On International Literacy Day, UN officials say learning is key to development

8 September 2006
Literacy sustains development

The United Nations today marked International Literacy Day by focusing on the link between learning and development while reminding the world that literacy is a right denied to over 771 million adults globally.

“The precious gift of literacy can sustain development only if it is itself sustained – by post-literacy programmes, further opportunities for education and training, and the creation of ‘literate environments’ in which literacy can thrive,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a message, noting that this year’s celebration of the Day, “reminds us that literacy is the platform for developing a society’s human resources.”

The Director-General of UNESCO Koïchiro Matsuura, in his message stressed that “literacy is widely acknowledged as one of the most powerful tools of development, which makes its relative neglect all the more frustrating.” He added that literacy is also “a lever of change and an instrument for achieving further social progress.”

Considerable achievements have been made in many countries and progress has been attained through adult literacy and non-formal education programmes but challenges remain. An estimated 771 million adults live without basic literacy skills, of whom two thirds are women. According to UNESCO, approximately 103 million children have no access to school and are therefore not learning to basic academics such as how to read, write or count.

The Global Monitoring Report on Education for All (2006) on literacy clearly shows connection between illiteracy and severely impoverished countries. In Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique and Nepal, where three quarters or more of the population live on less than $2 per day, adult literacy rates are below 63 per cent and the number of illiterates exceeds 5 million.

The literacy report shows that enrolments in primary education have risen in both sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, with almost 20 million new students in each region. The achievement of universal primary education is vital in order to staunch the flow of young people entering adulthood without a good command of basic literacy skills, as literacy is the platform for developing a society’s human resources.

Also according to the report, South and West Asia has the lowest regional adult literacy rate (58.6 per cent), followed by sub-Saharan Africa (59.7 per cent), and the Arab States (62.7 per cent). Countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world are Burkina Faso (12.8 per cent), Niger (14.4 per cent) and Mali (19 per cent).

UNESCO’s Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) seeks by 2015 to help reduce by half the rate of adult illiteracy in the world. LIFE operations, a global strategy to raise awareness on the importance of literacy are country-led, respond to country-specific needs and priorities, and correspond to national capacities. Designed to further the goals of the UN Literacy Decade (2003-2012), LIFE is being implemented in 35 countries with a literacy rate of less than 50 per cent or a population of more than 10 million illiterates.

In his message for Literacy Day, Mr. Matsuura stressed the contributions and the achievements of the individuals, communities and associations around the world who continue to help others express themselves through the written word. “On International Literacy Day, let their efforts and commitment be a shining example to others of the power of literacy.”

The Secretary-General concluded his message on the occasion by calling for stepped up national and international efforts for improved literacy levels worldwide. “Let us give literacy a real chance to transform individuals and societies around the world,” he said.


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