The added value of literacy and adult learning in contemporary societies: some conclusions from GRALE III

  • 21 November 2016

Literacy is quintessential for developing further skills. When literacy opportunities are developed and provided within a lifelong perspective, they are more likely to meet their purpose, establishing the base for sustainable societies. Creating opportunities for youth and adults to receive education and learning can make countries provide conditions for citizens to thrive. The third Global Report on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE III), examines the wider benefits of adult learning and education (ALE) in various areas of life, particularly in the fields of health and well-being, employment and the labour market; and social and civic and community life. The report draws on data submitted by 139 out of the 195 UNESCO Member States, with 65% of the responding countries indicating that literacy greatly impacts the quality of life. Moreover, two-thirds of the responding countries also state that literacy programmes help to develop democratic values, peaceful co-existence and solidarity in their respective country.

GRALE III provides a platform for exploring all issues pertaining to ALE, and positions literacy as a foundation of lifelong learning. It shows how poor interdepartmental collaboration prevents countries from exploring the greater benefits of ALE in various sectors, with only one-third of countries reporting that they have interdepartmental or cross-sectoral coordination bodies in place to promote ALE for personal health and well-being. The report therefore calls for greater inter-sectoral collaboration and multi-stakeholder partnerships.

The series of Global Reports on Adult Learning and Education (GRALE) is one of the main tools used to monitor and report on the implementation of ALE in UNESCO Member States. Published every three years, each successive report focuses on the progress made by countries in the five areas of action detailed in the Belém Framework for Action, agreed upon in 2009. These areas are: (1) policy; (2) governance; (3) financing; (4) participation, inclusion and equity; (5) and quality. GRALE I took stock of ALE in 2009, GRALE II published in 2013 monitored progress since 2009 and had a special focus on Rethinking Literacy as a continuum of proficiency levels.

The most recent report (GRALE III), published in September 2016, aims to support decision-makers, regional and global stakeholders to assess and analyse the progress they have made in delivering the commitments of Belém, Brazil in 2009. GRALE III will also be useful to countries to examine their respective status quo and look ahead to 2030. This report comes at a crucial time when policy-makers are making plans and policies to integrate ALE into their education systems towards achieving the 17 goals set out in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education 2015 (RALE 2015): GRALE III further offers pointers on how to strengthen the relationship between the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4), which concerns quality education and lifelong learning, and other SDGs in order to exploit inter-sectoral and cross-sectoral  benefits which would lead to high quality development on a wider scale.

Many countries reported increasing evidence that ALE has a positive impact on health and well-being, but that illiteracy is a major factor preventing ALE from having an even bigger impact. Data collected from countries revealed that there was poor inter-departmental collaboration with offices dealing with ALE, which leads to inadequate or misdirected funding. This limits the effect ALE can have on a country.

Additionally, in GRALE III, we find compelling arguments showing how ALE promotes sustainable development, healthier societies, better jobs and more active citizenship. These arguments lead us to conclude that if we sharpen and use the apparatus of promoting ALE in various contexts, and improve literacy skills, we will in return improve individuals’ capabilities and resilience, important for achieving economic growth, social and cultural development and environmental protection.

In conclusion, I have to emphasize that literacy should be recognized as a basic human right, a basis for lifelong learning that plays a crucial foundational role in the creation of sustainable, prosperous and peaceful societies. We can accelerate progress towards all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by better promoting, protecting, investing in and supporting children, youth and adults to get education opportunities, to learn and let learn, throughout their lives.


About the author: Arne Carlsen has been Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) since June 2011. His career history demonstrates a long-standing commitment to literacy, adult and continuing education.