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How could greater emphasis on self and community-led development help to promote lifelong learning for all?

28th April 2021

Dr Richard Teare

Dr Richard Teare is President, Global University for Lifelong Learning (GULL) a non-profit network movement that works with other organizations to facilitate self-help in communities. In 2007, he co-founded GULL with Edward Mooney, GULL’s Chairman. Prior to his current role, he held professorships at four UK universities and he has been an Emerald journal editor for more than 30 years. His publications include 23 co-authored and edited books and he is co-author of Lifelong Action Learning for Community Development (Sense, 2013) and Designing Inclusive Pathways with Young Adults (Sense, 2015) the first and second in a series of books about GULL’s work with communities. Read more about GULL’s work and contact Richard.

If you give aid – when it runs out, that’s it. But if you help people through a process of self-directed change, they will continue and teach others

Bishop Anthony Pogo, Episcopal Church of Sudan, in conversation with Richard Teare, Kajo Keji, South Sudan 2012

Problematic access to education & lifelong learning

Emerald encourages research that is aligned with the impact of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and SDG 4 calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all. The UN say that before Covid-19, progress towards inclusive and equitable quality education was too slow and that now, inequalities in education are exacerbated by the pandemic. They estimate that it has affected more than 90 per cent of the world’s student population - 1.5 billion children and young people. The inequality problem also extends to adults too and UN estimates from 2018 suggest that 773 million adults, two thirds of them women, had limited or no reading and writing skills.

Other organizations are also warning about the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and those who are likely to be most affected are the large numbers of people living in low-income and subsistence communities. Here is a recent analysis from the World Bank:  

‘Every world region is likely to experience substantial growth downgrades. These downturns are expected to reverse years of progress toward development goals and tip tens of millions of people back into extreme poverty. Emerging market and developing economies will be buffeted by economic headwinds from multiple quarters: pressure on weak health care systems, loss of trade and tourism, dwindling remittances, subdued capital flows, and tight financial conditions amid mounting debt.’ (World Bank, 2020, p.2)

Facilitating community-led development & lifelong learning

The Global University for Lifelong Learning (GULL) has supported the work of national and international development agencies in many countries since 2007, providing its non-profit lifelong action learning and professional certification system in support of self-directed change and community-led development. At its inception, a decision was made to avoid setting-up or replicating costly infrastructure and instead, GULL works through a network of affiliated organizations (such as community-based organizations, church denominations and others) who have on-going relationships with communities. GULL provides affiliated organizations with a proven step-by-step system for integrating its self-directed lifelong action learning system with the life and work of their stakeholders (staff, volunteers and the wider community).

Although indigenous communities are able to draw on a reservoir of traditional knowledge, limited scope for personal development (such as access to further and higher education) hinders progress as people often feel trapped by their situation and circumstances. As a remedy to this, active or action learning offers a practical, holistic approach that can be used by anyone and when linked to professional recognition and certification, it encourages participants to move forward by releasing the potential in people to bring about positive change together. GULL aims to foster, recognize and certify self-directed change that is characterized by greater self-reliance, financial independence and by the ability and willingness of participants to share their learning and benefits with others. The GULL journey and many of the dramatic advances made by subsistence communities living in very challenging circumstances can be followed via the GULL website and in a book about GULL’s work (Teare, 2018).

What is needed to facilitate wider inclusion in lifelong learning?

There are many reasons why aid programmes designed to support subsistence and low-income communities tend to fall short of expectations. Among these, over-reliance on conventional training can lead to dependency and as a mode of assistance, training is less likely to bring about mindset change or a community-led resolve to find solutions to their own challenges. GULL should be reaching much larger numbers of people but: we are limited by our visibility, the scope and scale of our networks, our ability to handle one-on-one relationships around the world with modest resources (money, people) and we cannot rely on linkages with non-government organizations (NGOs) as they do not endure. That said, thanks mainly to NGO support and wonderful NGO staff, GULL has to-date been able to initiate projects in 60 countries. Sadly though, turbulence in the aid sector has meant that all of these projects ended just at the point when long-term benefits were emerging. Why is this?

My experience-based view is mirrored by an article in The Guardian newspaper (UK edition) on 5 February 2021 entitled: ‘How Covid could be the 'long overdue' shake-up needed by the aid sector’. Its critique encapsulates much of what GULL has encountered during the past decade. Development experts and critics who spoke to The Guardian called for a global reset of an aid industry that they say is outdated and facing pressure to reform. They want international charities and NGOs to root themselves in communities, to decentralize their western-centred power, and to trust and invest in the people they want to help. To conclude, I have paraphrased the main actions they recommend and added several of my own reflections:

  • Stop dividing countries into donors and recipients – poor countries are significant contributors to sustainable development, rich countries are impeding it.
  • Reform the current aid model so that more money goes to local and national responders. The Guardian reports that an international target set four years ago at the World Humanitarian Summit (to direct 25% of aid to grassroots organizations by 2020) has failed. Current estimates are that just 3.5% of international aid goes to local NGOs.
  • Mandate reform to encourage international NGOs to allocate more long-term funding to frontline groups. Those who propose this say that grassroots agencies are better at encouraging community-led development. Further, that local agencies operate more cost effectively, they know what works and what doesn’t and that they tend to be more committed to change than outside agencies.
  • Encourage international NGOs to listen more closely to the communities they serve rather than acting as implementing agencies for donors and for their own corporate agendas – both of which tend to focus on ‘delivering’ relatively short-term solutions.
  • Find ways of doing more with less – the international aid sector needs to change because overseas development budgets continue to decline – in part due to the impact of the pandemic.
  • Encourage consolidation of NGOs with similar objectives that operate in the same geographical areas so as to reduce duplicated effort. The Guardian article cites Sudan as an example, where approximately 100 foreign NGOs are working.

The Guardian article concludes with a quote from the founder of ‘Aid Re-imagined’ who poses the following question as a guide to reform: What can my organization, based in the global north, do to work with local actors to come up with their own solutions to their own problems? If the international aid sector and the international NGOs respond as they should, then inclusion in lifelong learning and community-led development will flourish.


Global University for Lifelong Learning (GULL

Teare, R. (2018). Lifelong action learning: A journey of discovery and celebration at work and in the community. Amazon (Kindle Edition and Paperback)

The Guardian (2021), How Covid could be the 'long overdue' shake-up needed by the aid sector, UK Edition, 5 February. Retrieved from     

United Nations (2020), Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, Report of the Secretary-General, retrieved from

World Bank (2020) The global economic outlook during the COVID-19 pandemic: A changed world. Retrieved from