The opening ceremony of CONFINTEA VI in Belém, Brazil./ Photo: CONFINTEA VI/MEC

Revisiting CONFINTEA: Sixty years of advocacy for adult education

The CONFINTEAs constitute UNESCO’s prime advocacy tool for adult education but little has been done to assess and monitor their efficacy. This article suggests the need to undertake a profound review of CONFINTEA.



The first International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) was held in 1949, a year after the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and not long after the creation of UNESCO in 1946. The most recent Conference, the sixth, was held in December 2009 in Belém do Pará, Brazil. During this period, 1949–2009, much has changed although Adult Education has continued to feature as an important element of UNESCO’s mandate.

The first Conference in Elsinore (Denmark) was organized in the wake of the Second World War with the mission of contributing to the consolidation of world peace and international understanding. The sixth was held for the first time in an emerging nation from the South in the context of multiple crises (financial, food, climatic, energy). Inspired by the call to move from rhetoric to action, the conference sought to underline the power of adult education to contribute to “living and learning for a viable future” whilst acknowledging that another world is possible and necessary. Elsinore took place in the pre-television era in which communication was still relatively slow and time-consuming. Belém took place at a time in which the technologies of communication offered almost unlimited possibilities for cheap and efficient communication world-wide.

In a recent article, Knoll (2007, 23) describes the International Conferences as “a professional shop-window for adult education, intended to be seen as marking great leaps forward”. This article sets out to explore the International Conferences on Adult Education not as isolated events but as a cycle or movement which seeks periodically to take stock of adult education worldwide, establish emerging tendencies and indicate ways forward for the proceeding decade. Whilst acknowledging the important role of UNESCO and the CONFINTEA movement in advocating for and defending adult education not only as a basic human right but also as an integral and essential component of lifelong learning and education, the text also seeks to explore some of the limitations of this sexagenarian movement and to suggest the need to evaluate and innovate its procedures. The discussion is limited chiefly to the last two Conferences held in Hamburg (Germany) in 1997 and Belém do Pará (Brazil) in 2009, respectively, viewed largely from the Latin American perspective.

Although declarations of intent are always slightly suspect, this author defines his position not as that of a disinterested bystander of the Confintea process but of an actor who was engaged both in defending Brazil’s candidature for the Conference and subsequently served as focal point and coordinator of the Brazilian organizing committee for CONFINTEA VI and, in that condition, integrated both the Confintea Consultative Group and its successor the Confintea Advisory Group . Thus, while the article reaffirms his comprehension of the central role of adult learning and education to human and social development, it suggests that just as evaluation and monitoring figured prominently in the recommendations contained in the Belém Framework for Action they should be applied with equal rigor to international consultation procedures of which CONFINTEA is a prime example.

The CONFINTEA movement

The International Conferences on Adult Education are in formal UNESCO terms intergovernmental conferences (category II) to which all member states of the Organisation are invited to send delegations. The CONFINTEAs (from the French Conférence Internationale de Éducation des Adultes, hence the acronym CONF-INT-EA) represent the culmination of cyclical processes which have taken place every ten to twelve years over the last six decades and which have largely followed a similar pattern. This has included a preparatory process involving the elaboration of national reports on the state of adult education in each member nation, the consolidation of these national reports in a world state of the art document, the preparation of other supporting documents, the organization of preparatory meetings and seminars at different geopolitical levels (national and regional) and organizational instances (government and civil society) aimed at mobilizing and giving greater visibility to the field of adult education, the holding of a major international conference at which some kind of declaration or international agenda is agreed (this is particularly the case of the fifth and sixth conferences) and then the proposal of loosely defined follow-up mechanisms by which it is hoped to monitor the implementation of commitments and responsibilities assumed by governments during the conference.

Thus theoretically, the conferences generate a cumulative process whereby one conference feeds into the following one generating new understandings of the evolving practice of adult education worldwide and indicating questions which require further elaboration and attention in public policy. For this reason we define the process as a movement rather than as a set of conferences.

In general, according to Knoll (2007, 23), the UNESCO International Conferences have largely reflected “the spirit and circumstances of the age, while providing at the same time a reservoir of utopian and practical visions of how the world should and could be arranged”. Nonetheless, we suggest that the Hamburg Conference in 1997 (CONFINTEA V) represented a turning point in the sequence of conferences. It was both marked by a strong presence of civil society representatives and by the approval of a detailed agenda for the proceeding decade with goals to be achieved. What it did not establish, however, were mechanisms for monitoring the diverse goals set out in the Agenda for the Future of Adult Education. This led to a situation whereby when the CONFINTEA V Mid-term Review Meeting was held in Bangkok (Thailand) in September 2003, to monitor progress since Hamburg, the final document A Call for Action and Accountability, “revealed a disturbing regression in the field (of adult education)” since the previous conference.

With the advent of CONFINTEA VI, efforts were made to correct the frailty of the monitoring mechanisms. 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, lastly, 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” (UNESCO, 2010, 9) 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” (ibid., 9). 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. No mention was made however of the need to review the general architecture of the CONFINTEA process.

The CONFINTEA process in Latin America

The impact of CONFINTEA V is difficult to gauge in Latin America. References to the Hamburg Declaration and the Agenda for the Future in official discourse and documents are frequent but the spirit of Hamburg in the form of the new amplified understanding of adult education within the perspective of lifelong learning has found little place in education policy. 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 population of Latin America totalled 580 million in 2010 of whom approximately 9% or 34 million are considered illiterate and a further 20% or 80 millions are considered to be functionally illiterate. It should be remembered that Latin America is considered the most unequal region in the world in terms of the distribution of wealth and income.

The holding of CONFINTEA VI 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 raising the priority attributed to adult education on the political agenda. The popular education movement which developed in the 50s and 60s became increasingly associated with the struggle for emancipation and social transformation and firmly linked to social movements and civil society organizations in countries in which right-wing military regimes were rife in the 70s and 80s.

These expectations were in part frustrated. During the preparatory phase for CONFINTEA only 25 out of the 41 countries which make up the Latin American and Caribbean region submitted national reports as part of the international reporting process. And even fewer took advantage of the opportunity to base their reports on broad democratic consultation processes. Participative processes were set in motion in Brazil and Uruguay and in Mexico and Colombia complementary and independent reports were produced. The majority of these reports limited their coverage to governmental policies, programmes and actions with little reference to that broad range of activities covered by the definition of adult education to which Hamburg subscribed:

“Adult education denotes the entire body of ongoing learning processes, formal or otherwise, whereby people regarded as adults by the society to which they belong develop their abilities, enrich their knowledge, and improve their technical or professional qualifications or turn them in a new direction to meet their own needs and those of their society. Adult learning encompasses both formal and continuing education, non-formal learning and the spectrum of informal and incidental learning available in a multicultural learning society, where theory- and practice-based approaches are recognized.” (UNESCO, 1997)

The Latin American and Caribbean Regional Preparatory Report for CONFINTEA VI, based in part on the national reports, suggested that the quantitative and qualitative leap expected after CONFINTEA V in Hamburg was largely frustrated. It indicated likewise that the shift of emphasis from education to learning and the implementation of the paradigm of lifelong learning were not evident in the region. Evidence from the national reports pointed to a greater institutionalization of adult education – with important benefits – but with more weight being placed on school equivalency and technical and vocational education programmes. The report also suggested that many countries had prioritised literacy without due consideration for the need to guarantee continuity for literacy students. Insufficient attention to coordination and planning in the development of literacy programmes was also noted.

CONFINTEA follow up process

Whilst the specific focus of this article is not the monitoring process per se set in motion by the Belém Framework of Action but the overall architectonic structure of the conference process, it is important to point to unquestionable advances at the international and regional levels.

At the international level, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning – UIL has produced a global strategic plan for monitoring the outcomes of the Conference in addition to a matrix containing key elements to be tracked in the implementation of adult education policy. This matrix also served as the basis for the guidelines for the new round of national reporting preparatory to the elaboration of the second Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) in 2012. A CONFINTEA Advisory Group was also set up and has since met twice and a series of meetings and seminars have been held on questions related to the CONFINTEA agenda.

Civil society has also collaborated to maintain a focus on the CONFINTEA process. Among the four themes selected for the International Council of Adult Education’s VIII World Assembly, held last June in Malmö – Sweden,”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” – was directed specifically at the CONFINTEA agenda. The Assembly in Malmö was preceded by a virtual seminar which served as a forum for discussion of important themes which were later taken up at the Mexican Regional CONFINTEA Follow-up Meeting.

At the Latin American and Caribbean regional level, there have been several responses to the challenges of monitoring. The Mexican government hosted the first CONFINTEA Regional Follow-up Meeting in May 2011 in Mexico City with the participation of 250 representatives from 48 member states. Whilst proposing to take stock of and present concrete initiatives and measures introduced since 2009 in adult education policy around the principal axes set out in the Belem Framework, the Meeting also discussed a proposed Regional Implementation and Monitoring Matrix elaborated by the UNESCO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC).  This resulted in a list of 55 proposed lines of action of which 26 were national and 29 regional. On the basis of this matrix, OREALC carried out a further consultation process (to which 20 out of 41 countries replied) to select those lines of action considered as priority for the region and to identify member states willing to take a leading role in their implementation.

Regional cooperation between international and regional organisations is deemed critical both to avoid unnecessary duplication in a field in which resources are scarce and to underline the importance of cooperation between countries, especially those of the south, as a strategy for the exchange of information, knowledge and human resources. The Organization of Iberoamerican States (OEI) has continued to invest in its Ibero-American Literacy Plan and the 2021 Goals for advancing literacy and basic education in the region with emphasis on collaboration between countries and the elaboration of indicators with which to monitor national policies.

Individual Latin American countries have also taken measures to contribute to the national and regional monitoring process. 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. A 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  and during the Mexican Regional Meeting as a contribution to the general monitoring strategy under OREALC’s 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.

CONFINTEA: technical or structural flaws?

In the two years since the Belém Conference, much has been done to correct existing weaknesses in the Confintea process. Whilst CONFINTEA V can be characterised by its capacity to deepen and widen the concept and comprehension of adult education in the perspective of lifelong learning, CONFINTEA VI set a more pragmatic tone by underlining the need to implement and to monitor policy at all levels. Important measures have been taken to orientate the process. Nevertheless, in order to be consistent the CONFINTEA cycle as an advocacy tool also requires evaluation. The sacred cow syndrome by which CONFINTEAs are organised successively not necessarily due to their efficiency as a tool for international advocacy but rather due to inertia and the absence of evaluation should be questioned. As part of this process, we suggest that the following elements could further our understanding of the most efficient means of strengthening adult learning and education nationally and internationally which constitutes the prime objective of all concerned.

At times of crisis, we are led to reflect more deeply upon the financial and environmental impact of large conferences. Few if any studies exist on the total cost of organising the CONFINTEA process at national, regional and international levels and still fewer on the impact of CONFINTEA on the implementation and strengthening of adult education policy. What does exist tends to suggest that this impact is highly uneven (GRALE, 2009). Whilst cost-benefit studies are not always very welcome in the field of adult education there is clearly a need to be able to “justify” the resources which are required for CONFINTEA in terms of the results produced.

At the same time in which concerns with global warming and climate change are part of the adult education agenda and international jet travel is known to contribute to environmental damage, this dimension of the conference cycle –both symbolic and real – is little considered in the succession of national, regional and international meetings, seminars and forums. As part of the organisation of the Belém Conference, it was suggested that each country should compensate its environmental footprint by planting a number of native species of trees proportional to the size of its delegation and the number of miles covered. Of the 144 member states present in Belém only Brazil and Kenya responded to this initiative.

The effective use of communication technologies clearly needs to be considered when planning future activities both as a means of shortening distance, avoiding unnecessary travel and above all of democratising access to the proceedings. Many good examples of virtual forums exist as a means of preparing and widening debates. The virtual seminar organised by ICAE in preparation for its World Assembly is just one recent example in this field. As a means of satisfying the local demand to accompany the CONFINTEA debates in Belém, all formal sessions of the conference were transmitted on-line and could be accessed throughout the State of Pará, all over Brazil and in any other part of the world. The balance between the virtual and the face-to-face needs to be further discussed and evaluated.

The question of impact also raises the question of the scarcity of good studies which demonstrate the importance of adult learning and education in social, economic, ecological and cultural terms. The lack of arguments backed up by hard data on the impact of ALE on employment, productivity, participation, quality of life, sustainable development, on learning as an essential activity for maintaining the ageing population more healthy and involved is frequently cited as is the lack of engagement of Universities in general in research and training in the field of adult education. Advocacy requires arguments which convince governments and international donors to increase their investments. In the majority of cases the prevailing logic is closely related to economic and political results. However dear and central the rights’ argument is to adult education, it is necessary to recognise that for many governments this does not carry the weight it should.

Closely linked with the question of evidence is that of interlocution or inter-sectoral policy dialogue. Adult learning and education is by nature inter-sectoral in that it is concerned with processes of learning which affect different dimensions of human existence – work, health, culture, leisure, environment, living together, participation, democracy, citizenship and others. The last two CONFINTEAs revealed the difficulty of engaging actors from other fields whether ministries, at governmental level, or bi or multi-lateral agencies at international level in the policy dialogue, thus reinforcing the well-known process of preaching to the converted.

Parallels have frequently been drawn between the CONFINTEA, and Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) processes. In general, in detriment to the first since the CONFINTEAs generate few obligations. They produce neither enforceable conventions nor recommendations (in the formal UN sense). Unlike EFA and MDG they did not, until Belém, propose formal mechanisms for monitoring their own commitments and goals. The annual reports produced on EFA – the Global Monitoring Report, and MDG – the Millennium Development Goals Reports, tend to generate greater political commitment due to their visibility and comparability. In this sense, the GRALE should begin to improve the visibility of adult learning and education, ALE, whilst at the same time reinforcing its contribution to achieving the EFA and MD Goals. Nevertheless, it would perhaps be expedient to consider launching the debate for a more legally binding instrument like an International Convention on Lifelong Learning or a Learners’ Charter.

Two further points need to be made with reference to parallels between these three international strategies. In first place, the Confintea banner or title is not one which is easily communicated. It is a code term known only to some of those involved in the field. Equally the very title is associated with events – the conferences – rather than processes or strategies to achieve goals. CONFINTEA does not communicate in the same way that “Education for All” or even “Lifelong Learning” does. There is therefore a question of communication (or dare we say marketing) strategy which needs to be debated. Secondly, at national and international levels, adult education has tended to constitute a supply rather than a demand led strategy. The subjects of the educational process have tended to be “spoken for” rather than “speaking out”. As an international movement, the embryonic Global Learners’ Network is a fundamental partner in advocating for ALE. The International Adult Learners’ Charter launched in Belém 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 national level popular pressure tends to be more effective than that exercised by professional associations.

Finally, although it might appear incongruous for a movement largely generated and maintained by UNESCO over the last sixty years, the CONFINTEA process needs to be reassumed by the Organization as one of its priorities and part of the core agenda of all its offices and institutes whether central, cluster, field or national. For developed and developing countries alike, adult learning and education should be at the core of development policy. National governments are very quick to perceive when a “commitment” is not considered high priority and for understandable reasons are swift to act accordingly. Knoll’s conclusion is rather starker. For him “(…) adult education was seen – and this has been typical of the intentions of UNESCO almost throughout – as a way of plugging humanitarian, political and social gaps, either by focusing on literacy and basic education in response to social and economic crises in developing countries, or by identifying adult education almost totally with literacy in the 1980s” (ibid.,24).

Final considerations

Whilst the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (2010, 12) deems that the role of adult education has changed and developed through time “From being seen as promoting international understanding in 1949” to being seen “as a key in the economic, political and cultural transformation of individuals, communities and societies in the 21st century” it asserts that “The continued dominance of universal primary education, whether measured by the enrolment ratios in the EFA agenda or completion rates in the MDGs, underscores the marginalisation of the youth, adult literacy and lifelong learning objectives which are vital to overall success” (ibid., 19). This would suggest that despite its heroic efforts the Confintea process has achieved limited success in establishing adult learning and education as an educational and development priority internationally and nationally. The allocation of resources for adult education in educational budgets is clear evidence of this in the majority of countries.

We suggest the need to question whether the CONFINTEA remains the most efficient advocacy tool at the global level. This requires studies which assess the impact of commitments, goals and responsibilities agreed at these periodic conferences on the implementation of adult education policy nationally. Systematic studies of this nature still have to be undertaken. However, we point to the relative absence of monitoring mechanisms as an underlying weakness of the process. At the same time we question the architecture of the conference process which has remained largely the same over the last 60 years. Does the Conference cycle remain the most efficient tool at the international level? It is important that decisions concerning the CONFINTEA process should be the result of analysis/evaluation based on evidence and not that of inertia and some rather obscure feeling that having lasted for so long CONFINTEA has become untouchable and some species of international sacred cow.

There is perhaps an underlying ambiguity which taints the CONFINTEA process. The six conferences to date which have taken place at approximately ten-year periods are essentially governmental encounters which intend both to establish a global state of the art in adult education and, on the basis of this, to project future tendencies. This could be seen as in part an academic task but, at the same time, as Knoll points out the International Conferences “are not primarily concerned with adult education as an academic discipline and do not seek to cover the entire field of adult education, but concentrate on crises that may be mitigated by practical, applied adult education”. The beginning of a new cycle would appear to present an appropriate opportunity for undertaking a profound review of CONFINTEA in the light of the strategic needs of adult learning and education worldwide.


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From time to time we republish interesting articles from our past print issues. This article by Timothy Ireland was originally published in our December issue of 2011. While still a highly relevant critique of the CONFINTEAs, it bears a strong link to our next theme issue, published in two weeks. This issue will focus on how the post-2015 development agenda is being formed, after the Millennium Development Goals and Education for All goals reach their deadlines. What kind of adult education will we need in the future for sustainable development?