Functional Literacy: A Path To Progress


Fifty-one years after the first International Literacy Day was held in 1966, literacy has been disseminated rapidly to young people, women, and adults globally. As the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear, education is fundamental human right. However, the 1975 Persepolis Declaration, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) goes further by explicitly recognizing literacy as a right. Literacy is not just the ability to read, but also the ability to use that skill in everyday life, such as through filling out governmental forms and accessing health or education services. This is called functional literacy. It is a tool for self-empowerment and political, social and economic mobility. It is a prevention strategy for conflict. It decreases poverty and breaks down gender disparity in societies. However, its potential for creating stability and peace in developing nations is often overlooked. More value needs to be given to literacy programs and more money, and resources need to invested long-term into education. If Western countries wish to prevent involvement in direct conflict abroad, they’d benefit by promoting literacy.

As the Persepolis Declaration states, “Literacy is not an end in itself. It is a fundamental human right,” which is a principle that was echoed by former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan. It is in this spirit that UNESCO, its partner program, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, and charities, such as ProLiteracy work. Literacy campaigns have also spread globally due to the initiative of developing countries linking literacy to political, social and economic liberalization. The first President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere is a prime example of this, as he instigated mass literacy programs based on the principle of education for self-reliance. The president would be pleased to note that in 2015 the literacy rate had risen to 88.7%, in conjunction the GDP had risen to 44.63 billion (USD). Many other nations have enshrined literacy in their constitution, such as Pakistan (1973), Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique (2004), and Peru (1993), thereby recognizing its importance. Whilst education policies have been inconsistent and lacked governmental priority in these countries, the literacy rates have dramatically improved. For example, the World Bank reports that in 2015, Peru had a 99% literacy rate, whilst Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau both had a 77% literacy rate.

Increased literacy has been the impetus for personal mobility, which allows people to apply for loans, start businesses, understand health care systems and other government services and access them. Since the 1960’s, Eastern Asia and South-Eastern Asia have almost achieved 100% literacy according to the UNESCO Report. The report reiterates that literacy has fuelled economic growth and human development in these regions. Moreover, it also shows that in 101 out of 159 countries, the youth literacy rate was above 95% in 2015, which is a tremendous success. In Western Asia and Northern Africa, literacy spread quickly, especially amongst young women during the 1990s-2000s. UNESCO links this transmission of literacy to the demand for political freedom and socio-economic development expressed by the youth in these areas, citing literacy as crucial for democratization and stabilization.

Nevertheless, while great success has been achieved, extreme poverty and conflict are preventing literacy. According to the UNESCO report, more than 30 countries have adult literacy rates below 70%, including fragile conflict, post-conflict, and emergency states, such as Afghanistan (38.2 %), Haiti (60.7 %), Pakistan (56.4%), and Timor-Leste (64.1 %). Yet, twenty-two of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Western Africa, including Niger (19.1 %), which as of 2015 was the only country in the world with an adult literacy rate below 30%. Whilst literacy is not an immediate necessity in war-torn nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan, once the countries have stabilized, it is a crucial investment in their stability and progression. Certainly, for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to flourish, just as Tanzania has, global investment is needed. Resources are required to help enrich underdeveloped nations such as Niger.

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