The relationship between education and human development is profound and under the right conditions, mutually reinforcing. The more educated a population, the faster individuals can take advantage of opportunities for advancement and the faster a country is advancing the more it needs a skilled population to feed growth. But economic growth alone will not necessarily translate into a more educated society. Specific investments are needed – by individuals, governments and other actors – to improve literacy, which is the foundation stone of education. UNESCO defines literacy as, “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute using printed and written materials.” Literacy skills, according to Amartya Sen, are the foundation of individual agency and freedom, which are two of the most powerful forces for development.
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. The Copenhagen Consensus estimates economic losses from illiteracy in the range of 4% to 12% of GDP, and studies show that literacy gains can improve labor productivity and incomes, health outcomes, and political participation. Female literacy and development share a particularly powerful relationship. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has 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. To put it another way, more than four million children are alive today because their mothers got an education. Educated mothers are more likely to recognize the symptoms of a sick child and have more power within households to make the decision to see medical care.
The renowned demographer John Caldwell described female education as the ultimate precondition for the fertility reductions that can trigger the “demographic dividend,” and high and sustained women’s labor force participation. Martha Nussbaum too stressed the critical importance of literacy to women’s ability to earn incomes, but also underscored the impact of literacy on women’s political participation, freedom of movement, freedom from violence, and access to justice. This broader impact of female literacy is very important. How do we expect a woman who has never had the opportunity to become literate, who has been coerced into an early marriage, and who lives a life of relative seclusion, to have the basic level of knowledge and the skills to take advantage of opportunities for advancement, or to create those opportunities for herself? An illiterate woman is at the mercy of those in her immediate family – often her husband’s family – and the powerful and entrenched social norms and practices which are often not working in her or her children’s best interests.