Regional Conference on Literacy and Adult Education in the Arab Region: Challenges and Opportunities

Given the constant changes on the political, social and economic levels in the Arab States, adult education has become a driving force for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) implementation. There is evidence that adult education can lead to positive change in social, economic, and political spheres, as well as in the health sphere, which in turn leads to building more sustainable societies. The youth and adults who constitute the workforce need high-quality education opportunities that empower them to become active and engage in their communities. This requires national strategies and programmes built around the globally agreed upon SDGs related to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Moreover, in the midst of the digital revolution and the rapid technological change, there is need for flexible teaching and learning model, which requires drastic changes in the teaching methods and programmes related to literacy and adult education.

Over the past 5 decades, the Arab region has made significant progress in the field of literacy owing to the salient increase in school enrolment rates, political commitment and financial support to promote access to education. Despite the progress achieved, an estimated number of 50 million adults are still illiterate in the region. The figure increases if the number of those who are not literate enough to assume their responsibilities as active members in society is taken into consideration. The greatest challenge facing the Arab region is the salient increase in illiterate youth and adults and the significant school dropout rates due to the lack of education opportunities and the use of schools as temporary shelters in conflict-affected Arab States.

In this context, UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States (UNESCO Beirut), in partnership with the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), organized on 24-25 February 2020 a Regional Conference on Literacy and Adult Education in the Arab Region: Challenges and Opportunities, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in the occasion of the Arab Literacy Day.

The conference was attended by high-level personalities, including HE Jamal Bin Huwaireb, CEO of MBRF, Ms Dena Assaf, United Nations Resident Coordinator for the UAE, Dr. Hegazi Idris – Regional Program Specialist in Basic and Adult Education at UNESCO Beirut, and Mr Khaled Abdel Shafi, Director of the Regional Hub for Arab States, UNDP, Amman.

The conference aimed to showcase a modern vision of literacy and adult education within the framework of Lifelong Learning and to explore strategies for adult education and agree upon measures to fight illiteracy in the Arab region in what falls in line with the UNESCO strategy for youth and adult literacy (2020-2025).

The various panels and sessions, which brought together 35 participants from the Arab States (experts and specialists), international experts, and 250 participants from the UAE, addressed key themes, including: Achieving Sustainable Development Goals through Lifelong Learning; Adult Education from the Perspective of Continuous Learning and Lifelong Learning; The State of Adult Learning in the Arab Region; Digital Illiteracy and its Relationship to Development and Adult Education and Learning; Media and its Role in Combating Illiteracy.

Speaking at the opening of the Conference, Dr Hegazi Idris highlight UNESCO’s commitment to achieve SDG4 at the global and regional level. Idris said: “Adult education and learning has been at the heart of UNESCO’s concerns and priorities since the creation of the organization in the last century, because literacy is a human right and it is a skill that enables individuals to benefit from other rights and contribute to the development of themselves and their societies. In the field of ​​adult education, UNESCO has assumed responsibility in international coordination, capacity building and support for country-led initiatives. In spite of the efforts made by all partners in this field, the persistence of 770 million adults who do not have the skills of reading and writing is a catastrophe from an ethical point of view, in addition to that it represents a great loss at the level of human development and human productivity”.

Idris added: “In the Arab region, the number of people who do not have literacy skills is increasing, as it is estimated that there are more than  50 million illiterate people, and 6 million out of school children. These numbers are increasing with the ongoing protracted conflicts in several Arab countries”. Idris concluded: “Despite the huge global, regional and national challenges, we must remain optimistic about making fundamental changes in the concept, vision, policies, methods and practices of adult education”.

The Conference provided an opportunity to unveil the names of the winners of the Literacy Challenge 2019-2020, and to showcase their success stories in the field of Adult Education. The winners are as follows:

  • Winner of Governments Category : Al Wadi Al Jadid Governorate, Egypt
  • Winner of Institutions Category: Vodafone Egypt Foundation
  • Winners of Individual Category: Mahmoud Abbas, founder and director of the Children and Youth Association (Palestine), and Zahra bint Salem al Ofi, founder of a Volunteering Educational Project (Oman).

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