Zahir Azar

“We need to ‘free’ our minds”

Interview by Rabab Tamish, Bethlehem University, Palestine

After obtaining his doctoral degree in Philosophy in France in 1964, Dr. Zahir Azar returned to Lebanon where he worked as an adult educator in the Ecumenical Popular Education Program (EPEP)1. In 1991, he became the Director of EPEP. In 1997, he established the Arab Network for Popular Education, engaging hundreds of Arab activists and organisations in promoting the quality of adult education. Currently he is the co-ordinator of the Arab Adult Education Academy (AAEA)2.

Based on more than 30 years of experience and activism in the field of adult education, what have you learned about the professionalisation of adult education in the Arab world? 

In the Arab world, the concept of “professionalisation of adult education” has never been perceived as a dynamic and contextualised term. This means that most of the programmes are pre-structured as ready-to-use recipes, and do not emanate from learners’ active participation and engagement. My concern here is that there is a lack of a clear vision for adult education. Adult education in the Arab world unfortunately tends to adhere to traditional methods based on school-orien­tated practices. There is a common assumption that the pre­paration process for adult educators does not require the same level of effort as it does for school teachers. They are not trained in how to engage learners in the generation of knowledge. Training programmes focus on equipping adult educators with knowledge of content, with technical tools on how to teach, and with general principles of adult learning. These programmes however fail to engage adult educators as adult learners and to provide them with the opportunity to engage in the learning process as active learners themselves. We need to “free” our minds of the view that adult education should adhere to the same principles as traditional school systems. The training process needs to be based on the adult learners’ experiences, and to challenge assumptions about adult learning. It would be better to refer to adult educators as “facilitators” of the teaching and learning process. The term “teacher” or “educator” reflects a linear relationship where one expert tells a number of passive learners what to do and how to do it. A facilitator, on the other hand, is a person who perceives learners as active partners in the learning process and ensures that they engage in every decision related to their learning, such as selecting learning topics, planning learning activities, and developing assessment tools. We cannot expect educators to provide the space for adult learners to be active participants if they themselves have not practiced this role too. As trainers of adult educators, we should implement the same approach in preparing adult educators so that they can live this experience. This means enabling adult educators to contribute their own experiences and to engage in critical dialogue to develop their capacity to be facilitators of the learning process with the adults with whom they engage. 

How are human rights integrated into the professionalisation process?

A training programme that is detached from learners’ experiences or the foundations of human rights cannot be called professionalisation. Working with adult learners means considering the factors that cause learners to feel marginalised and disconnected from their reality. When talking about human rights, I am not referring to politics and political freedoms. Rather, I see human rights as forming the basis for maintaining the dignity of the learner as a human being. This means facilitators actively work to ensure that they are upholding the rights of learners, including gender rights, equity and social justice. The practice of human rights is reflected when learners have the power to share their knowledge without fear and to critically assess their own realities. When they are equal partners and active participants in the process of their learning, adult educators and learners are able to break the bar­riers causing them to feel marginalised, and in turn they are able to regain their self-esteem and agency. 

What is your vision for the professionalisation of adult ­education in the Arab world?

I cannot call it a vision. I see it more as a set of principles and values that confront the traditional approach to learning. I call this the emancipatory approach. It is about critically ­reflecting on what is taken for granted with regard to learning, and fully believing in the participation of the learners in the process of developing a vision about teaching and learning. If learners or educators are isolated from these processes, then the results are poor. This is the first element of the emancipatory approach. Secondly, when the teacher is a learner and is engaged in critical dialogue, as Paolo Freire described, then he or she will know that while they teach, they also learn. In this regard, the image of the facilitator is challenged where he or she is no longer the owner of the knowledge, and so cannot deliver it through a prepared text. This is a revolutionary argument about the process of adult education professionalisation, and requires the engagement of adult learners in every step of their learning, including the type of examination they take. Rather than a closed world, their world of learning is an open one where learners participate in their assessment. This is what I mean by emancipation.

To what extent is your work influenced by the work of Paolo Freire?

When I joined the EPEP, by chance I admit, I became very motivated to learn about adult education. The team started to plan for a programme that challenges the traditional approach, and we went through different stages until we reached the current principles and what we called the pedagogy of the text. We learnt a lot from the work of Freire, especially “Learning to Question” and his experience across different continents. We argue that we did not distance ourselves from him totally, but we adapted the spirit of his work to the Arab context. We believe that Paulo Freire has provided educators with the “path to” awareness raising. Walking the path does not necessarily mean adopting it as “the path”, but rather to question and to find the appropriate means within one’s community to make it work, based on one’s own cultural transformation, and as seen fit by the community itself. This experience taught us about the professionalisation of adult educators that is developed gradually and dynamically. So we experienced failure when we prepared ready-made texts and curricula for training. We felt how this leads to the passiveness of learners compared to the cases when they were engaged in the planning of their learning and the writing of their texts. When we witnessed remarkable changes with these new approaches, we become more confident about the power of offering to be partners in learning with principles for action, rather than ready-made recipe programmes for professionalisation. You might be surprised to know that, despite the difficulty in reaching these views on adult education, we have nevertheless managed, with our regional partners, to gain trust at official levels, and some countries have agreed to integrate the work within their strategic plans and activism. 

Who is responsible for adult education in the Arab world?

The answer is clear: the State. In some Arab countries, there are exceptions when there is a space for what we call civil society organisations to provide these services. The concern here is that neither body is able to lead the process without genuine cooperation. This partnership should be based on the experiences of both bodies. The current statistics in the Arab world about the status of adult education indicate that real progress is still far from emerging, and that the status will continue to be ineffective as long as we do not think of changing these countries’ approaches for adult education. I believe that there is a need to improve the quality of networking within each Arab country, and across these countries. These networks need to continuously assess the effectiveness of the work in the field and act accordingly. Again, as was mentioned earlier, this requires a strong belief in participatory approaches where all partners are active in the planning and assessment of programmes. Development requires the engagement of all partners in critical conscien­tisation processes, where they share their experience and build the process of professionalisation of adult education.

What are the biggest challenges for providing effective teacher training?

The most critical challenge refers to what is in the learner’s mind, especially when he or she has experienced different forms of alienation, marginalisation and exploitation. The skill required in breaking down the barriers that surround the ability to ­engage in learning within these minds cannot be underestimated, and should be carefully considered when preparing a programme. This stage needs time, but when all partners in the learning process feel the power of sharing, being respected and that their dignity is protected, they break down these walls. We need to be aware that this human relationship is not limited to the training programme, or to learner-facilitator interaction alone, but rather it is about a culture of active participation and agency. This culture should characterise the professional practices of the institution itself, its staff and structure. Any call for progressive adult education should be implemented within the organisation itself, such as challenging the hierarchical relationships within the institute, appreciating experiences, practicing flexibility and where participatory approaches to decision-making and joint planning are effectively utilised. Another challenge is related to donors’ interventions in the process. The weaknesses of governments and civil society when it comes to leading adult education has increased the intervention of the international agencies in the area. As we know, most of these agencies offer recipes that are ready to be implemented. Their lack of flexibility sometimes leads to a programme either blindly following the donor’s agenda, irrespective of its effectiveness, or simply to the rejection of the conditional funding. There are a few cases where funding agencies have shared similar progressive approaches to those I advocate, and accordingly they have responded positively to local needs, experiences and approaches for action. I hope that the intervention of international agencies in the Arab world becomes more flexible and supports local approaches that lead to impressive impact. One more challenge refers to the fact that most civil society organisations do not prioritise adult education within their agenda. Some of them believe that adult education is the ­responsibility of the State, or that the process is long and beyond their mandates. This view reflects a priority among some civil society organisations to limit their work to their objectives alone, such as health, youth or gender equity, without considering the value of the learning process itself. In addition, the lack of clear approaches in adult education, and the weaknesses of the State and of civil society forums, create a situation where they merely copy programmes, mostly developed by international agencies, without considering all the matters I described earlier, just because they are easier to implement and follow. In many cases, participation in such international programmes becomes an “advertisement” to obtain credibility at local and international levels. This spoils the potential for effective development.

To what extent are local and international networks involved in professionalisation in the Arab world?

In general, efforts for genuine networking and partnership between the formal and informal bodies are still in their infancy in the Arab world. Recently, we have seen organisations emerge which share strong beliefs that strengthening networks has the potential to increase the effectiveness of the State and of civil society organisations, and as a result the quality of adult education. I believe that the intervention of international agencies should focus on listening to local experiences and working for their dissemination internationally in order to support the possibilities of exchanging international experiences. I think that we have an ethical duty to face the current form of globalisation that aims at increasing marginalisation. We need to be engaged in the rebuilding of a global approach that serves both humanity and development. This can be achieved when we enter the educational gates that we walk through. Despite the weaknesses at the network level, there are other factors that might facilitate the achievement of quality adult education in the Arab world. Firstly, the current networks and partnerships, despite their weaknesses, should be supported – especially when they continuously reassess their realities in the light of local, regional and international experiences. Furthermore, social media have helped break down the taboos on many people’s accessibility to wider experiences. This will help us learn about networks that lead to influential impact. Finally, I argue that the “Arab Spring” has led to different forms of conscientisation and awareness-raising, despite the violence, poverty, pain and political instability that accompanied it. If we build on these factors, the quality of the professionalisation process will become more effective.

Dr. Zahir Azar, thank you very much for the interview.


1 / EPEP aims to promote adult education in the Arab world as a parti­cipatory, democratic and critical process. It promotes education as a process by which the acquisition of knowledge comes in response to the needs of local communities, and values above all else the experience of marginalised individuals and communities in informing the ­strategies used to improve their status.

2 / AAEA is run by four networks from the Arab world, and works in partnership with DVV international. It aims to enrich the quality of adult education throughout the Arab world.

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