As an integral component of and essential building block for education, literacy has been part of the global development agenda for a long time. Starting with the World Conference on Education for All held in Jomkien, Thailand, in 1990, the need for increased literacy among peoples was subsequently included in the Education for All goals, formulated at the end of the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000.
But the world is still off-track today, so literacy featured again at the World Education Forum 2015, held in Korea in May of this year. Literacy will also be included in the new global development agenda, scheduled to be adopted in late September 2015. Sustainable Development Goal #4 – “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” – addresses literacy and numeracy in Target 4.6.
The reason for committing ourselves over and over again to literacy is clear: without basic literacy, people are deprived of functioning fully in the home, at school or at work, and in society at large. Wherever there is a lack of literacy, there is higher crime, unemployment, prejudice and long-term illness. It speaks for itself that the benefits of literacy stretch far beyond book-learning into the most fundamental areas of human life – basic literacy transforms lives through the ability to make more informed choices in areas of health, nutrition, employment, leisure, and political involvement. In our interdependent world where no one should be left behind, literacy is a matter of social inclusion and thus a ‘must.”
Tackling illiteracy remains a UNESCO priority. According to the UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy – an interactive tool to track country-specific literacy rates of young people, adults, elderly populations, and gender trends - over 718 million adults worldwide were still functionally illiterate in 2014. Regional rates were highest in sub-Saharan Africa and in South and West Asia. Although progress in literacy for adults has been slow, it is encouraging that the gender gap is narrowing.
Youth illiteracy rates have fallen too. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015 mentions that “The literacy rate among youth aged 15 to 24 increased globally from 83 per cent in 1990 to 89 per cent in 2010. This improvement was largely a result of increasing attendance in primary and secondary school among younger generations.” Greatest improvements were shown in Northern Africa and Southern Asia, particularly among young women. It is expected that by the end of 2015, the literacy rate for youth will be 91%.
For more information about the UN/UNESCO’s efforts with regard to literacy, please see
- Education for the 21st Century and Literacy for All;
- UNESCO Education Strategy 2014-2021;
- Incheon Declaration – the declaration adopted at the end of the World Education Forum 2015 in Korea;
- International Literacy Day 2015 on September 8 – the theme this year is Literacy and Sustainable Societies.
How can each of us honor Sophie’s vision of lifting people up through education by supporting the call to literacy for all?