International Literacy Day

Today is the 50th anniversary of UNESCO’s International Literacy Day. OurWorldinData has a fascinating chart illustrating just how much can change over the course of a generation- the difference between literacy among youth and among older generations in the Middle East and Northern Africa highlights that massive steps have been taken to improve literacy rates. Similar leaps forward have also been made in much of Latin America.

But still, according to UNESCO:

  • 758 million adults remain illiterate
  • Women are disproportionately affected and make up approximately two thirds of the world’s adult illiterate population
  • 114 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are illiterate
  • 15% of the world’s adults cannot read or write

For those who remain illiterate and who have not been party to recent developments, illiteracy and poverty combine into a vicious circle which keeps them enmeshed in a poverty trap. Studies in the USA have shown that young children from the poorest families have a vocabulary of just half that of their peers in higher income households. Faced with these challenges, the children are unlikely to do as well at school and will then struggle to go on and find better paid employment. In developing countries, illiteracy, poverty, vulnerability to illness and low levels of gender parity go hand in hand. UNESCO concluded that “Illiteracy… is an obstacle to a better quality of life, and can even breed exclusion and violence.”

Catalysts and initiatives are needed to drive such change. Global initiatives such as International Literacy Day and the SDGs have brought this issue into focus: Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals focuses on ensuring “that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy” by 2030. However, to reach these targets, efforts are also needed on the ground. AMSSF, a microfinance institution with which LMDF works in Morocco, includes as part of its mission the need to help poor and illiterate women. They provide training and education to promote literacy. Such programmes help to empower micro-entrepreneurs and make their businesses a success. Hopefully such initiatives will continue to promote the progress we have seen over the past 50 years.