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Why we still need International Literacy Day

12 September 2011

Alex Canfor-Dumas writes for LCID to mark International Literacy Day which was last Thursday (8th September) 

It is a day on which the world should recognise both how far it has come, and what a very, very long way it has still to go.

In 1950, nearly half the world’s adult population was unable to read or write, according to research from UNESCO; today that figure is under twenty percent, with gender disparities having narrowed significantly.

Reducing illiteracy from the billions to the hundreds of millions is progress, but we are not yet on the road to success. For today and every day there are almost 70 million children of primary school age who will not go to school – because there is no school for them to go to and no teacher to teach them. 70 million children denied the chance to develop their talents, to fulfil their potential, to realise their dreams. And, despite the lofty ambition of universal primary education by 2015 set out in the Millennium Development Goal, on current trends there may well be more, not fewer, kids in school in four years’ time than there are today.

What’s more, many times this number are in school but receiving an abysmal quality of education, or leaving education before they have a chance to learn anything worthwhile. UNESCO benchmarks indicate that at least four years of schooling are required to acquire even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills; in countries like Pakistan, Liberia and Rwanda, a third of 17-22 year olds have failed to meet this measure, and in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal and Niger over 40% spend under two years in education. Meanwhile over a quarter of Ugandan grade 7 students are unable to read at grade 2 standards, and more than half of Malawian grade 4 students are unable to read a single word of English.

What is to be done about this flurry of depressing statistics? One answer is that education must be elevated up the global agenda, and the Global Campaign for Education – an umbrella organisation of NGOs, trade unions and campaigning groups – has assembled a new High Level Panel to do just that. Co-chaired by Gordon Brown and Nelson Mandela’s wife, Graca Machel, it includes high-profile global figures like Kofi Annan, Queen Rania of Jordan, and former Prime Ministers of Canada, Norway and the Netherlands.

The panel will campaign for a renewed push towards to 2015 Education for All goals, including increased shares of foreign aid for education, a mobilisation of the business community like we have seen through the Global Business Coalition for Health, and reform of international institutions supporting education to help them become more ambitious and more effective.

The development case for literacy and education barely needs spelling out. An educated workforce is critical to economic success; a recent report authored by Brown suggests that achieving education for all could raise long-run growth by two percent above trend levels. That’s a big deal – it would cut by almost a third the time needed for an economy to double in size, and the investment required would pay for itself in 22 years. Indeed, for every $1 spent on education, between $10 and $15 of returns are generated through higher growth.

Education is not a silver bullet for development, but it is certainly a necessary condition of countries lifting themselves out of poverty. Let’s hope that we can soon look forward to a World Literacy Day where every child in the world has the chance to learn how to read.

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