Building peace in the minds of men and women

Literacy for all remains an elusive goal, new UNESCO data shows

Over 84 percent of the world’s adults are now literate, according to the latest data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS). This represents an eight percentage point increase since 1990, but it still leaves some 774 million adults who cannot read or write.

The new data released for International Literacy Day on 8 September, show that most of the world’s illiterate adults live in South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. On the basis of current trends, 743 million adults (15 years and older) will still lack basic literacy skills in 2015, the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals.  Two thirds of these people are women.

            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 had poor literacy skills in 2009, and some 160 million adults in OECD countries were functionally illiterate. This means that they do not have the skills needed to function in today’s environments such as the ability to fill out forms, follow instructions, read a map, or help with their children with homework.

            See an infographic of the data here. 

            The statistics highlight the difficulties of reducing illiteracy rates. An evaluation of the achievements made over the United Nations Literacy decade, which ended in 2012, shows a multitude of initiatives to overcome illiteracy and a much greater awareness of the scope of the problem. However, it also highlights the need to improve the quality of education – from teacher training to the content and relevance of what is taught – and ensure that government policy is translated into action.

            “This situation is exacerbated by the rise of new technologies and modern knowledge societies that make the ability to read and write all the more essential,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in her message for International Literacy Day.

            “Literacy is the first condition for dialogue, communication and integration into new connected societies. Young people need new skills to enter and succeed in the job market: knowledge of several languages, understanding of cultural diversity, lifelong learning. Literacy is the key for acquiring knowledge, interpersonal skills, expertise and the ability to live together in community – all skills that are the foundations of modern society.

            “In the twenty-first century, more than ever before, literacy is the cornerstone of peace and development.”

            “Literacies for the 21st century” is the theme of this year’s International Literacy Day, chosen to highlight to the evolving range of literacy skills required to full participate in today’s connected societies.

            An international colloquium on this issue will be held at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters on Monday 9 September, as part of the celebration for the International Day. Opened by the Director-General, the event will bring together ministers and deputy ministers of education, development and culture from Afghanistan, Benin, the Republic of Chad, India, Namibia, Pakistan and Senegal, along with representatives from other intergovernmental organizations, NGO’s working in education and literacy, and the private sector.

            The colloquium will lay the foundations for a Global Coalition, a multi-stakeholder partnership for advancing the literacy agenda, to be launched in November.

            The award ceremony for UNESCO’s annual literacy prizes will take place following this event (6.30 pm, Room 4). This year’s awards are being presented to winners from Bangladesh, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, India and Namibia.

            On Tuesday 10 September, the five laureates, along with Sugata Mitra, TED Prize 2013 winner, professor  of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University (UK) will participate in a panel session on Promising Pathways to a Literate World (3 pm to 6 pm, Room xx)



Media contact: Sue Williams

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