Is Non-Formal Education in Latin America Good for the Poor?

Peter Redvers-Lee

Vanderbilt University

Non-formal education is considered a significant avenue of learning for many people in Latin America and the Caribbean. This paper gives an overview of education in the region today and describes the history and development of non-formal education. Reasons for the importance and growth of non-formal education are given and the paper then discusses the role and impact of non-formal education in the formation of human capital. Particular attention is given to non-formal education and the poor. The methodology for measuring human capital has meant the neglect of contributions made by non-formal education. In addition, these contributions have often been contrary to expectations.

Non-formal education is often offered up as a panacea for many of the ills afflicting Latin America and the Caribbean. But what, if anything, does this avenue of education contribute to the people of the region?  In terms of disparities in wealth, Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the most unequal regions in the world. In addition to income inequality, rates of poverty are high and liberalization of economies has not significantly changed this fact. In 1993, 156 million people were living in poverty, and 69 million of these people were living in extreme poverty (World Bank, 2000). While the percentage of poor households did not change much from 1970 to 1994 – it remained steady at about 40 percent — the absolute number of poor people did grow. The most startling change, however, was the sharp increase in the number of young people below the age of 15. This demographic group tripled from 1950 to 1990, growing from 66 million to 157 million children (World Bank, 2000).

The growing number of young people means that the relationship between poverty, inequality, and education now has particular immediacy. This has not gone unrecognized by political leaders in Latin America and the link between poverty and education was addressed explicitly at the Santiago Summit in 1998 (Reimers, 2000).

The World Bank described this sea change as profound and the agenda as one of some ambition. To the leadership of Latin America and the Caribbean, improving education is indispensable to social change, economic progress, and poverty reduction. “Three interrelated social goals drive government investment in education in LAC countries: providing a skilled and flexible workforce in the interest of economic growth, fostering social cohesion and promoting democracy, and reducing social inequalities and poverty” (World Bank, 2000, p.9).

The World Bank, in the same report, identified a number of interrelated demands on the educational systems of Latin America. One of these demands was an outcome of globalization. Latin American and Caribbean countries need more skilled workers, and these better-educated workers are receiving higher pay.

The disparities in attainment of skills have shown their consequences most clearly in the private rates of return to education. Those with higher levels of education (skilled workers) are in higher demand and have seen their incomes increase in the last decade (Reimers, 2000). The earnings of unskilled workers, on the other hand, fell between 1990 and 1994 according to the World Bank.  In the developing economies of the region, those without education are becoming even more marginalized.

The State of Education in Latin America

Education in Latin America and the Caribbean is perpetuating and contributing to the unequal social stratification (Reimers, 2000).  Poor children do not have the same access to schooling that their wealthier cohorts do. “Inequality in access to education, school readiness, school attendance, educational environments, and learning outcomes still pervade education in the region” (World Bank, 2000, p.36).

Children in rural areas who are poor have an added burden. They spend more time in domestic labor and at work and have less time for school than their urban counterparts. To compound their difficulties, they are often faced with an inadequate supply of schools. Students have to migrate to attend school.

Children in indigenous populations share the same indignities. In addition, they face cultural and language differences that are often ignored by governments and schools. As a consequence, they suffer even higher dropout rates than their poor and rural companions. (World Bank, 2000).

Repetition and dropout rates for many children in Latin America are a serious problem. “Poor children in most LAC countries do enroll in first grade, but most drop out before completing their basic education” (World Bank, 2000, p.39).

In addition to these problems, children from all sectors of society face quality problems in the schools. The school environment is often not encouraging to learning. Facilities are bad, there are shortages of materials and textbooks, and not much time is spent teaching. In many areas, especially rural school districts, there are high rates of teacher and student absenteeism. The quality of teaching is often low and little direction and purpose is offered students. In many countries the curricula is obsolete (Reimers, 2000).

In the 1970s, there was a growing and unmet expectation for equal access to education as it was seen as a means by which people could advance economically, socially, and politically (Waggoner & Waggoner, 1974). By end of the century, the World Bank could state that access to education had, in fact, widened; 85 percent of primary school-aged children are enrolled in primary school and the median years of educational attainment have risen rapidly for most countries in the region.

Primary school enrollments are nearly universal, but completion rates vary. Secondary enrollments are up, but also vary. Gender differences in access are disappearing, but they still persist in rural areas and in indigenous communities.

Most astonishing, however, are the comparisons with Africa and the industrialized countries. The gap in performance and competitiveness between OECD countries and those of Latin America and the Caribbean is growing quickly. “Education is not yet fulfilling its potential to improve social mobility. Indeed, the probability that poor children will complete basic schooling is lower in LAC than in some much poorer countries of Africa” (World Bank, 2000, p.10).

Reimers (2000) suggests that the commitment to education in the region has been one of quality rather than of equity and access. “Future efforts should aim at alternative models of education that can effectively provide the opportunities to acquire in school the cultural and social capital that more privileged children acquire at home and in their communities” (Reimers, 2000, p.56).

The Development of Non-formal Education in Latin America

Given the persistence of inequality in access to schooling over most of the last century, it is not surprising that many have looked outside of formal schooling for an alternative. However, non-formal schooling has deeper roots in the region, with beginnings that stretch back to the conquest and colonization of the continent. “In Latin America non-formal education activities are characterized by an extended history that involves sometimes several decades and at other times several centuries” (La Belle, 1976, p.1).

The Roman Catholic Church in Latin America was the first to create schools and universities, and these were exclusively for the colonialists. Education for the indigenous and slave populations was non-existent. At the very most, it was non-formal education. With independence, schools became part of centrally managed bureaucracies and access remained for the most part with the wealthy and the elite (Waggoner & Waggoner, 1974).

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, certain aspects of non-formal education in the region were politicized largely as a response to the unequal opportunities for education and as a response to the dictatorial governments of the time. Paulo Freire, the most well known of the proponents of what is now called popular education, spread the principles worldwide with the publication of his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  “Although the liberationists may or may not be providing convincing arguments, their influence has been considerable at both the popular and the policy-making levels in Latin America” (La Belle, 1976, p.26).

Carron and Carr-Hill, writing for UNESCO in the early 1990s, document the proliferation of non-formal education. “Increasingly, though, non-formal education has come to be regarded as important for its own sake, with growing awareness that the school is no longer capable of satisfying a whole series of increasingly diversified educational needs” (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991, p.1). Non-formal education has, thus, had a long a well-established history in the region.

What is Non-formal Education?

Definitions of non-formal education are difficult as the processes involved are often substitutes, complements, or in competition with formal education. In addition, not much is known about the different types and who participates in non-formal education (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991). The process is often defined by what it is not, mainly that it is everything that is not formal education.

The wide net of this definition was given some parameter by Coombs, Prosser, and Ahmed (as cited in Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991) when they suggested that the educational process should be divided into three categories. Formal education is institutionalized, chronological, and hierarchical. It starts with primary school and runs through to the university level. Non-formal education falls outside of this system and, within the process, a clientele can be identified and there are objectives to the teaching. Informal education makes up the rest. It is “the life-long process by which every person acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes, and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment” (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991, p.6).  La Belle refined this definition and suggested that the three divisions should rather be seen as a matrix. This definition allows each division to share characteristics with the others. (La Belle, 1976).

A case study of Argentina, discussed by Carron and Carr-Hill at length, offers the clearest description of what constitutes non-formal education:

“… there are varied activities organized by many different institutions and groups taking different forms: short classroom courses, workshops or multimedia learning processes. They cover a range of subject matter, including, for example: basic literacy, theatre, cultural subjects, home economics, technical and vocational skills, computer skills and foreign languages. The users are predominantly adults who accommodate their learning time to their normal activities. The syllabus and organization of time are more varied than in formal education, ranging from night courses to intensive seminars during weekends and holiday periods. These activities take place in very different premises: work places, union and communal buildings, and private dwellings. They can either be isolated affairs lasting only a short time or take the form of experiences spread over a number of years.” (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991, pp.9-10)

Does Non-Formal Education Contribute to Human Capital?

Education has for decades been judged by economists examining the impact of the process on the development of human capital (Schultz, 1962; Becker, 1993). The impact of human capital accumulation on economic development has been an important consequence of this analysis (OECD, 1998). Recently, an added dimension has been the contribution of education to social capital and the relationship between both forms of capital (Coleman, 1998; OECD, 2001).

The literature on formal education as the wellspring of human capital is vast and includes countless empirical studies of rates of return at both the private and public level. No Latin American or Caribbean country, region, city, or state has been spared. In fact, investment in human capital is now regarded as essential for countries that want to promote economic prosperity and employment growth (OECD, 1998).

The onward march of the human capital story does not end here. Since the writings of Schultz and Becker, the benefits of human capital have expanded to include those outside the realm of economics.[1] This domain has expanded to such an extent that the OECD could write in 1998: “Given the complex set of expectations and objectives associated with human capital investment, it is important to see human capital as a multi-faceted set of characteristics, and investments and their potential results as being equally heterogeneous” (OECD, 1998, p.9).

This kitchen sink approach is too broad. Rather, a narrower definition offered by the OECD is more acceptable. This confines the benefits of education to economies as the means by which human capital is developed, maintained, and appreciated. In this narrower definition, human capital is: “The knowledge, skills, and competences and other attributes embodied in individuals that are relevant to economic activity.” (OECD 1998 p. 9). Human capital makes people productive in their work; it allows them to invent new technologies and perfect older ones, and most of all it helps them get employment and stay employed. In addition, it can be added to or it can atrophy and many influences act on its formation.

The accurate measurement of human capital has long been a problem. The concept includes general skills as well as intellectual knowledge (OECD, 1998). These competencies and skills are not just work related; they can also be of benefit on a personal level. The acquisition of human capital is, thus, an investment as well as consumption good.

The measurement problems arise when attempts are made to quantify human capital. It is often measured as completed years of schooling and on returns to schooling in the form of earnings. “A preoccupation with quantitative measures of participation, especially in formal education, neglects learning, knowledge and skills as such – which knowledge and skills to promote, under which conditions” (OECD, 1998, p.10). This narrow focus on completed years of education neglects many issues central to the acquisition of human capital. It takes no account of the depreciation and appreciation of skills and competencies and ignores much of what is learned through non-formal and informal education.

To these criticisms, the OECD would add: “The degree to which settings of different types encourage the creation and use of human capital depends to a large extent on specific features of each country such as the way in which education and training are organized and the internal demand for skills” (OECD, 1998, p.12).  Thus measuring human capital accumulation is a tricky task and the multi-faceted nature of the process, one that includes the “complex set of human attributes,” needs to be addressed.

“Educational attainment will continue to be used widely because it continues to be the most extensively available indicator of human capital stock in a wide range of different data sources, and because it is positively correlated with directly measured skills and with wages. However, direct skill measures provide a more accurate measure of human capital at different points in the life-cycle – one which better reflects learning, training and skill attrition throughout life” (OECD, 1998, p.30).

This is an important issue for Latin America and the Caribbean as non-formal education has, rightly or wrongly, assumed an important role. Non-formal education has been given short shrift in the equations measuring human capital accumulation. The question remains to be answered: What does non-formal education in Latin America and the Caribbean contribute to human capital? The question is more clearly answered by considering the different types of human capital first proposed by Becker. In his initial postulations he suggested that human capital consisted of two types: general and specific. General human capital covers basic math skills and literacy. Specific human capital covers all those skills that involve technical knowledge and competency. Firms, Becker says, will pay to educate people in specific forms but not in general forms of human capital (Becker, 1993). Thus, a firm will teach someone how to run a machine specific to that company’s plant, but they will not teach the employee numeracy. It appears that learning just this facility is a skill supposedly taught in formal education. But these are also skills of distinction people learn throughout their lives. These are also skills, according to Carron and Carr-Hill (1991) that people learn through non-formal education.

They found that most participants in non-formal education were young, in the 15- to 24-year-old age group, and most were involved in non-formal education immediately after the completion of their formal education. Thus, those who benefited most had already had some education, putting somewhat of a damper on the claim that non-formal education is an elixir for the marginalized.

Allied to these great expectations, is the belief that non-formal education is of more significance in the educational process in less developed countries. Carron and Carr-Hill, expecting to find more non-formal education in developing countries, in fact found the opposite. The poorest developing countries had the least non-formal education, while developing countries had “flourishing” systems of non-formal education. There was a positive correlation between countries rates of enrollment in primary school and enrollment in non-formal education. (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991).

Their conclusion was that high levels of formal education generated a higher demand for non-formal education. Non-formal education “is vulnerable in countries with low levels of socioeconomic development.” (Carron & Carr-Hill, p.12). To this conclusion they added that non-formal education was a complement to formal education and where that education was inadequate, it had the most chance of developing.

Non-formal education is not nonexistent in less developed countries. Rather, Carron and Carr-Hill found that as the formal school systems of a country developed so too did the non-formal response. In less developed countries, non-formal education provides basic education. In more developed countries the focus shifted to cultural and vocational training. This would suggest strongly that as general human capital develops in a country, so do the mechanisms of supplementing that capital through an additional accumulation of knowledge through non-formal education. Acquiring human capital appears to be a compounding process, helped along in many instances by non-formal education.

The Levels of Non-formal Education

Carron and Carr-Hill identified four levels of non-formal education. These are paranormal education, popular education, education for personal development, and professional training. Each level serves different needs and clients, and the organizations supplying the education are different and have different relationships with formal education.

Paranormal education is a substitute for fulltime schooling. It is essentially a second chance for those who didn’t benefit from the formal school system. In this regard, it can be seen as a very important stopgap for the educational failings of many Latin American and Caribbean countries. In this case, non-formal education is making up for the inequities in education in the region.

In most cases these programs involved literacy projects and attempts at distance learning. In the case of Argentina, this covered all levels of education. Private tutoring was a large segment of this sector and it was usually a way for elite and middle class parents to maintain a competitive edge for their children. This is certainly a case of building general human capital. And it is certainly not an expected outcome for those who trumpet non-formal education as means of helping the poor.

The level of most importance for marginal groups is popular education, the pedagogy of “conscientisizing” the poor (Freire, 1970). It includes adult literacy, co-operative training, political mobilization, and community development projects. In fact, it is defined largely by its political advocacy. “For almost 40 years, ‘popular education’ in Latin America has played a major role in the struggle of grassroots organizations to bring about social change” (Kane, 2001 p.7).

The organizations involved in popular education are numerous. They include voluntary organizations, churches, political parties, non-governmental organizations, and socio-cultural associations. However, the intensity of commitment to popular education varies greatly by country.  “The vitality of popular education activities seems to depend very much on the type of society and on the historical moment of its evolution” (Carron and Carr-Hill, 1991, p.24). The results of popular education have often been unexpected. La Belle (1976) has argued convincingly that popular education has failed in its intended aim of large-scale social change. However, on less ambitious levels, such as raising literacy rates, it has often succeeded. It seems that popular education may perhaps be an important contributor to general human capital. While many communities appear not to have been inspired to social change, many may have gained the skills necessary to participate in economic life more fully than before the well-meaning facilitators arrived on the scene.

The final level of non-formal education identified by Carron and Carr-Hill is that of personal development. In many countries these programs have seen a rapid expansion. In Argentina, 17 percent of enrollments are in artistic endeavors, 4.7 percent are in non-formal hairdressing and cosmetology schools, and 27.7 percent are in foreign language courses (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991). While these programs represent to some extent general human capital investment, they also illustrate the consumption aspect of education. For the most part, art lessons will not get you employed. The growth of this level also suggests how important demand is to non-formal education. Education can be a personal consumer good and individual demand is often what drives the sector. And the people who participate and benefit are mainly the elites and middle classes.

Of particular concern, is that those people marginalized by formal education in Latin America and the Caribbean are not those who benefit from non-formal education. “The fact that non-formal education vocational programmes seem to serve more the upper layers of the economic system has to do with the finding that … the higher the level of formal education, the higher the propensity to ask for more training” (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991, p. 29). These percentages are even more revealing. “In Argentina 44 percent of the higher education graduates of the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires are taking non-formal education courses as compared with 35 percent of the secondary school graduates, 18 percent of the primary school graduates and one percent of those who did not complete primary education” (Carron & Carr-Hill, p.43). Commercial organizations take clients who pay, while unions educate members, people who are already employed.

Governments, the suppliers of formal education, are not exempt from this sticky situation. Contrary to popular opinion, governments are important suppliers of non-formal education. In Argentina, 35.5 percent of all adults enrolled in non-formal education were doing so through state-owned institutions (Carron & Carr-Hill, 1991). Data from other Latin American and Caribbean countries suggest the same thing. Governments everywhere in Latin America and the Caribbean are important organizers of non-formal education. Thus, those who don’t have equal access to education through formal schooling are denied access to non-formal education by some of the same institutions.


Although measurement problems are largely responsible for the neglect of non-formal education as a contributor to human capital, the process remains an important avenue for acquisition of skills and knowledge. But non-formal education is also a consumer good and human capital gets more human capital. Whether through formal or non-formal means, the poor in Latin America are locked out for the most part as consumers and as beneficiaries. Those who benefit from non-formal education are mostly those who already have an education.

Aklilu Habte, Director of the Education and Training Department, at the World Bank wrote in 1985: “Investment in education is a key element of the development process. Its importance is reflected in the growing recognition, since the early 1960s, that investing in both formal and informal education and training provides and enhances the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and motivation necessary for economic and social development” (Psacharopoulos & Woodhall, 1985, p.v). Leaders in the education arena in Latin America and the Caribbean would be well advised to concentrate their quest for equity in education on both the formal and the non-formal sectors.

Becker, G. (1993). Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Reference           to Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Carron, G., &  Carr-Hill, R.A. (1991). Non-formal Education: Information and Planning Issues. Paris, International Institute for Educational Planning, UNESCO: 80.

Coleman, J. S. (1998). Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology 94, 95-120.

Fine, B. (2001). Social Capital Versus Social Theory: Political Economy and Social Science at the Turn of the Millennium. New York: Routledge.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Kane, L. (2001). Popular Education and Social Change in Latin America. London: Latin            American Bureau.

La Belle, T. J. (1976). Nonformal Education and Social Change in Latin America. Los               Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications University of California.

OECD (1998). Human Capital Investment: An International Comparison. Paris: Center for Educational Research and Innovation, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

OECD (2001). The Well-being of Nations: The Role of Human Capital and Social Capital. Paris: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Psacharopoulos, G., & Woodhall, M. (1985). Education for Development: An Analysis of           Investment Choices. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reimers, F. (2000). Unequal Schools, Unequal Chances. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard                University.

Schultz, T. W. (1962). Education and values conducive to economic growth. Agricultural Policy Review 2, 4-6.

Waggoner, G. R., & Waggoner, B.A. (1974). Education (Primary and Secondary). The Encyclopedia of Latin America. New York: McGraw Hill.

World Bank (2000). Educational Change in Latin America and the Caribbean. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

[1] See Fine (2001) for an analysis of the colonization of the social sciences by economics. In terms of this paper, the contribution of education to economies is through the development of human capital. Social capital is a related but separate concept that links the benefits of education to a civil society. Fine, B. (2001). Social capital versus social theory: political economy and social science at the turn of the millennium. London; New York, Routledge.

Reference citation:

Redvers-Lee, P. (2002 Fourth Quarter).  Is non-formal education in Latin America good for the poor? In Focus Journal, Open Forum, Retrieved Month day, year, from