Global progress in literacy masks sharp regional gaps, UN report finds

Global progress in literacy masks sharp regional gaps, UN report finds

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Global literacy rates continue to rise but some regions are still lagging sharply behind in the campaign to ensure that everyone can read and write, a United Nations report released today finds.

The report, from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), says the world literacy rate should reach almost 87 per cent by 2015. The number of illiterate adults has also fallen by nearly 100 million in the past 15 years.

But the report – released at the halfway mark of the UN Literacy Decade (2003-2012) – notes that certain regions, particularly South and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are struggling to keep up with progress elsewhere and called for new strategies to improve literacy rates in those parts of the world.

“As we begin the second half of the United Nations Literacy Decade, the international community must seek new ways to work with marginalized populations for whom traditional approaches have proved ineffective,” said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.

While the period of 2000-2006 pushed the global adult literacy rate up from 76 per cent to 83.6 per cent, UNESCO said such figures mask considerable regional disparities.

For instance, 75 per cent of the 774 million illiterate adults live in only 15 countries – including Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India and Nigeria. And in some sub-Saharan African countries, the number of non-literate adults has increased in recent years by approximately 30 million.

The literacy gender gap also remains almost unchanged, with 63 per cent of illiterate adults at the end of 1994 being women compared to 64 per cent in 2006.

Under such circumstances, three quarters of the 127 countries for which projections were calculated will miss the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving adult illiteracy rates by 2015.

Several initiatives have been undertaken by the UN agency to boost the promotion of literacy, including three plans to improve the management and adaptability of literacy programmes and a series of regional and sub-regional conferences in 2007 and 2008 which gave new momentum to policy focus on literacy.

The other recommendations in the report include the need to boast national government and donor organization funding, while improving the delivery of literacy programmes, notably by adapting teaching methods to diverse contexts and demands.

Meanwhile, a lunch will be held tomorrow with the participation of First Lady of the United States Laura Bush, UNESCO’s Honorary Ambassador for the UN Literacy Decade, marking the launch of a new publication entitled The Global Literacy Challenge.

In Seoul, a UNESCO conference – “Building Equitable and Sustainable Societies in Asia and Pacific: the Challenge of Adult Learning” – will be held from today until 8 October to review key issues in adult learning and propose strategies to renew policies and action.

Today in Paris also marked the signing of a memorandum of understanding for a strategic partnership between UNESCO and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which aims to undertake joint activities in Latin America and the Caribbean in areas including capacity building for the achievement of Education for All (EFA).