NEW YORK — UNESCO estimates that there are about 781 million adults worldwide that are unable to read, write or count. Therefore, every year on Sept. 8, UNESCO and the world celebrate International Literacy Day in order to discuss the successes of literacy improvement efforts around the world and to develop strategies to continue improving literacy rates.
This year the theme of International Literacy Day was “Literacy and Sustainable Development” because of the detrimental impacts that illiteracy has on sustainable development and poverty eradication efforts. Improving literacy, according to UNESCO, should therefore be a crucial part of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.
Illiteracy is linked to perpetuating the cycle of poverty as well as social exclusion, crime, long-term illness, child marriage, maternal mortality, food insecurity, environmental unsustainability and a whole host of other factors that hinder sustainable development.
International Literacy Day also focused on the need to improve literacy rates for women and girls around the world who make up two thirds of the global illiteracy rate. UNESCO also emphasizes that the female illiteracy rate has not improved since 1990.
As extremists such as the Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley increasingly target young girls trying to pursue basic education improving literacy rates for women and girls in the developing world has proven to be a formidable challenge. However, girls such as Malala Yousafzai, whose home town is in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, continue to be an inspiration to young girls around the world and continue to fight and advocate for universal access to education for all children.
Educated parents are less likely to deprive their girls of an education according to UNESCO. They are more likely to send their girls to school as they themselves have seen and experience the benefits of their own education. This also means that parents are less likely to marry their girls off at a young age and less likely to take their girls out of school so that they can help work or help out at home.
Therefore, UNESCO also emphasized that adult education is just as important as education for children. Global initiatives to overcome illiteracy have devoted resources to ensure that adults and young people receive and complete a basic education so that they do not pass on the effects of illiteracy to their children.
Improving literacy rates, especially for women and girls, is crucial to development efforts and enables countries to maintain a healthy economy. The World Literacy Foundation estimates that illiteracy costs the global economy $1.19 trillion a year and that it costs developed countries an average of two percent of its GDP, an emerging country 1.2 percent of its GDP and a developing country 0.5 percent of its GDP annually.
The World Literacy Foundation emphasizes that while illiteracy may look different in developed and developing countries, it is still a problem for both and the effects on every country’s economy are similar.
There are many different levels of literacy ranging from complete illiteracy to poor literacy. Complete illiteracy refers to someone that is unable to read, write or count at all. Functional illiteracy refers to someone who may be able to read, write and count on a basic level but who is unable to apply these skills to perform more complicated tasks essential to participating in everyday society such as reading food labels or filling out a job application.
Poor literacy then refers to someone who may be able to read and write, but who is unable to apply those skills to critical thinking tasks such as helping their children with homework or managing their financial investments and security.
While a majority of people generally associate illiteracy with developing countries, functional illiteracy and poor literacy are problems for developed countries as well. According to the World Literacy Foundation, 20 percent of the United Kingdom’s population is functionally illiterate which costs its economy approximately $127 billion a year.
The World Literacy Foundation and UNESCO emphasize that literacy is a crucial for an individual to function successfully in society. Illiterate people are generally paid 30 to 40 percent less than their literate counterparts and on average never improve their income level over their lifespan. Once adults become literate through basic education and vocational training programs they are able to increase their income by two to three times its previous level according to UNESCO and the World Literacy Foundation.
International Literacy Day is just one of the many international initiatives in place to reduce illiteracy rates. Japan will host the Aichi-Nagoya conference on Education for Sustainable Development in November 2014 and South Korea will host the 2015 World Education Forum. Both events are expected to focus heavily on the link between literacy and sustainable development as part of the debate on the adoption of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.
– Erin Sullivan