Literacy = Equitable, Comprehensive and Lasting Development
On International Literacy Day, let’s remember literacy starts during childhood
What would a truly sustainable world look like? Such a world would be inhabited by people who know their rights, who are not vulnerable to poverty, who are equipped with tangible skills to take on decent work, who actively contribute to their communities and who are able to pass on to their children a healthy, secure and inclusive society. To realize this vision, it’s vital that people are literate.
September 08, 2014 by Aaron Benavot, Global Education Monitoring Report|
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Amina Mohammed, advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Post 2015 Development Planning, told us at the latest Advisory Board meeting for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report (GMR) that the term ‘sustainable development’ was heavy, not easily understood by the young, and an alternative phrase would be welcome.

Despite communication challenges and the complications of putting pen to paper with a set of new global goals for 2015-2030, I believe there is a common understanding about what a truly sustainable world would look like.

Such a world would be inhabited by people who know their rights, who are not vulnerable to poverty, who are equipped with tangible skills to take on decent work, who actively contribute to their communities and who are able to pass on to their children a healthy, secure and inclusive society. To realize this vision, it’s vital that people are literate.

Illiteracy, a stubborn problem

Yet adult literacy – one of the six Education for All goals set in 2000 - is far from being achieved. The number of adults lacking basic literacy skills remains stubbornly high at 774 million, a fall of 12% since 1990 but just 1% since 2000. These numbers are projected only to fall to 743 million by 2015. As shown in the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4, 37% of countries are projected to still remain ‘very far from the target’ by 2015, 22% will be “far from the target” and only 29% will have reached it.

One reason for slow progress in enabling adults to acquire basic literacy skills is inadequate education in their childhood. In addition, mass literacy campaigns have often been ineffective in sustaining literacy over time. Literacy programs and materials have often not accommodated the spoken languages of the learners.

It has been shown that effective literacy policies, programs and practices help improve and enlarge social communication and interaction. Indeed, literacy thrives when the communication bonds between individuals, households, communities and social institutions are stronger. But in many countries the learning and use of literacy skills is not encouraged.


Dhekel (centre) works in a literacy group discussing issues such as food rations, social unrest and school attendance with adults from lower castes in Orissa, India. He teaches using symbols maps and local leaflets. Credit: UNESCO/Brendan O'Malley

Nigeria, for example, has been called a ‘bookless’ country. This means that, even if adults acquire language proficiency, they may lose it again after some time. If they were never literate, they are less motivated and have fewer reasons to learn.

Addressing the literacy challenge at its root

The truth is, though, that we can’t address the literacy challenges facing adults by focusing on that age group alone. Literacy is increasingly viewed within a lifelong learning framework by most, and certainly by those working on post-2015 targets.

The quality of learning in classrooms and at home is inextricably linked to patterns of adult literacy later in life. Tackling literacy for all, therefore, requires a holistic view of education: to address adult literacy we need to address the fact that there are at least 250 million children not learning the basics whether or not they’ve been to school, and that one in four young people is unable to read a single sentence.

We must tackle these challenges vigorously, because sustainable development cannot be achieved without literacy. International Literacy Day should concern us all, because today is “an opportunity to remember a simple truth: literacy not only changes lives, it saves them,” as Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General says in her message for the day.  

Education saves lives

And it is a veritable truth. As shown in our Education Transforms booklet last year, providing all women with a primary education would reduce child mortality by one sixth, and maternal deaths by two-thirds. It enables children to live their lives too: if all women had primary education, and gain literacy skills, there would be 15% fewer children married under the age of 15.

Literacy and education are vital for equitable, comprehensive and lasting development. The links between education and each of the proposed post-2015 sustainable development goals will be further explored in a new booklet by the EFA GMR to be released on September 18, during the UN General Assembly.

Sign the pledge to work together for a future for all!

The undeniable benefits of literacy for poverty reduction or  disease prevention, as shown in the 2013/14 GMR and 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 collaboration across all development sectors in the coming years.

All signatures will be presented to the UN Secretary-General and his advisors on sustainable development. Your action will reinforce this message: we can’t achieve our common vision for a sustainable future if we don’t recognize the deep ties that bind all fields of development.

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