UNESCO is currently investigating how access to text can be improved through the use of technology, specifically basic mobile phones. Today mobile phones are common in areas where books are scarce. The United Nations estimates that 6 billion people have access to a connected mobile device of some sort, while only 4.5 billion have access to a toilet.
While the world has made significant gains in literacy over the past quarter century, these gains have slowed in recent years. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of illiterate people decreased by a commendable 12 percent, but since 2000 the decline has been just 1 percent.
This deceleration has many causes, but it can be traced, in part, to an inability to get reading material to the areas where it is most urgently needed. Leading studies suggest many people living in sub-Saharan African and South Asian countries do not own or have access to a single book. A survey of 16 sub-Saharan African countries found that the majority of primary schools have few or not books. Book shortages continue to represent a significant obstacle to literacy.
UNESCO research indicates that hundreds of thousands of people in countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia and Pakistan are reading full-length books on mobile phones, including phones with small, monochrome screens. This is a promising trend and one that carries a potential to provide a new and sustainable portal to text for the poorest people on Earth.
UNESCO recently completed a yearlong study to illuminate the habits, preferences and demographic profiles of people who read books on mobile phones in seven developing countries. The resulting report, Reading in the Mobile Era, shares strategies to better leverage inexpensive mobile devices to facilitate reading in countries where literacy rates are low.
From the invention of paper to the advent of movable-type printing presses, technology has always played an important role bringing text to an ever-greater number of people. UNESCO is working to ensure technology continues to fulfill this promise and, in time, help finally make illiteracy a relic of the past.