Literacy: governments must assume their responsibilities says UNESCO director-generalParis - The goal established at the World Education Forum (Dakar, Senegal, 2000) to halve adult illiteracy by 2015 will not be met unless a massive effort is made in the coming years.
Faced with this reality, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura today appealed to governments around the world to assume their responsibilities in the struggle towards a literate world, and to guarantee basic education for all citizens. "In this world of nation-states […] literacy is a national responsibility and governments are the main bearers of that responsibility," said Mr Matsuura. "Certainly, governments deserve every assistance from their partners, but no government should abdicate its responsibilities."
Mr Matsuura was speaking at the award ceremony for UNESCO's annual literacy prize winners: the Adult Education Division of the Eritrean Ministry of Education, the Literacy and Adult Basic Education Programme in Uganda, the Bunyad Literacy Community Council in Pakistan, the Egypt-based Regional Centre for Adult Education, and Judith Kalman (Mexico), who receives this year's International award for Literacy Research from the UNESCO Institute for Education (Hamburg, Germany). The ceremony finalized two days of celebrations at UNESCO Headquarters for International Literacy Day (September 8).
"Many of us take literacy for granted as a 'given' in our lives, but for others it can be reached only through special efforts," said Mr Matsuura. "It is an outrage that something as fundamental […] becomes an unattainable luxury for millions of people throughout their lives."
According to the latest statistics from UNESCO, some 20.3 percent - or one in five - of the world's adults are still illiterate. They show a clear downward trend, but highlight that the process is excruciatingly slow. At the current rate of progress, 15 percent of the world's adult population will still be illiterate in 2015, which represents a drop of 25 percent over today's figures.
The statistics would indicate that governments are banking on their expanding school systems, which swallow the lion's share of most education budgets, to eventually overcome the problem of illiteracy. However, this condemns hundreds of millions of adults to lifelong illiteracy, which, says Mr Matsuura, is "alien to any conception of human dignity and human rights."
Reminding governments of the six goals set by 164 countries at the World Education Forum to achieve education for all by 2015, and, in particular to halve adult illiteracy by that date, the Director-General called on "all relevant actors to play their full part in this endeavour."
Mr Matsuura also stressed the importance of the United Nations Literacy Decade, which will be launched next January and carry through to 2012, as a means of galvanizing decision-makers everywhere into action to meet the Dakar goals.
UNESCO, as lead agency within the United Nations system, will coordinate the international community's activities for the Decade. The Organization has prepared an International Plan of Action aimed at stimulating and harmonizing action by national governments, local communities, non-governmental organizations, universities, public and private organizations and civil society.
Serving as a "blueprint for change", the Action Plan gives priority to policy development, programmes, capacity building, research, community participation, and monitoring and evaluation. It also stresses the need for special and "urgent" attention for women (who make up two thirds of the world's illiterates), ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous populations, migrants, refugees, people with disabilities, the elderly and pre-school children, especially those with little or no access to early childhood care and education.
To complement the Action Plan and support the initiatives of governments and all those involved in literacy work, UNESCO has launched the NFEMIS programme (Non Formal Education Managing Information Systems) which is developing new systems of data gathering, monitoring and evaluation to better measure the impact of literacy and education activities to provide more reliable information on illiteracy.
NFEMIS will not rely solely on government statistics. Rather it will use information gathered at community level, via a growing network of Community Learning Centres (CLCs), or Community Multimedia Centres (CMCs) being established worldwide with support from UNESCO and its national and international partners. Several hundred such centres have already been established in Asia, and are being rapidly developed in Africa and Central Europe.
The aim of these and other UNESCO initiatives, such as the promotion of literacy research, the preparation of literacy materials adaptable to diverse cultural and social situations, the training of literacy teachers or provision of equipment to develop distance education using new technologies, is to provide governments and other partners - the civil society organizations, public ands private sector institutions, private individuals and other international agencies with as much support as possible to devise the policies and programmes necessary to achieve a literate world.
Emphasizing the theme of this year's International Literacy Day - "Literacy as Freedom" - Mr Matsuura stressed that "literacy is indeed a vital, positive and active force in people's lives which enables them to make choices, to participate and to exercise their rights; in other words, to be free."
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