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Lifelong Learning in a Learning Society – Making it Happen by Building Partnerships

By Manzoor Ahmed, BRAC University.


An old idea highlighted by the Faure Commission in the 1970s, has gained new relevance in the context of the knowledge economy and the information society. In a typical human life cycle in today’s world, the traditional apportioning of time for building the foundation of  knowledge and competencies, and acquiring the intellectual and technical tools of learning to the first quarter of life, has to be complemented by lifelong learning in a learning society; where all participate in and contribute to learning throughout life.


Experience and progress so far based on the restrictive view of education in the MDGs and its limited scope in EFA point to the need to rethink development as human capability enhancement. This conceptualisation emphasises people’s agency, empowerment, ability to make and exercise choices – lending momentum to promoting human rights, human dignity and just societies. The discourse on the post-2015 development agenda, globally and in countries, is an opportunity to articulate the human capability approach to development, making it the measure and criteria for selecting goals and indicators of development, and the basis for adapting and adjusting global goals to national contexts. Lifelong learning is essential to support human capability enhancement and vice versa.


Based on the premise of the pivotal role of lifelong learning for all in the learning society in the new vision of the World We Want, building a learning society has to be taken as a paramount goal, especially in developing countries. The industrial and post-industrial societies – members of OECD, for instance – have built the paraphernalia of lifelong learning and the learning society, though efforts to broaden and deepen the concept and practices has to continue.


The challenge for developing countries is to transform educational systems and institutions into elements of the learning society – learning not being confined by time, space, delivery mechanisms and credentials imposed by institutions and structures of education. Explosion of knowledge, imperatives of rapid change in society and economy, globalisation and the revolution in the technology of knowledge and information sharing have come together to make the learning society and lifelong learning both essential and eminently achievable.

The international education establishment and its counterparts in developing countries, as well as education aid providers, have consistently given short shrift to non-formal and continuing education as essential complements and supplements to formal education. This is reflected in whatever national level programmes are pursued at the country level and assistance provided from international aid providers. UNESCO headquarters in Paris has mostly ignored the work, analysis and advocacy of its own focal point for lifelong learning in Hamburg, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL).


UIL  has built an impressive case for a major thrust in adult and continuing education with functional literacy as the foundation (for the hundreds of millions who remain deprived of literacy skills) – all forming essential elements of national lifelong learning systems. UIL has continued its effort in the run-up to the 6th World Conference on Adult Education in Belem, Brazil in 2009 and in its follow-up. But there has been little reflection of this priority in EFA and the MDGs. A case in point is UNESCO’s wholly anaemic  response to illiteracy – in the way literacy is defined and  measured and the programmes that are run – which leave every one sceptical about the score card on literacy in the world when the numbers are trotted out every year. Whether this stance will change in the post-2015 era is questionable.


There is an international initiative at the Centre for Universal Education (CUE), based at the powerful U.S. think-tank – the Brookings Institution – to keep the scope of the post-2015 education agenda confined to formal school education up to lower secondary level.  It rings an alarm bell. The learning metrics project of CUE confines itself largely to formal compulsory education from preschool to the lower secondary level. Surely, it cannot be the presumption that education and learning is done with by age 15.     (See LMTF Report No. 1, Toward Universal Learning: What Every Child Should Learn, and LMTF Report No. 2, Toward Universal Learning: A Global Framework for Measuring Learning).


And what about early childhood development from birth (if not gestation) to the stage of institutional preschool at age 5 or so? The overwhelming scientific evidence about brain development and the role of social-intellectual stimulation in the first thousand days of life cast a new light on the critical role of parents and care-givers in the family and how they can be supported through parenting and adult education – especially in respect of the disadvantaged segments of society.


A multi-sectoral civil society body in Bangladesh, established in 2005 and known as the People’s Forum for MDG (PFM), has attempted to engage in the discourse on the new Global Agenda. It has put forward the case for the human capability enhancement as a prominent item in the post-2015 global development. PFM has proposed a total of 12 development goals two of which relate to education and human capacity development: i) Completion of compulsory education of acceptable quality by all children up to the age of prohibition of child labour (generally age 14); and ii) Building the learning society: All youth and adults have opportunity to participate in lifelong learning related to livelihood, work, citizenship and personal fulfilment.


Suggested targets and indicators for “Building the Learning Society” goal are shown below.



Source: PFM 2013. “A New Global Partnership: For Sustainable Human Development through Eradicating Poverty and Transforming Economies, »    Post-2015 Development Agenda based on a synthesis of position papers prepared for Bangladesh People’s Forum for MDG (PFM),” Draft, 8 July, 2013.


The proposition of building the learning society as a global development agenda has to be promoted vigorously.


Dr Manzoor Ahmed is Senior Advisor, Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh (BU-IED).



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3 Responses

  1. Birger Fredriksen

    I strongly agree with Dr. Manzoor’s call for greater attention to literacy and lifelong learning. As regards literacy, the fact that 40% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are projected to be illiterate in 2015 represents a huge missed economic growth potential, loss in family welfare, etc. How come that, despite all the research showing the multiple benefits of female literacy, so little development aid supported literacy programs over the last decade? To me, this represents a striking example of the lack of attention to using aid more strategically to increase its impact. I fear that this will continue post-2015: Political economy factors may continue to drive governments to make trade-offs favoring those demanding post-basic education while those who miss out on basic education — predominently poor and rural populations — have little political clout. And so far there is little to suggest that the global community will make a concerted effort in favor of literacy. Over the past 20 years, aid was used very effectively to promote girls education. Why so little support for second chance programs for those who missed out?

  2. Manzoor, thank you for this article in making a strong case for building a learning society. I’m sure the initatives in Bangladesh could inspire other countries. I’ve shared it with UIL mailing list on literacy and basic skills.

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