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The Learning Conference 2003

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Revising Adult Education Policy at the World Bank: Critical Views on Comparative Advantage

Peter B. Easton.

Adult and nonformal education (hereafter ANFE) – a highly diverse subsector – plays a critical role in the achievement of 'Education For All' objectives in developing countries and in the success of strategies for poverty reduction, civil society reinforcement and public health promotion. Yet the domain has been inconsistently addressed in World Bank policy and practice over recent decades, despite a relative resurgence of interest in the last five years (Lauglo, 2000).

This paper analyzes methods and initial results of an initiative undertaken to improve Bank performance in promotion of cost-effective ANFE programming and to consolidate the contributions of such programs to the achievement of Education For All and Millennium Development Goals. Data on the results and insufficiencies of donor-supported ANFE heretofore and stakeholder viewpoints regarding the comparative advantage – and disadvantage – of the World Bank in this arena are examined.

ANFE is an umbrella term covering the different types of education and training offered by a variety of social institutions outside the limits of formal schooling, though often in close complementarity with it. Literacy programs, skills training in business and industry (and in the large informal sector of the economy), public health education and adult civic education all constitute examples. Despite the diversity of the field, however, effective promotion of this complementary source of learning poses major problems of policy, standard-setting, monitoring, research and creation of effective incentive structures that must be faced in a coherent way. And though it is less institutionally uniform than formal schooling, ANFE remains a critical part of the overall 'education system'.


Adult and Nonformal Education programs condition the effectiveness of Bank- and donor-supported efforts to achieve the objectives of Education for All, Poverty Reduction, Civil Society Reinforcement and Public Health Promotion in a variety of ways:

Education For All

The goal of Education For All cannot be achieved by formal primary schooling alone in the next two decades. ANFE initiatives lend critical support and provide key complementary resources to the overall EFA strategy by providing a means for

- offering basic education and literacy programming to underserved and hard-to-serve populations;

- enlisting parents in more effective support for their children’s education and increased local funding of education;

- rendering primary schooling itself more participatory, locally-directed and effective through empowerment and training of parents and other stakeholders for school management; and

- developing complementary vocational training and local income generation activities that provide employment and knowledge application opportunities for school leavers.

At the same time, ANFE programs serve in these ways to link schools to communities and to local labor markets and economies and to mobilize additional local energies in the educational enterprise (Ahmed and Carron, 1989). They offer a way of transforming 'Education For All' into something more like 'Education By All' and of balancing the important but heavy supply-side emphasis of EFA with a greater focus on the local applications to which new knowledge can be put and the ways in which learning – or 'intellectual investment' – becomes self-directed and self-sustaining.

Poverty Reduction:

ANFE programs often constitute the best means for making local poverty reduction and economic development efforts – whether in agriculture, natural resource management, small industry or credit intermediation – more participant-driven, cost-effective and self-managed. Staff in these sectors increasingly recognize that program objectives cannot be durably attained without true local 'ownership' of initiatives and related dispositions for capacity-building – yet these are results that primary schooling alone cannot ensure. In addition, nonformal education, literacy and training efforts may be highly instrumental to accomplishment of a series of related goals:

- Technology transfer: How to disseminate innovation and ensure that technologies used in economic development are both consistent with best practice internationally and appropriate to local contexts remains a major challenge – and one that is often best addressed through effective (and participatory) nonformal training of stakeholders (Sidikou, 1994).

- Indigenous knowledge – Incorporation of existing knowledge and traditional science into development strategies in fields like agriculture and health constitutes a frontier only now being explored and a major factor in promoting both the efficiency and the level of popular acceptance of innovation. ANFE training programs constitute important media for 'inventorying' and codifying this local knowledge, often embedded in local languages to which literacy programs give voice.

- Decentralization, improved governance and local management – Effectively promoting growth with equity entails transferring responsibility for program management into local hands and reinvesting surpluses at this level in order to ensure genuine 'ownership' and sustainability of initiatives. The key variable in such strategies is locally-supervised capitalization – that is, the accumulation and reinvestment under beneficiary control of the resources (intellectual as much as financial or material) that give local actors greater control of their own future and increased margins of maneuver in building their own economies… and consolidating their own cultures (cf. Easton, et al. 1998; Belloncle, 1982).

- Economic equity – If decentralization and local management policies are to benefit the poorest or at least the mass of citizens at the local level, then means must be deployed or frameworks created so that resources, entitlements and functions 'penetrate' to their level and are not monopolized, as is only natural, by those already holding power locally: men, the upper classes and the dominant ethnic groups (WB 2002e). 'Empowering' adult and nonformal education – that is, strategies that blend new technical capacity with enhanced understanding of the stakes and options – is a prime means of achieving this end (Oxenham, et al. 2002).

- Diffuse effects of literacy and basic education – In addition, correlational studies at the macro level repeatedly suggest that literacy of parents is closely associated with health and successful schooling of children, especially girls (see Aoki, et al. 2001). Acquisition of literacy can lead to other dimensions of improved quality of life like broadened communication and more effective political participation. ANFE programs put these outcomes within the reach of motivated adults who have insufficiently benefited from formal schooling or received a low quality version of it.

In these multiple respects, therefore, adult and nonformal education programming provides critical support to poverty reduction efforts (World Bank, 2001).

Civil Society Reinforcement

In recent years, the Bank and other donors and international institutions have awoken to the central importance of social capital, institutional capacity building, the reinforcement of civil society and the perfection of local governance in ensuring growth with equity and durable local development. At least four issues in this domain are closely related to the foregoing and seem critically important to Bank policy regarding ANFE:

- Democratization and popular participation – Though social and political systems vary across the developing world, ensuring substantial citizen participation in decision-making, political choice and resource management is an emerging common denominator concern (World Bank, 2002e). It is at the same time a goal that requires learning new behaviors and acquiring new skills and creates a recurrent demand for training and adult education.

- Decentralization and local capacity building – It is increasingly recognized that effective decentralization (or, more accurately, an appropriate balance between central, regional and local functions) is a condition sine qua non of the sustainability and impact of development programs. The principle of subsidiarity – that is, the execution of decision-making and management functions at the lowest level where the requisite competence exists or can be nurtured – requires a renewed focus on the reinforcement of individual and institutional capacity at the local level (Gruksy, 2000).

- Constitution of social capital: The institutionalization of networks, associations and other means of affiliation of local actors for economic and social purposes – outside (though in cooperation with) government structures of regulation and hierarchical supervision – and the accumulation of procedural and technical knowledge in these interstices of social life have received greater attention in recent years as a crucial supportive condition for local development (Dasgupta and Serageldin, 2000). They are nurtured to a great extent by a healthy practice of continuing education and training.

- Information and knowledge management: Local actors cannot take effective economic and social initiatives in an increasingly interrelated world without good and current information on trends and conditions in their environment and without constituting, developing and managing a knowledge base for their activities.

Each of these dimensions of the reinforcement of civil society requires in turn a solid underpinning of training and continuing education.

Public Health Promotion

Public health campaigns in general, and the effort to overcome the HIV/AIDS pandemic in particular, are arenas where 'buy-in' from target populations, their acquisition of necessary knowledge and skills and their active participation in eradication efforts are absolutely essential. Experience demonstrates that provision of information by itself, though one vital function of both formal schooling and ANFE programming, is not sufficient: those affected must 'take charge' (Okonmah, 2000; World Bank, 2002a, 2002d, 2002f). ANFE initiatives – and especially those already linked to empowering outcomes in poverty reduction and civil society reinforcement – provide favorable venues for this key evolution in the public health effort.

Cross-cutting concerns

The close relationships among the different domains of ANFE impact cited above bring out one additional key characteristic or common denominator: ANFE programs typically constitute the means not just for upgrading technical capacities and development-relevant knowledge of those no longer (or not yet) in school – which, at any given moment, is the majority of the population – but also provide avenues for 'democratizing' the work and ensuring effective local participation in multiple sectors of local development. As such, they represent the subsector of the overall education system that maintains the most substantial bridges and linkages with its socio-economic environment and that can perhaps best help the institutions of schooling overcome their proverbial isolation.


Even a very intelligent and attentive analysis of the current situation and support needs of ANFE programs and of their potentials for contribution to EFA, to poverty reduction, to improved public health and to strengthening civil society does not necessarily indicate what role the Bank itself should play in this arena, given its own particularities and sources of comparative advantage.

A process of in-depth consultation with Bank staff, development agency partners and field stakeholders to be initiated in January 2003 will furnish critical input and viewpoints regarding the particular roles that the World Bank and other major international agencies should – and should not – play in developing the capacity-building potentials of ANFE programs. The balance of the paper will be devoted to presentation and analysis of these viewpoints.


Peter B. Easton  (United States)
Associate Professor
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
College of Education Florida State University

Peter Easton teaches in the graduate program of Adult Education at Florida State University and has been working for over 30 years in educational planning in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.

  • Adult education
  • Capacity building
  • Literacy
  • Developing nations

(30 min Conference Paper, English)