Literacy: a right still denied to nearly one-fifth of the world’s adult populationGovernments and donor countries are curtailing progress towards Education for All (EFA) – and broader poverty reduction – by according only marginal attention to the 771 million adults living without basic literacy skills, says the fourth edition of the EFA Global Monitoring Report, “Literacy for life”.*
“Literacy is a right and a foundation for further learning that must be tackled through quality schooling for all children, vastly expanded literacy programmes for youth and adults, and policies to enrich the literate environment,” says Nicholas Burnett, the Report’s director.
This three-fold strategy places literacy at the core of Education for All. It calls for measures to accelerate progress towards universal primary education, to scale up literacy programmes for youth and adults and to support libraries, the media, book publishing and access to information.
“The powerful links that exist between adult literacy and better health, higher income, more active citizenship and children’s education should act as strong incentives for governments and donors to be much more proactive on addressing the literacy deficit,” says UNESCO’s Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.
According to the Report, three-quarters of the world’s adult illiterates live in 12 countries**. South and West Asia has the lowest regional adult literacy rate (58.6%), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (59.7%), and the Arab States (62.7%). Countries with the lowest adult literacy rates in the world are Burkina Faso (12.8%), Niger (14.4%) and Mali (19%).
Reflecting deep-seated gender inequalities in many societies, women account for 64% of the adults worldwide who cannot read or write with understanding. This figure is virtually unchanged from 63% in 1990.
Although adult literacy rates doubled in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States and South and West Asia from 1970 to 2000, the rate of progress has slowed considerably since 1990. On present trends, only 86 percent of the world’s adults will be literate by 2015, up from 82 percent today.
Severe poverty correlates strongly with low literacy rates: in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozambique and Nepal, where three-quarters or more of the population live on less than US$2 per day, adult literacy rates are below 63% and the number of illiterates exceeds 5 million.
Driven by the expansion of schooling, the literacy rate for those aged between 15 and 24 in developing countries rose from 66% to 85% between 1970 and 2000-2004. Worldwide, however, more than 132 million people in this age group are still unable to read and write even at a minimum level
On current trends, 30 out of 73 countries assessed are at serious risk of not halving their level of adult illiteracy by 2015, the deadline set at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in 2000. Most of these countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa but also include Algeria, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Nicaragua and Pakistan.
In both developed and developing nations, indigenous groups, persons with disabilities and migrant populations tend to have literacy rates below those of majority populations, often reflecting reduced access to formal schooling and literacy programmes.
Schooling is the single most significant factor driving societies towards mass literacy. But despite steady progress since the World Education Forum, only 47 countries out of 163 with data available in 2002 have achieved universal primary education (UPE). The charging of fees in 89 countries stands as a major obstacle, as does the lack of a “literate environment”. Over half of the Grade 6 pupils in Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, for example, learn in classrooms “in which there is not a single textbook”.
On the basis of recent trends, 67 countries are at risk of not achieving UPE by 2015; in 23 of these, net enrolment ratios are declining. Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia account for 70% of the world’s 100 million school-age children still not enrolled in primary school.
The 2005 goal to achieve gender parity in primary and secondary education will be missed by 94 countries even though many, including Guinea, Niger, Senegal, the United Republic of Tanzania and Yemen, have increased girls’ access to the first grade of primary education by 30% or more. On the basis of recent trends, some 86 countries are at risk of not achieving gender parity even by 2015. In many middle- and High - income countries, boys are underrepresented in secondary school.
The Report’s annual EFA Development Index (EDI), a composite of relevant indicators on UPE, adult literacy, quality of education and gender, finds that out of 121 countries with data available, only 44 have achieved the goals or are close to doing so.
The relative neglect of adult literacy programmes stems partly from the global drive to expand universal primary education. There is a widespread belief that investing in primary-level education is more cost effective. Recent studies, however, find that the cost of educating an adult is on par with that of a primary school child (US$50), and that such spending has a positive effect on individual earnings and economic growth.
Beyond intrinsic human benefits such as improved self-esteem and confidence, literacy provides adults with the knowledge and tools to improve their lives. Educated parents – whether through school or an adult education programme – are more likely to send their children to school. Moreover, a recent study in 32 countries finds that literate women are four times more likely to know the main ways to avoid HIV/AIDS.
The Report calls for a dramatic scaling up of youth and adult literacy programmes. This expansion will require more domestic resources: typically, governments only allocate 1% of their national education budget to adult literacy. Taking into account the standard costs involved in literacy programmes, the Report estimates that roughly US$26 billion dollars are needed over the next decade to make significant progress towards the Dakar goal of halving illiteracy rates.
The low status of literacy educators is a major obstacle to the success of adult learning programmes. Research conducted for the Report by the Global Campaign for Education and ActionAid on 67 programmes worldwide found that the majority of programmes paid their instructors between 25% to 50% of a basic primary school teacher’s salary. Training often runs for one or two weeks and rarely leads to accreditation.
A majority of countries facing significant literacy challenges are linguistically diverse, calling for clear policies that acknowledge the relationship between literacy acquisition and language. The reality is that many learners end up following lessons that are provided in a language different from their own. Programmes that provide initial learning in the mother tongue are pedagogically sound but must allow for a transition to more widely used regional or national languages.
Accelerating progress towards Education for All requires more national and international support. While there is increased backing for UPE, literacy is not high on the agenda of bilateral donors, according to a survey conducted by the Report. No bilateral agency surveyed could quote with confidence a single figure to illustrate its level of funding to literacy, an indication of its low priority in aid budgets.
Bilateral aid to basic education almost trebled between 1998 and 2003 but still accounts – at US$1.16 billion – for less than 2% of total Official Development Assistance (ODA). Overall, nearly 60% of bilateral commitments to education are still for the post-secondary levels, twice what is allocated to basic education.
Assuming the share of funding that goes to basic education remains constant, the increased overall aid flows pledged at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles in July 2005 could by 2010 result in an annual total of only US$3.3 billion for basic education, still far short of the $7 billion estimated necessary to achieve the UPE and gender goals alone.
*The EFA Global Monitoring Report is an annual publication prepared by an independent team based at UNESCO.
**India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, Islamic Republic of Iran, Morocco, Democratic Republic of the Congo.