Illiteracy is the world’s most important eradication goal...
and the foundation upon which sustained human progress has been built everywhere. If all adults on the planet could read and write and had opportunities to take advantage of these capabilities, economic growth, poverty, health, and political participation would all improve. Female literacy shares a particularly powerful relationship with development, especially through health improvements for children, as the more educated a mother the more likely her children are to survive and thrive. Studies have shown that half of the reduction in child deaths in recent decades is the result of increases in the education of women of reproductive age. Countries that improve female literacy at faster rates can also accelerate reductions in fertility, potentially triggering the much sought after “demographic dividend”.
Despite these benefits, global progress in reducing illiteracy has stalled. The adult illiteracy rate has fallen by 26% since 2000, well short of the 50% target, according to UNESCO. As a result, an estimated 770 million (14%) of the world’s adults cannot read or write, including 480 million women who make up almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults. The greatest concentration of illiterate adults is in South Asia, but most of the countries with the highest rates of illiteracy are in Sub-Saharan Africa. 10 countries account for 70% of the world’s illiterate adults, including India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Brazil, Egypt, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In a subset of 12 “hotspot” countries, more than 70% of adult women are illiterate, including Niger, Chad, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Benin, Guinea, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Liberia, and Ethiopia.
These countries should set ambitious goals to reduce adult female illiteracy to 20% by 2020 and to eradicate adult illiteracy by 2030. Countries that have already achieved 80% adult female literacy should move straight to the eradication target. Because of the powerful influence of mothers’ literacy on child development, countries, especially those in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, should implement programs to increase both the supply of literate mothers and demand for their skills. Investments should benefit mothers in the populations where female literacy is lowest and child mortality is highest. Countries should provide special incentives for mothers to develop their literacy skills, including by linking mothers’ literacy progress to their children’s educational performance, by improving the home learning environment, and increasing labor market attachment. Conditional cash and non-cash transfers, as well as the full engagement of telecommunications technology (e.g. mobile phones) in literacy efforts targeted to mothers, can act as powerful incentives for progress.
The United Nations, its agencies, and development partners should reinforce the illiteracy eradication goal under the Sustainable Development Goals and ensure that 100% of adults achieve literacy by 2030. The UN Secretary-General should establish a Special Envoy for Illiteracy Eradication and a program architecture modeled on the highly successful polio eradication effort. The UN should support the special focus on mothers’ literacy and increase integrated female literacy, health, and labor market investments in the countries where more than 60% of adult women are illiterate. The UN should also develop special indicators to measure literacy progress among mothers with dependent children and integrate these indicators into the official indicators that are measuring progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.