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 (IHME) 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.

And a recent systematic review of the evidence observed a 31% reduction in child mortality for children born to mothers who graduated high school relative to mothers with no education. They showed that each additional year of schooling for girls was associated with reduction in child mortality of 3%. Educated mothers are more likely to recognize the symptoms of a sick child and have more power within households to make the decision to seek 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 also 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 that are often not working in her or her children’s best interests.


In the context of literacy’s significant benefits, it is alarming that global progress on reducing illiteracy has stalled. The adult illiteracy rate has only fallen by 32% since 2000, from 19% to 13% – well short of the 50% reduction target. Most of the recent decline is due to better-educated children moving into adulthood rather than to more adults becoming literate, according to UNESCO.

As a result, an estimated 775 million (13%) of the world’s adults (15 years +) cannot read or write. This includes 478 million women – almost two-thirds of all illiterate adults. The number of illiterate men and women has not changed in the last fifteen years.

The greatest numbers of illiterate adults live in South Asia, but most of the countries with the highest rates of illiteracy are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Twenty countries now account for 80% of the world’s illiterate adults, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, China, Bangladesh, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Indonesia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Iran, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Chad.

These countries are home to an estimated 600 million illiterate adults. One-third of the world’s illiterate adults live in one country – India, where the adult female literacy rate is just 69% and there are an estimated 160 million illiterate women. Of special concern are the 25 countries where 40% or more of adult women are illiterate. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 20 of these female literacy “hotspots,” (Chad, Mali, Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea, Liberia, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Senegal, Mozambique, The Gambia, Nigeria, Togo, Sudan, and Comoros) and is also the region with the highest female illiteracy rate (39%) making the slowest progress.

Alarmingly in several of the “hotspot” countries, youth literacy is not much higher than adult literacy. In Chad, Mali, South Sudan, and Niger more than 50% of 15 to 24 year olds are illiterate.  


To jumpstart global literacy progress, all nations should set a goal of reducing adult female illiteracy to 20% by 2025 and eradicate all adult illiteracy by 2030. Countries that have already achieved 80% female literacy should move straight to the eradication target. To eradicate illiteracy, countries should pursue policies and programs that simultaneously increase the supply of literate adults and demand for their skills, with a focus on increasing the supply of, and demand for, literate mothers, especially in the Sub-Saharan African and South Asian countries struggling with very low female literacy and high child mortality. It is in these populations that mothers and their children face the greatest health and poverty risks from lack of literacy and also where investments in female literacy can yield the highest development returns.

Specifically, interventions to increase the supply of literate mothers should include special incentives for mothers to develop their own literacy skills and rewards for progress. The Poverty Action Lab found that mothers’ literacy could be improved by linking it to improvements in their children’s educational performance and in the home learning environment.  The study reported improved mother and child language and math test scores, a significant impact on mother involvement in child learning and household decision-making, and an improved home learning environment. Conditional cash and/or non-cash transfers (e.g., food, mobile phones) to mothers dependent on their participation in literacy programs and linked to their children’s education and/or their own labor force participation should be considered.

To increase demand for mothers’ literacy skills, job growth in mother-friendly sectors with literacy requirements (e.g., health, education, tourism) should be stimulated and literate workers should be paid a premium for their literacy skills, either through wages or government transfers. Government programs and benefits targeted to women of reproductive age should incentivize and reward mothers’ literacy where appropriate. For example, farmer supplies, micro-finance loans, and prenatal care visits could routinely reward mothers who make progress on literacy by entitling mothers to added program benefits (e.g., bonus supplies or additional services).

Further, technology advancements will generate demand for more literate mothers as valuable information about all aspects of daily life is increasingly distributed on mobile phones and tablets. Governments, businesses, employers, and other actors who need to reach mothers via mobile technology, will increasingly face incentives to invest in their literacy. Governments should mobilize public-private partnerships to take advantage of these mutual interests and increase investments in literacy programs targeted to mothers.


Once upon a time the world did consider an eradication target for illiteracy. In 1964 UNESCO published the Declaration on Eradication of Illiteracy, which called for “a worldwide movement for the eradication of mass illiteracy in the one and indivisible cause of human progress and fulfillment, so that through their united efforts this vital task may be achieved in the shortest possible time.”

Almost 40 years later, UNESCO launched the UN Literacy Decade which ended in 2012, without fulfilling its promise. To be fair, the cards were stacked against the global literacy agenda during the Millennium Development Goal era. Literacy was not mentioned once in these goals and as a result, was on the sidelines of the global development agenda between 2000 and 2015. But all of that could change. The Sustainable Development Goals do set a specific literacy target for young people – 100% by 2030 – but not for adults, and not specifically for adult women. The goals say only that a “substantial proportion” of adults should be literate by 2030.

Because of literacy’s impact on human development and especially on women’s empowerment and child health and development, the adult literacy target should also be 100%, which would secure illiteracy as an eradication goal. Further, 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 also support the special focus on mothers’ literacy and increase integrated literacy, health, and labor market investments in the countries where more than 40% of adult women are illiterate.

The UN should invest in new approaches to stimulate the supply of more literate mothers and demand for their skills, including cash and non-cash rewards for literacy gains linked to health, education, and labor market behavior. 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 to the global goals. It is important that future literacy gains do not rely on cohorts of better educated young people transitioning into adulthood but are the result of current populations of adults, and especially mothers, becoming literate in their own lifetimes.

A final note. Of all areas of development, eradication efforts dominate in health – most often in infectious diseases including smallpox, polio, and more recently malaria. Talk of eradication is ambitious, inspiring, and historic, and development goals with eradication agendas attract world leaders of the highest caliber and levels of investment of the highest order. Less common are eradication efforts in other areas. But if there is one area of development where the sheer size of the burden, the tragic costs of inaction, the massive untapped benefits of achievement, and the feasibility of success justify an eradication target, illiteracy is it.

Updated January 2024