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close this bookMeeting Basic Learning Needs: A Vision for the 1990s (UNICEF - UNDP - UNESCO - WB - WCEFA, 1990, 170 p.)
close this folder1. Global Challenges and Human Development
View the documentA. Introduction
Open this folder and view contentsB. The Global Challenges
View the documentC. Constraints on Human Development
View the documentD. The Role of Human Development in Addressing Global Challenges
View the documentE. Defining Basic Learning Needs
View the documentF. New Opportunities for Human Development

C. Constraints on Human Development

The global challenges impose constraints on human development in several ways. First, they create a competition for resources to meet various social needs, all of which appear urgent and legitimate. There is a need to provide the poor and disadvantaged with basic subsistence needs, to remove the sources of social dislocation and disadvantage, to protect the environment, and to control excessive population growth. All these demands on a nation’s public and private resources can, and sometimes do, take precedence over the learning needs of the population.

In addition, the austerity measures adopted by governments suffering from inadequate financial resources can cause disproportionate cutbacks in societal development efforts. The education sector, because it produces knowledge and skills, and the health sector, because it protects and extends the value of the population, are critical for development. However, government spending on health and education has declined - in relative and, in some cases, absolute terms - in many of the world’s poorest countries. In twenty-five out of thirty African and Latin American countries for which comparable data are available, the share of the government budget going to health and education has declined in the 1980s. In the world’s thirty-seven poorest countries, spending per capita on health has declined 50 percent since 1980, while per pupil expenditure on education has declined by 25 percent. In this context, the momentum of many societal development efforts has stalled, leaving hundreds of millions of people in conditions of absolute poverty. They are without adequate nutrition to sustain learning or labour, susceptible to diseases that could be controlled, unable to read or write, and so denied access to the very knowledge and skills that could improve the quality of their lives dramatically.

Economic development does not automatically increase the quantity or quality of human development. A society must decide for itself to devote resources to education and other learning opportunities. The development experiences in the 1980s have demonstrated that social advancement is a fragile process. Without sustained efforts to improve the circumstances of the poorest members of society, overall development gains are undermined. The enormity of the global challenges and the differences among rates of national and individual development now threaten further deterioration in the quality and equity of life chances. Unless dramatic and effective steps are taken to address these threats, the future may bring even greater poverty and growing polarization within and among societies. A world in which only an elite few will live in health, safety, and prosperity must be avoided; all people deserve the opportunity to fulfill their human potential and contribute to shaping their society. In times of economic decline, austerity, and competing social and economic demands, basic education must be protected through overt measures. Otherwise, generations will be lost and whole segments of the population excluded from the development process.

The phenomenal expansion of the national education systems since the 1950s has continually increased the number and proportion of children in school and of adults with basic literacy skills. However, the absolute number of out-of-school children and youth and of illiterate adults has also increased dramatically in the past thirty years. Today, more than one-quarter of all adults still can neither read nor write (see Table 1). The more than 105 million children who are not in school mean adult illiteracy will remain a common problem into the next century.

The difficulty of combating nonschooling and illiteracy is compounded by other problems. Many students drop out before completing their primary schooling; others complete school but fail to acquire the necessary learning. In addition, whatever their previous formal education, significant parts of the adult population have yet to acquire the basic knowledge and life skills that, in addition to literacy, would improve the quality of their lives at home, in their communities, and in support of their nations.

Table 1 - Illiteracy Rates by Region (Estimates and Projections)


No. denotes number of illiterates of both sexes, aged 15+ (in millions)
Rates denotes rates of illiteracy among both sexes, aged 15+ (in percentages)
Fem. denotes females as a percentage of total illiterates aged 15+

a. Data for Arab States also included in Africa and Asia.

b. Data for least developed countries also included in regions.

Source: UNESCO; projections based on 1982 assessment.

The critical problem facing governments and development agencies today is how to specify and meet the basic learning needs of all. These needs cannot be met by a simple quantitative expansion of educational programmes as they now exist although such aggregate expansion may be part of the solution in certain countries. Despite the efforts and real accomplishments of previous decades, more and more people have needs for basic learning that are not being met. Continuing human development means that future generations of children, youth, and adults will need greater access to and continued participation in primary schooling and equivalent learning opportunities that provide an acceptable level of learning attainment.

Given the number of children not currently enrolled in any school at all, it is imperative that each country identify these out-of-school populations, determine why they are not participating, and adapt or design appropriate educational programmes to their specific conditions and needs. In general, those out-of-school are likely to be female, to be poor, to be ethnic or linguistic minorities, and to live in urban or peri-urban slums and remote rural locations. To meet the basic learning needs of such groups, formal education and other educational interventions must deal with the realities of their life circumstances and stress effective measures to attract and maintain their participation and to assure their learning achievement.

Box 1.01. Street Children in Brazil

For seven million children, the streets of Brazil’s cities and towns are workplace and even home. The youngsters are everywhere: shining shoes, washing taxis, guarding parked cars, sorting through garbage for plastic bottles. But people would rather not acknowledge their existence and the authorities treat them as delinquents or misfits.

Of course, the problems of street children are not confined to Brazil: throughout Latin America’s middle-income societies the number of children living on the street continues to increase. In fact, it is estimated that half the world’s 90 million street children live in Latin America, but they appear wherever the world’s cities bulge with new immigrants from rural areas.

Throughout Brazil, hundreds of community-based organizations sponsor programmes to reach out to street children and try to find ways to helping them earn a living and, at the same time, mature intellectually, socially, and emotionally. In 1981, UNICEF, the government of Brazil, and the National Child Welfare Foundation began the Brazil Street Children Project to pool the knowledge gained by these diverse programmes; they also hoped to increase public awareness of the children by broadening community involvement and making government responses more effective.

The 70 programs directly involved in the joint project have different philosophies, objectives and activities, but they share several features: each seeks to gain the child’s confidence and to build a solid bond between child and programme, providing meals, income generating activities, health care, and discussion groups. Some programmes also offer more formal training or employment. From their inception, the educational methods being used have placed the primary emphasis on the child as decision-maker.

A 1986 evaluation of the Brazil Street Children Project, using such indicators as social skills, career skills, personal growth, and moral values, found that programmes are most successful when they respond to the children’s own needs, the first of which is for income. For example, the Salau do Encontro in the city Betim, Minas Gerais, produces a complete line of home furnishing and employs more than 350 young people. The production process is labour-intensive and emphasizes the use of local resources. In addition to manufacturing the products, young people actually manage the enterprise Salao do Encontro tries to build self-esteem among street children, believing that confidence creates a secure foundation for personal growth and development.

The nature and scope of the global challenges, and the effects of economic decline and fiscal constraints on investment in the social sectors, mean that a «business-as-usual» approach to basic education policies and programmes simply will not work. In the long-term, a failure to take decisive action to broaden the range, resources and suppliers of basic education opportunities would only deepen the present shortcomings and disparities, resulting in growing inequities in access to effective learning opportunities, increasing numbers of illiterate adults, and a growing population of youth and adults with inadequate knowledge and skills. Expanded forms of basic education for children, youth, and adults, and innovative modes of delivery and social mobilization to meet the broader scope implied by the term “basic learning” will be required, together with resources sufficient to reverse the declines that are occurring in some countries and to promote real improvements in all countries.