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‘Bridging the digital divide will help us meet the learning needs of the poor and vulnerable’

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© UNESCO
1 February 2021

Ms Rudo Mabel Chitiga, former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises of Zimbabwe, joined the Governing Board of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) in November 2020. Read our interview with her and learn about the challenges the African region faces in making lifelong learning a reality – and the support UIL can offer.

What is the state of lifelong learning in your region?

In the African region, lifelong learning is recognized as an integral part of inclusive education and Education for Sustainable Development. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Education and Learning recognizes lifelong education and adult distance education as priorities. Community development and extension programmes are considered the main delivery channels. 

Lifelong learning is also a key strategy for empowering women as they gain livelihood and other necessary skills. While each country in the region has its own priorities and programmes, areas of cooperation between countries include climate change awareness and sexual and reproductive health rights.

Local authorities of cities and towns play a key role in the delivery of adult education, while non-governmental organizations are the key providers of lifelong learning. With the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts have shifted to the use of digital technology to deliver learning. There is a risk that many vulnerable groups have been excluded from learning as a result of the pandemic.

What are the main challenges in implementing lifelong learning?

Departments of adult education and literacy in ministries of education are often the least funded; this results in them concentrating on policy issues without a full appreciation of what is happening on the ground. The lack of funding from governments and their reliance on non-governmental sources of funding raises concerns about sustainability. In addition, vulnerable people, especially in rural and remote areas, may be excluded from mainstream national development due to lack of government funding. The COVID-19 pandemic has further excluded vulnerable people form learning. There is also a growing trend of most jobs being found in the informal sector. This requires new skillsets of self-management, well-being awareness and entrepreneurial skills, including online marketing. Access to these skills is not always universal, particularly to people in rural and remote areas.

How can the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) offer support in tackling these challenges?

The Sustainable Development Goals emphasize that no one should be left behind. UIL has experience in providing technical support in strategy development, policy development and advocacy for lifelong learning. There is an opportunity to assist in bridging the digital divide and getting greater programming and resource allocation to the learning needs of the poor and vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, out-of-school young persons, and women in both urban and rural areas.

UIL could also assist countries to develop strategies for the coordination of lifelong programmes and providers to facilitate and enable assessment of the effort and impact of the sector on poverty reduction, community development, and women’s empowerment.