How Literacy Can End Poverty


SEATTLE — According to a report by the World Literacy Foundation, almost 800 million people worldwide who cannot read or write are trapped in a cycle of poverty. This issue is a costly one for not only the illiterate but also for the literate. The World Literacy Foundation estimated that in 2015, illiteracy cost the global economy $1.2 trillion. These people are either completely illiterate, where they cannot read or write, or functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot perform simple tasks like reading medicine. In many ways, literacy can end poverty.

The World Literacy Foundation used a formula developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to measure the economic impact of illiteracy. The formula estimates the cost of illiteracy to developing countries at 0.5 percent of their gross domestic product. In emerging economies, such as China and India, the cost stands at 1.2 percent of gross domestic product, while in developed countries the cost is estimated at about 2 percent of gross domestic product.

This report finds that countries with the largest gross domestic product suffer the greatest financial strain from illiteracy. Developed countries lose $898 billion every year due to workforce illiteracy, which can reduce business productivity, while emerging economies lose $294 billion. The report also states that illiterate people earn up to 42 percent less than those who can read.

With these staggering numbers, the World Bank Group has partnered with the Global Partnership for Education in hopes that literacy can end poverty. The  Global Partnership for Education works with the World Bank and other partners to increase equity by addressing the needs of the poorest and most disadvantaged children. Among these groups are girls, ethnolinguistic minorities, children with disabilities and children in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Their research has shown that children who have access to quality early childhood programs do better in primary school and have better education outcomes later. Since 2000, the World Bank Group has invested more than $45 billion in education in hopes that literacy can end poverty. With these investments, the World Bank Group has helped introduce a number of new and innovative education initiatives to GPE countries.

These initiatives include:

  • Results-based programs where project disbursement is linked to specific indicators, such as improvement in basic literacy and numeracy in primary schools in Uganda, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and Pakistan.
  • Community-run school canteens to improve school attendance in Niger, Benin and Madagascar.
  • Cash transfer programs for Koranic schools achieving proficiency in literacy and numeracy in Senegal, which has resulted in an additional 14,000 students learning the official curriculum, including French and mathematics.
  • Digitizing information from more than 45,000 schools in Pakistan’s Sindh province, including data on 200,000 school staff so that salaries for absentee teachers can be frozen.
  • Increasing the number of female school principals to ensure gender parity as part of a results-based finance approach in Ethiopia.
  • Improving the quality of learning and teaching through the use of Information and Communications Technology by introducing an interactive whiteboard system in The Gambia, a computerized system for transparent staff management, hiring and training in Senegal and an e-learning system that uses curated content in Ethiopia.

The joint venture between these two organizations has produced far-reaching results throughout several countries, proving literacy can end poverty.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the net enrollment rate for basic education increased from 65 percent in 2013 to 85 percent in 2017. The country has trained nearly 35,000 teachers and made nearly 20 million textbooks available to schools.

Cambodia has added an estimated 100 formal schools and 1,000 community-based preschool facilities. Now, more than 47 percent of children between three and five years old are enrolled in preschools. This directly benefits nearly 125,000 young children.

Within Mauritania, the number of girls in lower secondary education increased by 35 percent in the six poorest regions and in rural areas. Thirteen lower secondary schools were built to allow girls to transition to secondary education. Also, teacher training has also improved, with more than 1,000 new teachers trained in bilingual education and the number of new teachers meeting minimum standards increased by 5 percent annually. Lastly, an estimated 300,000 pedagogical kits were distributed to students in primary and lower secondary schools serving poor and disadvantaged students.

These are only a few examples of countries and people benefiting from the program implemented by the World Bank Group and the Global Partnership for Education. Hopefully, through these continuous efforts, education can continuously spread with the intent that literacy can end poverty.

– Richard Zarrilli, Jr.

Photo: Flickr


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