Director-General attends sub-regional conference on literacy challenges in South and West Asia and Central Asia

Director-General attends sub-regional conference on literacy challenges in South and West Asia and Central Asia
  • © UNESCO/M. Ravassard

From 29 to 30 November, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, attended the UNESCO Conference on Literacy Challenges in South and West Asia and Central Asia, hosted by the Government of India in New Delhi.

This was the fourth in a series of regional and sub-regional meetings that UNESCO is undertaking within the framework of the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD) and UNESCO’s Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE). Mrs Sonia Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress Party; Madam Shiranthi Rajapakse, First Lady of Sri Lanka, and Mr Arjun Singh, Minister of Human Resource Development, addressed the opening ceremony of the Conference, which gathered over 200 participants, including 12 Ministers and vice-Ministers from the sub-region.

In his opening address, Mr Matsuura stated that “achieving universal literacy is a moral and development imperative”. Yet, he pointed out that because literacy is not included among the Millennium Development Goals, it has tended to be neglected by the development community. “This is why today’s Conference is so important”, he said: “its aim is to give literacy the profile it deserves on the agendas of national governments and international partners.”

After outlining the global state of literacy, drawing on the most recent data from the 2008 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, the Director-General focused on the particular literacy needs of the sub-region. “Even though the literacy rate has increased by 25% over the past two decades, South and West Asia is still today home to 388 adult illiterates – half the world total”, Mr Matsuura stated, drawing particular attention to the major challenges faced by the three high population countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. He also pointed to the deep gender disparity in the sub-region – on average, 67 women are literate for over 10 men in South and West Asia – as well as the high number of out-of-school children, in particular among girls. Mr Matsuura explained that the situation in Central Asia was different, but that again there was an important gender gap – 72.5% of the illiterate population are women – as well as a need to ensure the provision of continuing learning opportunities in response to changing social and economic need.

The Director-General called on national governments to take the lead in addressing these challenges, arguing for a three-pronged approach: increased efforts to provide quality schooling for all; the massive scaling up of adult literacy programmes; and greater investment in developing literate environments. Mr Matsuura also called on the international community as a whole to step up its support, especially in terms of boosting aid to literacy. Of the $US11 billion that the GMR estimates is needed annually to achieve EFA, it is recommended that $US1 billion be channelled to literacy”. Yet, at present, aid for literacy is miniscule.

In conclusion, the Director-General explained that the outcomes of the Conference would feed into the other literacy Conferences being held for other regions, as well as into the mid-decade review of the UNLD and the sixth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VI), which UNESCO will organize in 2009.

During the Conference, Mr Matsuura held a Ministerial Round Table to discuss in more detail the literacy needs of different countries in the sub-region and practical strategies to address them. Particular emphasis was given by Ministers and vice-Ministers to the importance of quality primary education as the basic foundation for developing literacy skills. The Round Table also brought to the fore the value of South-South cooperation as means to promote networking and the exchange of good practices.

While in New Delhi, Mr Matsuura also participated, on 29 November, in a ceremony marking the inscription of the Red Fort Complex on the World Heritage List, alongside the Secretary for Culture, Mr Abhijit Sengupta, and the Secretary for Tourism, Mr S. Banerjee. Mr Matsuura took this opportunity to commend the Indian Government’s untiring efforts to protect the country’s exceptional cultural heritage.

Also on 29 November, the Director-General addressed the closing of the South and South-East Asia Science Policy Forum on “Capacity-Building in Science and Technology: Policy, Opportunities and Challenges in the Context of Globalization”, in the presence of the Minister for External Affairs, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, the Governor of Haryana and Chairman of the Zaheer Science Foundation, Dr A. R. Kidwal and the President of the International Council for Scientific Unions (ICSU), Dr Goverdhan Mehta. The Director-General focused in his address on four key challenges: the development of sound science policies; the building of human and institutional capacities; the establishment of knowledge sharing networks; and the empowerment of women in science.

Mr Matsuura also attended a ceremony at the site of the proposed new UNESCO House, where he witnessed the presentation of a model of the new complex, and launched two new kits on LIFE and on biodiversity. Also present at the ceremony was the Secretary for Higher Education and Secretary-General of the Indian National Commission for UNESCO, Mr Rameshwar Pal Agarwal.

On 30 November, the Director-General held bilateral talks with the Minister of Urban Development, Mr Jaipal Sudini Reddy, discussing ways to mainstream heritage preservation into urban planning, and in particular the value of the UNESCO “Network of Indian Cities of Living Heritage” as a model for combining conservation with development. Both underscored the need to raise public awareness and build a “preservation culture”.

Mr Matsuura also met with the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in India, Dr Maxine Olson, and visited the UNESCO Office in New Delhi.

Throughout his visit, Mr Matsuura was accompanied by the Permanent Delegate of India to UNESCO, Ambassador Ms Bhaswati Mukherjee.

  • Author(s):Office of the Spokeswoman
  • Source:Flash Info N° 186-2007
  • 05-12-2007
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