How to develop resilient people in stronger communities

Carolyn Johnstone
Federation University





 This article explores ways in which adult education can develop resilient people and strengthen the sense of community between different groups. Based on case studies in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq as they recovered from earlier conflicts, the article proposes key design features for effective adult education provision, including a quality checklist and an impact spectrum, which could be used by policymakers to measure the impact of adult education.

When a society is fragile, possibly recovering from conflict or trauma, the first priority for assistance is not usually adult education. I would however like to provide some examples of international and local organisations providing services in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and Iraq during the periods following each country’s conflict (see box page 29).

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a number of adult education programmes were designed to give learners skills in conflict resolution. The Neighbourhood Facilitators Project in Republika Srpska trained 20 local people from the three major ethnic groups as well as five specialist international facilitators. Mixed teams of international staff, plus trainers from at least two of the groups with whom many residents identified, went on to deliver neighbourhood education where the focus was on helping communities to solve local problems. A mixed-delivery team was also a feature of a United Methodist Committee on Relief initiative in Sarajevo, which had conflict resolution at its core and used adult education as a lever for change. Mixing international with local staff is not always positive, however, as problems can arise when the external intervention is unaware of the strengths and successes of local provision. There were democracy-building programmes during the international intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe supported local elections there as early as 1996, and they included adult education in the process.

Overview: Conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and Iraq

Bosnia-Herzegovina: The three main ethnic groups and the six republics of the former Yugoslavia fought for territory, influence and recognition from 1990–1995. The conflict consisted of independence struggles and civil war, including the Siege of Sarajevo lasting from 1992 to 1995. The inter-ethnic fighting was brutal, and was characterised by ethnic cleansing where minority populations were forced out of an area or killed. The massacre of around 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica was one of the most notable episodes of the Bosnian civil war. In September 1995, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) carried out air strikes against Bosnian-Serb targets to force them to enter into peace negotiations. The conflict ended when the General Framework Agreement on Peace (Dayton Accords) was signed in Paris on 14 December 1995. NATO-led international forces were subsequently deployed in Bosnia.

Cambodia: Cambodians lived through decades of conflict, including the Khmer Rouge communist insurgency that brought Pol Pot to power in 1975, systematic ethnic killing, an invasion by Vietnam in 1979, guerrilla operations and a civil war from 1979–1988. United Nations Peace Accords were signed in Paris in October 1991, leading to the establishment of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). UNTAC began work in March 1992, and elections were held in May 1993.

Iraq: In the 1980s to early 2000s, Iraq’s foreign policy was set against a context of post-colonial relations, US superpower dominance and complex relations with neighbouring countries. There was a territorial dispute with Iran from 1980–88, and Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Periodically from 1991 until 2002, international forces conducted air strikes against Iraq’s military facilities and potential sites of weapons of mass destruction, along with action to enforce United Nations-approved no-fly zones designed to protect the Kurds and Marsh Arabs from genocide. In 2003, a US-led coalition controversially invaded Iraq, removed Saddam Hussein from power, and occupied the country until sovereignty was restored to an Iraqi Government in 2004.

In Cambodia in the mid-1990s, a vocational training school grew from a perceived need to supply older residents of an orphanage with the means to earn their own living, and adult literacy classes were delivered by a charity that supplied water to rural communities. Language training was delivered by volunteer native English speakers as part of professional development programmes for lecturers at Phnom Penh University, in the aviation industry and as part of medical or teacher training. This was to help learners gain access to published literature and enable them to engage in professional debates. For Cambodians who had been displaced, educational opportunities were generally thin on the ground, although they may have been better than those available to people who had remained in Cambodia. In Thailand, for example, the focus was on primary and pre-vocational education for refugees because the Government prohibited their receiving anything over and above basic education until 1986. Ongoing support for such people once they have returned home may well focus on developing former refugees’ economic self-sufficiency, but other courses can help ease their reintegration into the community. Returnee Cambodian refugees joined the wider community by taking part in national elections in 1993. Prior to the election, adult education included information videos, travelling theatre and specific details on electoral procedures that explained the role of political parties and the right to a confidential, free vote for each voter.

During the occupation of Iraq by the US and UK in 2003/4, a reintegration programme for former Iraqi soldiers and militia included skills screening, education benefits, job training and placement. The authorities sometimes paid learners to attend classes, and they were reintegrated into Iraq’s civil society and economy. However, many who wanted to remain in jobs in the security sector lacked the literacy skills to complete, for example, the Facilities Protection Service application forms and entry tests. Adult literacy classes were therefore needed. Unemployment rates were very high, so international organisations assisted the Iraqi Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in providing job-seekers with information, training and job placement. The scheme started with five Vocational and Technical Training Centres (VTTC) and ten Employment Service Centres (ESC) that focused on literacy training. Trainees were to be paid a stipend while attending their courses, lasting up to two months. The courses included carpentry, plumbing, elevator repair and cosmetology. 30 % of the trainees were to be young adults, and 10 % of them were to be female. More than 1,000 trainees had been enrolled by 2005, while 1,500 workers had been placed in jobs.

In all three situations, the adult learners have developed individual skills in areas such as literacy, languages, job skills, negotiation and communication. Let us now take a closer look at the impact of these courses.

Adult education helps develop resilient people

When an adult learns a new skill, the direct benefits to that individual are often very clear: They find a better-paid job, or they can speak to a wider range of people. The broader benefits of participating in education are sometimes hidden, though. Learners who succeed in obtaining employment have more resources at their disposal; they enjoy economic and physical security but, more importantly, they have an identity and sense of self-worth that builds confidence. It is likely that such adult learners will connect better to society, and this builds resilience.

Frequently, quality adult education encourages learners to engage with course content in a critical and enquiring way, and to question themselves and others. The adult learners can extend this practice to their wider interactions, so they are encouraged to question relationships and reflect on everyday experiences. Such habits result in ongoing learning and continuous development of skills that enable responses to changes in the work or political environment.

“Developing resilient adults is beneficial to individuals, but communities also benefit from having adult learners in their midst.”

Adult education also offers people a new social group, consisting of fellow learners with shared goals and extending beyond the individual’s family or employment networks. In the above examples of adult education, learners with these wider networks have increased their social capital, and those with greater capital have the capacity to respond to a wider range of adverse events. Many individuals who start by taking part in adult education are drawn towards playing a more active role within their community, one outcome of this process being to enhance social cohesion.

Developing resilient adults is beneficial to individuals, but communities also benefit from having adult learners in their midst. These effects operate at two levels, both creating a new environment of shared benefits, while at the same time more directly increasing overall group productivity. We turn now to consider ways in which adult education can strengthen communities.

Building stronger communities through adult education

Many people regard the ways in which adult education is embedded in communities as a defining feature of this type of learning. Adult education can build stronger communities by helping to build social capital, encouraging community activism, and strengthening democratic processes that lend communities a voice. There is a link between social capital, participation in educational activity and representative government. Critical pedagogy and the dialogue of learning emphasise the link between adult learning and the learners’ lived experiences. This connects learning and political activity so that adult education programmes have the potential for community impact. This is particularly relevant in our modern, globalised world.

“Opposing forces – those of the marketplace and those of the ideology of human rights – are making the discussion on democracy and citizenship even more complex and convoluted. Not surprisingly, education is caught in the storm.” (Torres 2009: 127)

Community participation as part of strategies for people-centred development has been a feature of some of the adult education provided in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and Iraq. Community-based learning groups received assistance from international organisations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, often with the expectation that the group would continue to represent and act for the community even once the learning activity had ended. The World Bank takes the view that a community should be at the heart of planning reconstruction after emergencies if any intervention is to be sustainable; it has made grants to schools that involve the community, and it believes that the reconstruction of schools can be used as an early vehicle for community engagement in post-conflict situations (World Bank 2005).

In recent times, the increased number of displaced in­dividuals across the world has spotlighted them as separate communities in the countries of settlement. A number of communities hosting groups of refugees in Australia have sought to provide adult education in order to help new ­arrivals integrate. However, there has also been parallel provision of adult education to the receiving community, building intercommunity cohesion, for example through workshops on understanding the refugee experience and providing classes on practical ways to support asylum-seekers and refugees.

There is a tightly-interwoven relationship between the adult education being provided, the development of strong, stable communities, and the management of the education process within a community. Collective identity might be strengthened by an individual completing adult education. However, the term “community” implies a distinct group, with the implication of difference at its heart, and this could create divisions within society and cause difficulties if the various groups compete against each other. Adult education has the potential to act both as a stabilising and a destabilising force in society, and there are risks inherent in poor quality provision. The next section suggests ways of designing adult education so as to support resilient people in stronger communities in ways that are positive.

Designing adult education for resilience

Quality-assured provision is important, but in situations where communities are fragmented or fragile, it can be easy to excuse dips in quality due to the irregular nature of adult education. Unfortunately, low-quality adult education will usually be ineffective when it comes to strengthening communities, and may even be counterproductive. The best way to avoid this situation may be to use the checklist below (see Figure 1). It is a synthesis of the principles and standards that are prioritised for post-conflict adult education. Note that points 1, 3 and 4 are directly reliant on an interdependency between the community and its adult education.

In the context of a fragile community, or communities, it is particularly important that adult education provision should be sustainable and adaptable. In checking for sustainability, it is important to assess the impact of the programme or policy. The ideal is to move towards the right of the spectrum at Figure 2, aiming as a minimum for self-sustaining provision.

If adult education is to enhance relationships at the community level, it must take account of its potential to simultaneously stabilise and de-stabilise. Education that is most likely to strengthen communities usually consists of a more gradual process, dealing with the complex issues underpinning identity and values, rather than using the positive bonding of the individual adult learners to achieve short-term effects within a narrowly-defined “in-group”. As an activity that takes place within a group and that strengthens the community, learning contributes to the acquisition of social capital, while the content of the adult education programme may contribute to the store of either economic or cultural capital.

The overall approach to adult education in societies recovering from conflict has been ad hoc, with fragmented funding and organisational arrangements. With the current situation of groups of displaced and fragmented people trying to build new lives in unfamiliar locations, the potential of adult education to develop resilient people in stronger communities cannot be overlooked. Funders, policy-makers and practitioners should view projects through a new lens that will allow a golden thread of adult education provision to be woven through multi-layered and complex delivery vehicles.


The World Bank (2005): Reshaping the Future: Education and Postconflict Reconstruction.

Torres, C. A. (2009): Globalizations and Education – Collected Essays on Class, Race, Gender, and the State. New York and London: Teachers College Press.

About the author

Before moving to Australia to teach at Federation University, Carolyn Johnstone was an officer in the British Army. Carolyn is interested in how international organisations, governments and NGOs work in partnership, using adult education as a policy lever to address global challenges including conflict, sustainable development and human security.


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