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International efforts to meet literacy challenge insufficient, concludes UNESCO report

International efforts to meet literacy challenge insufficient, concludes UNESCO report
  • © UNESCO / G. Mondaca
  • El Calabozo School, Romeral, Maule region, Chile

Literacy rates have been rising globally, however slow progress in South and West Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa remains a concern. And financial aid for literacy is still clearly insufficient. These are among the conclusions of the mid-decade review report for the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012), being presented by UNESCO on 6 October at the 63rd session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Global progress has been made in the last five years, notes the Report presented by UNESCO as lead agency for the Decade. The number of adults who are not literate decreased from 871 million during the period 1985-1994 to 774 million in the following period (2000-2006), pushing the global adult literacy rate up from 76% to 83.6%. The largest increase occurred in developing countries, where the rate rose to 79% from 68% in the preceding period. At the current pace, the world literacy rate will reach nearly 87% in 2015.

While encouraging, these figures mask considerable regional disparities. More than 75% of the 774 million illiterate adults live in only 15 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India and Nigeria. Furthermore, in areas of high population growth, increased literacy rates do not necessarily indicate a decline in the absolute number of illiterate adults. In some countries of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the number of non-literate adults increased from 133 million to 163 million. In the Arab States, the increase was from 55 million to 58 million.

Under these conditions, three quarters of the 127 countries for which projections were calculated will miss the goal of halving adult illiteracy rates by 2015. Unless progress is significantly accelerated, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia and the Arab States will miss this target. In addition, the literacy gender gap remains virtually unchanged: 63% of illiterate adults were women in 1985-1994, compared to 64% in 2000-2006.

“As we begin the second half of the United Nations Literacy Decade, the international community must seek new ways to work with marginalized populations for whom traditional approaches have proved ineffective,” declared the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura.

At the institutional level, several initiatives have been taken to boost the promotion of literacy. UNESCO launched three programmes within the framework of the Decade: the Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE*), the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP) and the Non-formal Education Management Information System (NFE-MIS), a tool for improving management of literacy programmes and adapting such programmes to specific needs. A series of regional and sub-regional conferences on literacy organized in 2007 and 2008 also contributed to give new momentum to policy focus on literacy.

The Report underlines that some countries took decisive measures to increase policy commitment to literacy. These include notably the countries that ran national literacy campaigns in the first half of the Decade, such as Nigeria, India and Venezuela. In certain cases greater commitment has meant more funds allocated to literacy. Senegal tripled its literacy budget. Burkina Faso is now devoting 7% rather than 1% of its education budget to literacy. In Mali, the literacy budget went from 500 million to 4 billion CFA francs. India increased its adult literacy expenditure by 50% in 2008-2009 and plans to multiply the allocation threefold.

At the international level, however, funding is insufficient. It is estimated that at least $2.5 billion would be required annually to meet adult literacy needs, involving investment by national governments and donor organizations.

Among the Report’s recommendations is the need to improve the delivery of literacy programmes, notably by adapting teaching methods to diverse contexts and demands. It also suggests increasing funds allocated to adult literacy and dedicating at least 3% of national education budgets to this end.

The Report will be examined on 6 October at the 63rd session of the United Nations General Assembly.

UNESCO and Mongolia are organizing a lunch the following day, with the participation of First Lady of the United States Laura Bush, UNESCO’s Honorary Ambassador for the United Nations Literacy Decade. During the lunch, attended by about 100 noteworthy guests, UNESCO’s new publication entitled The Global Literacy Challenge will be presented.

*LIFE is a global strategic framework for collaborative action to enhance literacy efforts in 35 countries that have a literacy rate of less than 50 per cent or an adult population of more than 10 million without literacy competencies.

  • Author(s):UNESCO
  • Source:UNESCO
  • 06-10-2008