According to the latest data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS), over 84 percent of the world’s adults are now literate. This represents an eight-percentage point increase since 1990, but nearly 774 million adults still cannot read or write.
New data released on September 8 for International Literacy Day shows that most of the world’s illiterate adults live in South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and, based on current trends, 743 million adults (15 years and older) will still lack basic literacy skills in 2015—the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals. Over 60 percent of these people are women.
But, developing countries are not the only ones suffering. Illiteracy also remains a persistent problem in developed countries. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one in five young people in Europe has poor literacy skill in 2009, and some 160 million adults in OECD countries were “functionally illiterate”—unable to read or write in any capacity. This means they lack the skills needed to function in today’s environments, such as the ability to fill out forms, follow instructions, read a map, or even help their children with homework.
The statistics highlight the difficulties of reducing illiteracy rates. An evaluation of achievements made over the United Nations Literacy decade, which ended in 2012, shows multitudes of initiatives to overcome illiteracy and a much greater awareness of the severity of the problem. However, it also highlights the importance of improving the quality of education, from teacher training to the contents of what is taught, to ensure that government policy is translated into action.
The situation is exacerbated by the rise of new technologies and modern knowledge societies that make the ability to read and write essential to survive and thrive. These basic skills are essential for people to succeed in the job market and are key to acquiring knowledge, interpersonal kills, expertise, and the ability to live together in a community—all the skills necessary to the foundations of modern society. Most importantly, literacy is the cornerstone of peace and development in the twenty-first century.
On September 9, UNESCO held an international colloquium at its headquarters in Paris. Ministers and deputy ministers of education, development, and culture from Afghanistan, Benin, Chad, India, Namibia, Pakistan, and Senegal met to lay the foundations for a Global Coalition—a multi-stakeholder partnership for advancing the illiteracy agenda—that will be launched in November.
– Scarlet Shelton