‘Reading the Past, Writing the Future’ – 50 years of International Literacy Day

On September 8th, every year for half a century, the world has celebrated International Literacy Day. For 50 years, this has been an occasion to highlight the importance and the force of literacy around the world. Every human’s basic right to education cannot be realised without addressing one of its most fundamental building blocks: the ability to read and write. But of course the power of literacy goes beyond the mechanics of reading, writing and numeracy. It enables individuals to put these skills to use to achieve their wider goals, fulfil their potential and shape the course of their own lives. This capacity to bring about personal change leads to poverty reduction, healthier lives, employability and social inclusion.

The good news is undeniable: literacy rates are rising and there has been tangible progress in all countries. The progress for youth is particularly significant: the number of young adults without literacy skills decreased by 25% between 1990 and 2015. This is encouraging for regions like sub-Saharan Africa which have experienced ‘youth bulges’. These young people must be equipped with literacy skills in order to access decent work and contribute to their changing national contexts and economies.

Despite this progress, 758 million adults (including 114 million young adults aged 15 to 24) cannot read or write a simple sentence. Nearly two thirds are women. The gender gap is closing slightly overall – but nowhere near enough. Women are still less likely than men to have basic reading and writing skills. Indeed, gender disparity in youth literacy remains persistent in almost one in five countries, mainly located in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia – precisely the areas where improvement is needed most. Similarly, from 2004-2011, most of the adults in poorer countries who had participated in literacy programmes were male and from richer households, even though the majority of non-literate adults were female and poor. This is both a sign and a cause of women’s continuing marginalisation and poverty.

Tackling this problem requires action on all fronts: providing education of quality (which includes well-trained and motivated teachers), literacy programmes to those who need it most, and meaningful learning opportunities outside the formal school system. The lessons from the last 15 years have taught us that enrolment in education alone is not enough. Too often, children are coming out of school without basic literacy and numeracy skills, let alone the more complex creative, social and analytical skills that are central to the right to education. About 38% of children old enough to have finished primary school have not learned the most basic skills they need to succeed in life.

In adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the goal on education (SDG4), and the Education 2030 Framework for Action, the world is embracing a vision of education that goes beyond the focus of enrolment that formed the heart of the education Millennium Development Goal. The inclusion of a separate target (4.6) on literacy, aligned with lifelong learning opportunities, illustrates that it is universally recognised as being key to human, socio-economic and sustainable development – essential to facing the challenges of the future and indeed to the success of the sustainable development agenda as a whole. Civil society, including GCE’s members in countries all over the world, will continue to play a critical role in ensuring the importance of literacy is highlighted and that citizens’ voices are heard – providing a crucial link between governments and their citizens.

This first year of implementation of the SDGs provides an unmissable opportunity for governments and the international community at large. One critical issue that must be addressed is the education financing crisis. The estimated annual funding shortfall of $39 million for low- and lower-middle-income countries does not even include the full spectrum of lifelong learning. UNESCO estimated that $28 billion is needed to fund adult education in developing countries each year – that’s the amount the world spends on cigarettes every 32 days. There is no way governments can keep their promise of ensuring all young people and a ‘substantial’ proportion of adults achieve literacy by 2030 without pledging more resources. It’s time for governments to get their priorities right; it’s time to learn from the past and fund the future.

  • For more information and resources about International Literacy Day from UNESCO, visit the website
  • Read the Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova’s message for International Literacy Day here
  • The UNESCO Institute for Statistics have released a factsheet to mark the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, which analyses literacy data and global trends. Read it here
  • Twitter users can follow #LiteracyDay and #50ILD

[photo credit: John Isaac/World Bank]

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