Today is International Literacy Day. The theme for this year is Literacy and Sustainable Development. The day will be “an opportunity to remember a simple truth: literacy not only changes lives, it saves them,” says the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, in her message for the Day. It will be an opportune moment for the education community to remind the Open Working Group of the importance of literacy for achieving a whole range of sustainable development priorities.
And it is a truth that literacy saves lives. As showed by our Education Transforms booklet last year, providing all women with a primary education would reduce child mortality by a sixth, and maternal deaths by two-thirds. It enables children to live their lives too: if all women had primary education, there would be 15% fewer children married under the age 15. This evidence must be recognised by those working on the international post-2015 development agenda.
The links between education and development will be further explored in a new booklet by the EFA Global Monitoring Report being released on September 18th, just before the United Nations General Assembly. The undeniable evidence of the links between education and reducing hunger, preventing disease, and escaping poverty in the 2013/14 GMR–reinforced in our new research–have led us to promote a public campaign action calling on all development actors to support the need for closer cross-sectoral collaboration. Join us in pledging you will work together with others for development that lasts. Your signature will join others in being presented to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and his advisors as discussions over sustainable development post-2015 take center stage.
Our research into the vital ties across sectors also reminds us of the urgency behind renewing the focus on lifelong learning for all. As shown in the recent GMR, a global learning crisis fuelled by too few classrooms and well-trained teachers has left at least 250 million children still not learning the basics, whether they have spent four years in school or not.
Poor quality education is leaving a legacy of illiteracy more widespread than previously believed: one in four young people is unable to read a single sentence – equivalent to 175 million youth. This rises to one in three young women in South and West Asia. On current trends, the GMR projects that it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to be literate.
Adult literacy is languishing too. The number of illiterate adults remains stubbornly high at 781 million, a fall of 12% since 1990 but less than 1% since 2000. It is projected only to fall to 751 million by 2015. Population growth, ineffective literacy campaigns, underinvestment in adult literacy programs and inappropriate language offerings have contributed to this tepid progress. In addition, many communities and workplaces do little to encourage literacy and motivate learners to develop and sustain their literacy skills.
To change this scenario, we must look at the countries that have made progress and learn. In Bangladesh, for example, from 1990 until 2012, adult women’s literacy rose from 26% to 55%. In Ethiopia, the share of young people who were literate increased from 34% in 1994 to 52% in 2007. Across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, our research has shown that the number of children learning the basics has increased by 45% over the past decade.
Improving literacy skills is a cornerstone for improving individuals’ capabilities and resilience, and achieving economic growth, social development and environmental protection. It is the basis for lifelong learning and plays a crucial foundational role in the creation of sustainable, prosperous and peaceful societies. In the words of Kofi Annan, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope”.
Click on a photo below to hear Diney, Soad and Mariamma from Brazil, Egypt and India tell how not having literacy skills has affected their lives: