Illiteracy is the world’s most important (and neglected) eradication goal...
because the contribution of literacy to development is profound and a 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. According to UNESCO’s latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report, the adult illiteracy rate has fallen by 23% since 2000, well short of the 50% target. As a result, an estimated 780 million (16%) of the world’s adults cannot read or write, including 500 million women who make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults. The greatest concentration of illiterate adults is in South and West Asia but most of the countries with the highest rates of illiteracy are in sub-Saharan Africa. 15 countries account for three-quarters of the world’s illiterate adults, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Mozambique. In a further subset of 12 “hotspot” countries more than half of the adult population, and more than 60% of adult women, are illiterate, including Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Benin, Afghanistan, Mali, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.
Countries should set goals to reduce adult female illiteracy to 20% by 2020 and to eradicate adult illiteracy by 2030. Countries who 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 and West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, should implement programs to increase 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, improvements in the home learning environment and increases in 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 with the official indicators that will measure progress under the the Sustainable Development Goals.