United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
United Nations Literacy Decade to be launched in New York

Paris – “Literacy as Freedom” is the theme of the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012), which will be launched at United Nations Headquarters in New York tomorrow (February 13) by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura and Natsagiin Bagabandi, the President of Mongolia.

The aim of the Decade is give new impetus to efforts worldwide to reduce persistantly high rates of illiteracy. According to UNESCO statistics, some 861 million people, or 20 per cent of the world’s adults, cannot read or write or participate fully in the organization and activities of their societies. Two thirds of these people are women. Another 113 million children are not in school and therefore not gaining access to literacy either.

These figures represent a considerable advance on the first survey of world literacy rates published in the 1950s, which found 44 percent of the adult population to be illiterate. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve the goal set at the World Education Forum in Dakar (Senegal, 2000) to halve adult illiteracy by 2015. If progress is not accelerated, UNESCO estimates that 15 percent of the world’s adults – or 800 million people - will still be illiterate by that date.

Sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia, and the Arab States and North Africa account for 70 percent of the world’s illiterate adults. An estimated 186 million people, or about 14 percent of the population, are illiterate in the countries of East Asia and Pacific. While in Latin America and the Caribbean, some 39 million people, or 11 percent of the population, is considered illiterate.

Illiteracy, however, is not just a problem for the developing world. The International Adult Literacy Survey, which in the mid-1990s compared literacy skills in 12 industrialized countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States), found that at least 25 percent of adults in these countries failed to reach the minimum level of literacy proficiency considered necessary for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“This situation is unacceptable and underlines the need for greater joint efforts,” said Mr Matsuura in a message to mark the launch of the Literacy Decade*. “The success of the Decade will depend on strong partnerships and the mobilising of governments, UN agencies, civil society and NGOs, local communities, the private sector and individuals.”

In his message, the Director-General emphasized that priority for the Decade will be given to most disadvantaged groups, especially women and girls, ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous populations, migrants and refugees, out-of-school children and youth, and persons with disabilities.

Mr Matsuura stressed that the Decade should not be seen as a stand alone intiative, but rather as an integral part of the world-wide drive to achieve Education for All (EFA), and the development agenda for the new century.

UNESCO, as the coordinating agency for the Decade, has prepared an International Plan of Action to serve as a guide for the implementation of literacy for all. It proposes six lines of action: policy change, the development of flexible programmes to suit people’s different needs, capacity-building to reinforce the professional corps working in literacy, research to better understand the problems and how they can be dealt with, community participation, and monitoring and evaluation to measure progress.

One of UNESCO’s showcase projects for the Decade, which has these guidelines built in, is the recently launched LAND-Afghan project, which will tackle illiteracy in Afghanistan. The Organization estimates that only 51.9 percent of Afghan men over the age of 15 and a mere 21.9 percent of women in the same age group can read and write.

LAND-Afgan’s main focus will be on building up a nationwide network of literacy teachers, trained in modern non-formal education methods. It will also train people in the development and production of teaching materials and provide the necessary equipment for this, including printing facilities. A wealth of existing literacy resources developed by the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre (ACCU) in Japan and UNESCO’s Bangkok office, will be adapted and translated into the dominant Pashtu and Dari languages.

Community learning centres will be established throughout Afghanistan’s different regions to provide access to literacy programmes for as many people as possible, and a Literacy resource Centre for Girls and Women will be opened in Kabul.

Another major undertaking by UNESCO’s Montreal-based Institute for Statistics will be the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP), a worldwide survey to measure a spectrum of literacy levels – from very basic reading and writing to the higher level skills needed to participate fully in a learning society. The aim is to provide a more accurate and detailed picture of illiteracy around the world, to help identify groups with special needs and allow for the design of programmes tailor-made for them. Better data will also allow for better monitoring of progress in literacy.

“The early years of the new millenium have underlined two key realities: the inter-connectedness of human societies and the unpredictability or world events,” Mr Matsuura said. “We are all now more conscious of the need for mutual responsibility and global awareness. […]The capacity for everyone, collectively and individually, to participate in networks of written communication is fundamental to building dialogue, understanding and harmony. It is, moreover, a basic human right.”

*For the full text of the Director-General’s message, literacy facts and figures and the Plan of Action prepared for the UN Literacy Decade, see UNESCO’s special Decade website at http://portal.unesco.org/education/ev.php

Accessible also via the Education sector’s website:www.unesco.org/education

A B-roll is also available on request from
Christine Carbonnel. Tel: +33 (0)1 45 68 00 68. E-mail: c.carbonnel@unesco.org

Source Press Release N° 2003-10
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Editorial Contact: Sue Williams, Bureau of Public Information, Editorial Section. Tel: +33 (0)1 45 68 17 06
- Email s.williams@unesco.org
Publication Date 12 Feb 2003
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