When governments met in Jomtien for the World Conference on Education for All in 1990, among the goals set were universal access to and completion of primary education, and reduction of the adult illiteracy rate to one half its 1990 level by 2000. Ten years later, governments met in Dakar, but the situation had not improved: 113 million children were said to have no access to primary education; and 880 million adults (the majority of them women), were illiterate.

It is against this background that International Adult Learners' Week takes place.

The move to create a wider celebration of adult learning began with the American Association for the Advancement of Education (AAAE) in the late 1980s.

The US week focused on a Congressional Breakfast for outstanding adult learners backed by an activities pack for AAAE members.

Adult Learners' Week commenced in the United Kingdom in 1992. Australia, along with South Africa and Jamaica, picked up on the success of Adult Learners' Week in 1995 and in 1998 New Zealand began celebrating adult learners as a way of encouraging more participation in lifelong learning.

When UNESCOs General Conference in November 1999 approved the International Adult Learners' Week, the aim was expanded to encourage countries to learn from each other and to amplify the cooperation between agencies active in the promotion of adult learning at international level.

Since then, organisers in more than 40 countries have organised or are preparing learning festivals. These not only raise awareness of the need to create more opportunities for adults to learn, but celebrate the efforts and achievements of the thousands who find the courage to take that first step back.

International Literacy Day and Adult Learners' Week are used as mobilisation initiatives in many countries. They become a key element of national adult learning policies, promoting wider access to adult learning by celebrating individual and collective achievements, and using their experiences to stimulate a demand for learning elsewhere.

Many of the most successful events take place in venues that adults find accessible, friendly, and familiar, such as cafes, bars, community centres, on public transport, sports grounds or village halls. The experiences of some other countries illustrate the different festivals of learning now occurring.