for all of these. And we can celebrate the fact that the High-Level Panel gives us a hopeful title to the education goal “Provide quality education and Lifelong Learning”.

Many of the groups who have prepared papers about the post 2015 agenda have incorporated Adult Education as a demand. The Global Campaign for Education discussion paper (2013) argues that “access” to education must be lifelong and “quality” must go beyond tests and rote learning. Education International (2013) proposes two targets for post 2015, the second of which is: “By 2030 all young people and adults have equitable access to quality postsecondary education and Lifelong Learning enabling them to acquire knowledge, skills and competencies to achieve their full potential and participate positively in society and in the world of work”. The Commonwealth Ministers of Education recommend a subsidiary goal: “eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy amongst those under 50 years old and provide education opportunities for young people and adults” (Commonwealth Ministerial Working Group 2012). Even the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (2013) proposes that “another focus should be placed on promoting adult literacy which demonstrably empowers individuals”.

On the face of it there is thus some cause for optimism for Adult Education. However, as the crunch comes there will be ever more prioritisation, and from past experience we can be fairly confident that Adult Education will struggle to make it past the finishing post. The High-Level Panel may nod to Lifelong Learning but the only mention of adults in their targets is around technical and vocational skills for work. There are many powerful lobby groups pushing for a narrower education agenda, which focuses only on children or on learning outcomes.1 And when money is tight, in practice the funds will flow to traditional formal education and not to Adult Education (or even early childhood education) which will continue to be seen as luxuries. We may argue passionately and convincingly that in a changing world we need to support people to become active citizens to contribute to sustainable development – and that education underpins this. But money will talk and Adult Education will be left underfunded. For this reason I believe the Adult Education community ought to focus its efforts on adding weight to the arguments around the financing of the sustainable development agenda. It is only if we achieve a seismic shift in financing that Adult Education will attract the resources that it so clearly requires. Whilst the focus in 2000 and for many years after that (e.g. at the 2005 G8 meeting) was on aid as a key means to finance development, we now live in different times. Aid budgets are declining and even if we managed to reverse this decline they would still be marginal. The big finance questions are about domestic financing … but to make a breakthrough we need coordinated international action. I want to touch on just two areas: macro-economic policy and tax justice.

Neo-liberal economic policies have been imposed on low income countries for decades through the International Monetary Fund – and now the impact of austerity is being felt also in richer countries. The latest financial crisis, starting in 2007, has presented a huge opportunity to challenge hegemonic economic policies, but to date we have failed to see the breakthroughs that are necessary. When governments are under pressure to hold down public spending, Adult Education is often one of the first things to be cut. There are alternatives and there is a particularly strong case that investing in education should be seen as part of the solution to the financial crisis. For these alternatives to gather momentum we need a huge Adult Education movement that demystifies macroeconomics. Economics must be reclaimed from the hegemonic elite – and we must further the understanding of citizens that neo-liberal macro-economics is driven by an intensely ideological agenda that betrays their interests. Until we overcome people’s fear of economics and build people’s confidence as para-economists we will continue to have governments and international institutions that hide behind the most powerful myth of our times: that “there is no alternative”.

In the past couple of years we have seen the remarkable emergence of a movement for tax justice that has immense potential. Some of the biggest multinational corporations are now known to be avoiding tax on an epic scale – whether it is Google, Apple, Vodafone or Amazon. Some of this may be legal according to the present rules – but the rules are often largely written under the conflicted advice of big accountancy firms – who then advise their paymasters on how to work around the rules. It is an utter absurdity that £21 trillion is hidden away in tax havens and that developing countries lose dramatically more in tax dodging than they will ever receive in aid. Rhetorically, this was on the agenda of the G8 in Northern Ireland in June 2013, but no serious action was taken to address these injustices. Again, it will take a huge citizen’s movement to really make a difference – and this will take time to build. In March 2013, in Lima, Peru, a new Global Alliance on Tax Justice was formed2 which links trade unions, international NGOs, social movements and others. The first and perhaps most important task of such an alliance must be Adult Education – popularising an understanding of the scale of the injustices – and the pivotal role that ordinary citizens can play – as voters and as consumers – to hold governments and corporates to account. As long as we allow multinational corporations to effectively trample over democratic governments we will always be left with an impossibly constrained public sector which cannot invest credibly in Adult Education.

The sustainable development agenda that emerges post 2015 must be ambitious – and we must indeed fight for the inclusion of Adult Education using every argument that we can. However, the Adult Education constituency would do well to channel its energies also into making the case for a credible financing of sustainable development – focusing on the big picture around macro-economics and tax justice. We may win some victories now (tax justice has a foothold on the agenda but we need much more weight to get serious action) but the bigger victories will depend on sustained work over many years, using Adult Education to build people’s understanding and to build the movement that we will need to achieve more fundamental change. This of course is the very essence of a liberating approach to Adult Education – promoting coordinated reflection and collective action that goes far beyond the walls of any classroom.



1 For example the Brookings Institution (http://www.brookings.edu/)

2 For more information see www.gatj.org


Commonwealth Ministerial Working Group (December 2012): Commonwealth Recommendations for the Post-2015 Development Framework for Education.

Education International (April 2013): Education in the Post 2015 Global Development Framework. Education International’s proposed goal, targets and indicators. Available at http://bit.ly/16Rj9rJ

Global Campaign for Education (March 2013): Realising the Right to Education for All. GCE Discussion Paper on Education Post 2015. Available at http://bit.ly/ZYpEl5

High-Level Panel of eminent persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (May 2013): A New Global Partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development. The Report of the High-Level Panel of eminent persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Available at http://bit.ly/1aF1nGJ

Sustainable Development Solutions Network (June 2013): An Action Agenda for Sustainable Development, p. 13. Available at http://bit.ly/13TPqdQ


About the Author

David Archer is Head of Programme Development with ActionAid, having been Head of Education for many years. In the 1990s he developed the Reflect approach to adult learning (see www.reflect-action.org). Since the late 1990s David has worked on rights-based approaches to education and the building of civil society coalitions on education across Africa, Asia and Latin America. He is a co-founder and board member of the Global Campaign for Education and represents northern civil society organisations on the board of the Global Partnership for Education. David manages the Right to Education Project (see www.right-to-education.org) and has written extensively on the impact of IMF macro-economic policies on education.

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Adult Education and Development


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