Today is International Literacy Day, focusing on the theme of ‘Literacy and sustainable societies’. The day will pay particular attention to exploring and consolidating the synergies between literacy and each one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be adopted at the UN High-level Summit this September. This blog explores what improvements need to be made in understanding, monitoring and defending literacy if we are to reap its full benefits post-2015.
Less than three weeks from now, the international community will resolve: “to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.” It will also resolve to “create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.” All of the 17 goals and 169 targets to be adopted at the UN Summit aim to contribute to these developments, including, notably, education and learning.
Literacy, the theme of today, is prioritized in at least two respects. First, the notion of ‘lifelong learning’ for all children, youth and adults is central to the SDG goal on education. Second, literacy and numeracy, which were well integrated in the Education for All Goals, are explicitly mentioned in target 4.6 of the SDGs.
The fact that literacy has re-appeared as a SDG priority is of no surprise. We know that literacy can improve health, reduce disease, encourage tolerance and political participation, encourage environmentally friendly behavior and empower women to make the right decisions for themselves. Literacy should also part of the broad SDG ambition because we know how far we have to travel before we can say it has been achieved.
The GMR, for instance, has frequently exposed the extent of illiteracy among youth and adults. Our 2013/4 Report proved the chronic need for better teaching and learning by showing that around 175 million young people in poor countries – equivalent to around one quarter of the youth population – cannot read all or part of a sentence, affecting one third of young women in South and West Asia. The Gender Summary that year showed that over 100 million young women in low and lower middle income countries are unable to read a single sentence. On current trends, the Report projected that it will take until 2072 for all the poorest young women in developing countries to become literate.
The GMR 2015 released this year showed that there has been barely any improvement in adult literacy rates since 2000: from 82% to an estimated 86% in 2015. Worldwide more than 750 million adults are unable to read and write, a severe handicap for living a fulfilled life, one that is faced by over half of all women in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia. Most recently, to prove the need for equitable progress towards literacy, the GMR also referred to its WIDE database to show that the poorest young women are six times less likely to be able to read than the richest.
If we are to put forward cogent arguments for literacy to be placed near the top of the long list of targets governments and donors have to achieve by 2030, and reap the full benefits of literacy over the next fifteen years, we will need to understand it better. Work is needed on the ways in which, and the mechanisms through which, literacy on the one hand, and formal years of schooling on the other, impact sustainable development and sustainability practices. This would be a very good start.
We also urgently need to develop, pilot and establish a short literacy assessment, or module, aimed at adults, which can measure literacy levels in a flexible, straightforward and effective manner. For too long, we have been using outdated conceptions of literacy as some universal skill that adults do or do not possess, rather than a proficiency measured on a continuum. Better common understanding of what progress in literacy means, and a module that can direct assess literacy levels in different languages, are essential if we are to evaluate the effectiveness of lifelong learning and/or adult education programmes post-2015.
Thirdly, we need better ways of capturing data on literacy and numeracy from different contexts so that results can be compared internationally. While this might take some years to develop, once such an assessment instrument has been validated, the data it generates will be eye-opening. Just as with PIAAC and other existing assessments like LAMP and STEP, such an assessment would provide a far stronger empirical basis to discern the relative social, political and economic impacts of literacy skill levels and years of formal schooling completed.
Fourthly, we need to assess the literate environment in which adults become motivate to acquire and retain literacy skills. As the GMR 2015 showed us, literacy requires not only a better supply of learning opportunities but also more opportunities to use, improve and retain literacy skills. Such opportunities have been growing since 2000. The rapid expansion of ICT, holds considerable promise. It may be possible to take advantage of widespread mobile phone use to promote stronger literate environments and reading practices, though clear evidence is not yet available on the impact of ICT on literacy skills.
Without these improvements, target 4.6 in the SDGs will remain vapid. A society without proficient readers cannot expect to achieve a sustainable future. Opportunities must be available for all those who desperately want to be literate, so that the world can move closer towards the vision encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals. We know what to do. We must urgently work towards it so that no one is left behind.