Fundamental Education : A Pioneer Concept - Jens Boel explains why

16 November 2015

Launching, upon a global scale, an attack upon ignorance ! Nothing less was requested from UNESCO, right from its creation in 1946. How could it achieve this goal ? By helping those Member States who wished to ensure at least a minimal fundamental education for their population as a whole. And how could the impact of such an effort be measured, given the fact that the objectives were ethical rather than purely technical ? By tracing the absorbing history of a now almost forgotten concept – fundamental education – Jens Boel, UNESCO’s Chief Archivist, shows that figures don’t tell the full truth.

“Three-fourths of the world’s people today are under-housed, under-clothed, under-fed, illiterate. Now as long as this continues to be true we have a very poor foundation upon which to build the world”. This quote from the Chinese educator Yan Yangchu, otherwise known as James Yen, describes very well the context which gave birth to the Fundamental Education programme, adopted by UNESCO right from its creation in 1946.

From the outset UNESCO had chosen a holistic approach to education. The first of the 12 Monographs on Fundamental Education, published in 1949, stressed that “the aim of all education is to help men and women to live fuller and happier lives”. UNESCO’s vision was broad, global, and aimed to change living conditions through education in a wide range of areas, such as health education, domestic and vocational skills, knowledge and understanding of the human environment – including economic and social organization, law and government – and what was called “the development of qualities to fit men to live in the modern world, such as personal judgment and initiative, freedom from fear and superstition, sympathy and understanding for different points of view”. Altogether a long way from a simple literacy campaign.

Iraq, 1958. Technical assistance in the Center for Fundamental Education in Abu Shraib. © UNESCO/Reiman

However, over the years, this very large definition of fundamental education led to conflicts with the United Nations in New York and to tensions with other UN agencies, in particular the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), who occasionally had concerns with regard to UNESCO’s activities in relation to their specific fields of competence. The UN’s concerns on ‘fundamental education’ related to the perceived risk of the term and approach becoming all-inclusive, going well beyond the field of education.

In spite of these tensions, cooperation among UN agencies in the field of fundamental education was groundbreaking within the United Nations. As a result, UNESCO fundamental education projects would become integrated parts of the UN Technical Assistance programme.

Internal criticism among UNESCO’s Member States finally led to a change. Some countries found that fundamental education in practice was intended only for economically underdeveloped countries, although it should have been directed toward the underprivileged all over the world, in both developed and less developed countries. In response to these critical voices, the General Conference decided, in 1958, to abandon the term “fundamental education” for the reason that the term had led to confusion.

So what did UNESCO do during the decade where it used the concept of fundamental education ? Its activities spread over 62 countries, corresponding to three fourths of Member States at the time. In the following I shall just highlight a few points.

When people get involved

(Marbial, a class in agriculture, 1955. © UNESCO/Patrick Morin)

A resolution of the first session of the General Conference in 1946 requested the Secretariat to immediately start working on fundamental education activities.

The most high-profile fundamental education activity on the ground was the pilot project, which was launched in the Marbial Valley in 1947, a poor rural area in the southern part of Haiti. It was soon followed by others, in particular in East Africa, India and China. Furthermore, between 1949 and 1951, 34 “associate projects » were launched in 15 countries. In order to share experiences between countries, a quarterly bulletin and annotated bibliographies were created and published.

The challenge of measuring impact was present within the Fundamental Education program from the outset. At the beginning of 1954 UNESCO sent an expert to Haiti to evaluate this project and its results. After his first month of mission, the expert expressed his skepticism and wrote in a report: “I am a bit worried that there will not be many results to study and evaluate”. In an accompanying letter he observed that in spite of the good intentions of the twenty trainers and teachers working at the project, around them life had not changed since the mission of Alfred Métraux in 1947, when the outstanding Swiss anthropologist led the Marbial Valley anthropological survey that was planned to be the basis of the pilot project.

In follow up to this report, the head of the Fundamental Education Division wrote an internal note to his director in which he emphasized that it was of course difficult to assess intangible things and that it would be incorrect to assess five years of fundamental education only by such results as can be measured statistically.

Voices coming from people concerned by the activities back up this point of view. We do not have many written personal accounts, but I find that of Ms Vissière particularly interesting. This widow from Marbial learnt to read and write in 1948, at the age of 42, and this is what she tells in 1953 :

“When I am required to put my signature on any document, needless to say that I no longer settle for drawing a cross, and when the opportunity arises to read documents related to my possessions, I do not resort to friends to whom I pay tips when begging alone won’t suffice. At the speculator’s, I now know to inspect the weight of the coffee I sell; at the shopkeeper’s, I am able to calculate the currency to be paid and received.

In truth with all these open horizons before me, I feel happy...

I remember in fact with what shame, at the time when I could not read, I had to pay one dollar to Mister Ti-Pierre for the search of a property deed among other no less important documents. But today it is me who could be in a position to exploit my illiterate compatriots.

At present I am an ardent supporter of the literacy campaign. Having become a teacher of adults, thanks to my relentless efforts, I encourage people in my area to educate themselves. I often tell them that it was at the age of 42 that I learnt to read; it is therefore five years ago that I could not grasp how much knowing to read and write is the key that allows access to notions of a good life. “

This is of course just one single testimony, but it does embody a strong personal experience, which corresponds very well with what UNESCO’s Fundamental Education program aimed at achieving: helping people to live “fuller and happier lives”.

The extent to which people concerned were aware of the value of the programme can be illustrated by this episode: In 1949 the peasants of Marbial heard rumors that UNESCO might withdraw from the Valley (in view of limited prospects for tangible results). A number of them came together and demonstrated with signs saying “Kêbé l’Inesko Fò!” – which in Creole means “Support UNESCO hard!“ It can well be argued that it was the local population who managed to keep the project, at least for some years, by fighting, so to speak, against statistics and their defenders.

(Photo published in The UNESCO Courier, June 1949)


An additional dimension of the problems of fundamental education projects was conflicting analyses and ways of thinking within UNESCO itself. The Head of the Fundamental Education activity in India, Emily Hatch, wrote in 1951 in a statement that sounds like a cry of despair :

“We are busy all the time on activities we know are somewhat helpful. We could […] write reports about them as most people do, making the brightest side shine a little. Too many are content with this, with the result that the real issues are not faced at all, and the work is superficial. India so needs some honestly solid work, we feel we should make a fearless stab at trying to do some. Basic to all the superficiality of the long hours of work half-way schemes to meet needs, is the vagueness of the how and why of the work. We have the feeling people are working blind-folded. And worse they don’t realize it. How can they, when almost anyone’s opinion is as good as another’s, no one really know the facts. They all think they know, especially those who fly over villages in an airplane or those who hastily scan a few records from some village official.”

Broken dreams

1961, Patzcuaro, Mexico. René Maheu, Acting Director-General of UNESCO, and members of the special (UNESCO, FAO, WHO, ILO) during a visit to the school of Isla de la Pacanda, established as part of CREFAL's programme. © UNESCO/Avales

In addition to the controversies within the UN system and within the UNESCO Secretariat itself, there were also problems for the Fundamental Education programme in relation to Member States. The following is an example.

In 1950 the Executive Board endorsed an ambitious fundamental education program, developed by the Secretariat. At the heart of this program was a proposal to establish six regional centers in the main regions of the world for the training of leaders, the preparation of material and the development of methods to fight “illiteracy and its attendant evils”. The same year the first of these centres had been created in Patzcuaro, Mexico. Hundreds of trainers went through this centre, including ten Pakistani officials on UNESCO fellowships in 1954.

The Secretariat submitted, in 1951, a plan to the General Conference to carry out this programme. This programme was planned to last 12 years and depended on raising the budget of 20 million USD, which at the time represented a very considerable amount. However, the General Conference limited drastically the ambitions of the Secretariat. It accepted to maintain the centre in Patzcuaro and the creation of a second centre, in 1952, in Sirs-el-Layyan, Egypt, with a total programme budget of 235,000 USD.

UNESCO’s high-flying dreams of providing fundamental education to all children, men and women in the world were reduced to more sporadic actions.

Among these, I would like to mention the literacy campaign in Indonesia, between 1946 and 1958. It illustrates at the same time the successes and the failures of UNESCO’s actions. The UNESCO project was integrated in a large national campaign, which resulted in 900,000 new literates each year. This was an indisputable achievement, highlighted in official Indonesian reports. But toward the end of the period it becomes clear that 40 percent of the newly literates would actually lose their new knowledge because they did not use it. This points to the fact that a very high percentage of people who may have seen an improvement in their life situation would reverse to their prior state – or worse – if there were no adequate follow up actions to the initial projects. In the field UNESCO has never acted alone. It has always interacted with and even integrated national programmes; national policies have been decisive for successes and shortcomings.

A political victory

What has been the impact of the Fundamental Education programme? There is a lot of quantitative data coming from various fundamental education projects, which includes the number of teachers and trainers trained, new literates, community centers, new crops introduced, handicraft production, reduction of victims of diseases, etc. To some extent these developments can clearly be identified as results of the projects and sometimes even directly related to UNESCO’s involvement. However, these are merely outcomes of activities, while the real evaluation of impact should relate to the overall purpose of fundamental education as a community approach enabling people to live “fuller and happier lives”. How can progress towards this purpose be measured?

In my view any attempt to answer this question should keep in mind that the real ‘raison d’être’ of UNESCO is to serve as a tool for changing the world and our ways of living together. UNESCO is working for a better world, a kind of ‘small utopia’, where all human beings participate fully in societies. In that sense education is an ethical objective as much as a technical one. “Fundamental education” is a concept that can characterize UNESCO’s global mission, in a similar way as the broad concepts of “A Culture of Peace” and “A New Humanism”. Measuring impact and progress toward attaining such global goals remains a major challenge.

The political impact is probably the most important. UNESCO had to struggle to convince both Member States and the United Nations that education is an essential development tool. The fight was particularly important at the time when formerly colonized countries gained independence, in particular in Africa. UNESCO’s work on fundamental education was a decisive element in convincing the United Nations to consider education as an essential tool for development. 

(Photo published in the first issue of The UNESCO Courier, February, 1948)
(Photo published in the first issue of The UNESCO Courier, February, 1948)

This gave UNESCO a head start when development issues became top priority for the UN in the 1960s and 1970s – a process during which UNESCO achieved a leading international role in the field of education, receiving very substantial funding, in particular from United Nations’ Development Project (UNDP), but also from the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and other UN agencies.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a reminder that UNESCO has won a political victory: education has been recognized as a fundamental human right; gender equality in access to education is high on the agenda; inclusive education is in focus. The ideas of fundamental education, developed and implemented by UNESCO during the late 1940s and in the 1950s constitute an integrated part of the post-2015 development agenda of the United Nations. 

Jens Boel

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J. Boel is a Danish historian who has directed the UNESCO Archives since 1995. He participated in the conference Making a Difference: Seventy Years of UNESCO Actions, which took place at the Organization’s headquarters on 28 and 29 October 2015. At this conference he presented a paper on “UNESCO’s Fundamental Education Program 1946-1958 : Vision, Actions and Impact“ of which this article is an extract. The full text will be published in February 2016, in the book A History of UNESCO: Global Actions and Impacts, edited by Poul Duedahl.

His research is part of the project Global History of UNESCO, which since 2013 has been funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research.