Why adult education matters in Latin America, and how its limited priority affects its impact

Carmen Campero Cuenca
Universidad Pedagógica Nacional





 Adult education is a broad, complex field intertwined with multiple social and educational realities. This article points to a couple of potential key roles for adult education for individuals, their families and communities in Latin America. Some reasons for the limited impact that adult education currently has in the region are also presented.

Youth and adult education is a human right and the gateway to the exercise of other rights. The answers to crucial problems in today’s world, expressed in a global and interconnected way in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are integrally linked to quality education and lifelong learning for the entire population. Providing youth and adult education are the key to guaranteeing individual and community development and building more just societies (GIPE 2018).

“Despite its importance and potential, youth and adult education is secondary to the agendas of education for children and young people.”

Youth and adult education is relevant in various aspects of individual and community life such as: health and well-­being, employment and the labour market (including sustainable livelihoods), justice and democracy, social, civic and community affairs, art and culture, new technologies and social networks.
Despite its importance and potential, youth and adult education is secondary to the agendas of education for children and young people, a condition that can be perceived at different levels and in different situations. For example, youth and adult education is not explicitly mentioned in SDG 4 and its global indicators. Funding organisations also do not consider its role. This lack of priority is reflected in most national budgets, where youth and adult education budget allocations are scarce. The limited or non-existent professionalisation of educators, as well as the compensatory approaches that prevail in many programmes, with little relevance for the groups to which they are directed, are two more expressions of the insufficient importance given to this educational field (Campero 2017). All of the above is in stark contrast to the potential demand and will affect what impact can be achieved.

Some impact in Latin America

Educators of young people and adults observe certain changes in the people who participate in socio-educational processes that occur in their daily life or in the medium or long term. The changes can take place in their families and/or environments. In larger projects, it is possible to assess these changes at the different levels of intervention, whether national, regional or local. This is how we can confirm that adult education produces a manifold impact1 that can be appreciated and is important to demonstrate, recognising that it is the result of complex causal relationships. Some impacts can be anticipated and others are unexpected. (Gómez and Sainz 2008 and Bhola 2000).

Experiences that have an impact are often referred to as good practices, or as relevant or successful practices. In most of the cases2 at which we will now look, civil society has played a central role, as have local organisations and institutions of various kinds. Together they reflect the importance and potential of youth and adult education:

  1. School re-entry centres, public high schools, educational and vocational centres focusing on the inclusion of young people and adults offer, by transforming programmes, an alternative to rigid exams. In their place, they consider the social and educational trajectories of the people concerned, and recognise the knowledge that they have generated; they also incorporate tutorials and collaborative study groups. These institutions support young people in their social, emotional and educational lives. They generally do their work in coordination with community organisations. Such initiatives have shown their relevance in fostering educational continuity and employment, in strengthening links between students and their communities, as well as in civic participation.

  2. Study groups, particularly literacy groups largely attended by women, in addition to strengthening reading, writing and arithmetic skills, encouraged the female learners to address equal rights and opportunities by bolstering self-esteem. To achieve this, they use strategies such as the strengthening of their self-esteem, the recognition of their knowledge and the contributions they have made throughout their lives to their families, communities, colleagues and workplaces. The results of the processes that take place in the study circles are the reduction of violence or mistreatment, the changing of roles inside the heart of their families, participation in collective affairs, as well as greater autonomy to act and make decisions that transform their lives. In this way, these circles contribute to making an impact on the younger generations and on the lives of the students themselves, thus counteracting the triple discrimination they face as a result of not knowing how to read, being women and, moreover, being poor.

  3. Programmes for young mothers and young pregnant women that include financial support for women between the ages of 12 and 18 to continue their basic education, are also beneficial. The programme includes content that allows them to build a life project and make decisions for the exercise of their sexual and reproductive rights, the prevention of a second pregnancy, to strengthen their self-esteem and develop their work and digital skills. In this way, the aim is to enable them to give new meaning to their pregnancies and to find options for their development, in a context in which they are likely to face personal, social and economic difficulties. A further feature of these projects is that there is coordination work between various social and government institutions.

  4. Projects that are oriented towards the indigenous population are of great relevance. They have different objectives and target populations: women, young people and educators. Even so, they all have the common denominator of the recovery of the profound meaning of education based on community and individual life experiences and the self-evaluation of these aspects. Another common trait is to foster horizontal relationships between those who serve as facilitators (educators and trainers) and young people and adults (learners). A further strength of these processes is that they incorporate the mother tongue, visions, customs and traditions. Part of the impact of such projects consists in the ability of the participants to identify and evaluate their own life experiences, world views and community expressions, and to revitalise their historical memory, as well as to strengthen local leaderships and organisational processes in order to promote self-employment and transformation projects that contribute to the reduction of migration.

  5. Spaces where there is a willingness to invite those who come to learn, share their knowledge, participate, weave life projects and transmit generational knowledge are also important. Examples include community radio stations, social and cultural centres, street football, dance and music sessions in local squares, libraries and museums. Through these projects, the bonds between neighbours are strengthened, as is solidarity and the interest in continuing learning.

  6. Community training schools are another group of projects in which the participants know and promote their rights. They are organised to solve community problems or neighbourhood security-related problems, supervision of land tenure, care of the environment, or coexistence. These projects are joined by others that involve social and educational processes related to housing, self-employment, the exchange of goods and services, the marketing of their products in a fair market and cooperatives of various types, amongst other things. In this way, it is possible to improve living conditions, reduce migration, and strengthen community ties.

  7. Another group of projects recover and/or conserve nature reserves and protected areas through intersectoral work. Basic education processes are linked to the recovery of local culture and knowledge; the conservation of the environment is promoted and, gradually, the responsible exploitation of its forest, fauna and fishing resources. These processes are supported by training courses on conservation, management and sale of products; decisions are made collectively.

From outlines to policy proposal

The wide range of projects and programmes mentioned in the previous section shows the vastness of this field of education. By analysing them, we can identify characteristics common to several of them, some of them present in a smaller number of programmes, and some more specific.

Some common characteristics of the projects and programmes are features …

  • … that expand the frontiers of education by considering and articulating learning that is shaped in different contexts and situations. This helps to link formal education with more flexible modalities and spaces;

  • … that consider one or more of the dimensions of the life of young people and adults: work, health, exercise of their rights, culture, care for the environment, civil participation, coexistence. This leads to cross-sectoral work;

  • … in which participants are recognised as actors who function in specific contexts and who have knowledge, experiences, interests and needs that are incorporated into educational processes;

  • … with differing emphasis which seek to promote critical knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes necessary to draw attention to conceptualise and solve problems of various kinds, as well as to foster creativity, solidarity, cooperation, self-discipline, self-confidence, empathy, leadership, shared responsibility and autonomy;

  • … which use participatory methodologies at different times and stages of the projects. And, in addition, the programmes are connected with the people and with neighbourhood and community organisations, promoting links, as well as creating or consolidating local leaderships:

  • … which intentionally seek to transform realities.

Another common feature is that in spite of the strong commitment of the educators and other advocates who develop these projects, they are carried out in precarious conditions, with few resources of any kind, so that their scope and impact is often limited.

These project and programme features support policy proposals that have been strongly expressed by Latin American civil society over the past five years, with a view to defining the SDGs and the CONFINTEA VI Mid-Term Review Meeting, in which the precarious conditions prevailing in youth and adult education are considered.

There are also overlaps with the international policies of youth and adult education such as CONFINTEA V, CONFINTEA VI and the Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education, whose approaches are still far from being realised in most countries.

In short, the proposal is to promote and consolidate comprehensive, inclusive and integrated policies – cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary – from a human rights perspective, in which education is holistic and integral. We are talking about policies implemented in specific programmes and projects with sufficient resources; policies which promote equality between men and women, including affirmative action for the most disadvantaged groups; policies that are centred on the contexts, interests and needs of the people they target, and in which the participation of all the sectors of society involved is fostered; policies which emerge from participatory decisions and in which the State lives out its role as a guarantor.

An additional and fundamental policy for progress is that governments should devote 6 % of GDP to the education sector, and that investment in historically disadvantaged areas such as youth and adult education should gradually increase. In addition, it is necessary to define policies not only from the perspective of education, but also in conjunction with economic and social policies, in order to mitigate existing inequalities and poverty, which have been on the increase (Civil Society Declaration 2013, ICAE 2015, Brasilia Charter 2016, UNESCO 2009, 2015 and 2017, CLADE 2017, FISC 2017).

“While the impact of youth and adult ­education can be identified, assessed, appreciated and shown, it can seldom be measured in the strict sense of the term.”

What comes next?

The practices within youth and adult education in Latin America presented in this article contribute towards development. They have changed the lives of individuals and their families, in their environments, and at different territorial levels. However, the marginal situation of youth and adult education compared to education for children and adolescents is a structural factor that prevents its impact from being amplified, since it generates precarious conditions for its development, giving rise to a critical juncture.

On the other hand, we live in a world where often the only thing that counts is what can be measured. While the impact of youth and adult education can be identified, assessed, appreciated and shown, it can seldom be measured in the strict sense of the term. The reality is complex.

Hence the importance – to those of us who work towards and are committed to the right to the education of young people and adults and to the construction of a more just world – of systematising our experiences, highlighting who the participants are, the factors involved in the processes, the results and impacts, as well as the problems encountered along the way, all with the aim of valuing our work, socialising it and demanding other logics of reflection and action. Systematisation helps generate information that makes visible and positions both youth and adult education and the young people and adults who participate.


1 / By impact we mean the modifications of reality that are produced by a set of causal relationships; in this case, youth and adult education is one of these.

2 / These experiences were contributed by members and friends of the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) of Latin America, to be included in papers presented at various international forums held in 2017.


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Campero, C. (2017): Reflexiones y aportaciones para avanzar en el derecho de las personas jóvenes y adultas a una educación a lo largo de la vida. Revista Educación de adultos y procesos formativos, 4. Chile: Universidad de Playa Ancha. https://bit.ly/2LYrsOx

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ICAE (International Council for Adult Education) (2015): Declaration of the IX ICAE World Assembly. Montreal, 14 June 2015.

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UNESCO (2009): Living and learning for a viable future: the power of adult learning. Final report. Confintea VI. Belém, Brazil.

UNESCO (2015): Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education, 24-36. Paris: Unesco and UIL.

UNESCO (2017): The power of Adult Learning: Vision 2030. CONFINTEA VI Mid-Term Review 2017. Suwon.

About the author

Carmen Campero Cuenca is a social anthropologist and teacher in adult education from Mexico who has dedicated more than 45 years to youth and adult education, 36 of them at the National Pedagogical University. She is a co-author and teacher of training programmes with various approaches, and has published extensively. 


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