Giving up to a literate world?


Rosa María Torres


Published in: Adult Education and Development, issue 80, December 2013. 

(En español: ¿Renuncia a un mundo alfabetizado?)
Every year, for years and decades, we read the same thing: There are millions of illiterate people worldwide (two thirds are women) and little headway is made despite the recommendations, statements, events. The United Nations Literacy Decade (20032012), of which few knew about, and ended almost unnoticed.

Infographs of the 2012 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report graphically displayed the progress of the six goals of Education for All from 2000 (World Education Forum, Dakar) to the present. In all goals, progress was lower than expected and less than what was pledged for 2015. Same thing was repeated in the 2013 EFA Global Report. Adult illiteracy was the furthest from being achieved. 

In 2010, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) concluded that 'literacy rates are increasing, but not fast enough'. In fact, progress has been insignificant and even more so if we go back a decade to the beginning of Education for All (EFA), to its launch at the World Conference on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand) in 1990.
1989: 895 million illiterates (figure disclosed by UNESCO as an EFA baseline). The goal was to reduce illiteracy by half by the year 2000.

2010: 775 million illiterates (EFA Report 2012).

2011: 774
million illiterates (EFA Report 2013).
2015: 757 million illiterates.

▸ Illiteracy was reduced 12% since 1990, but only 1% since 2000.

After 25 years of Education for All and already well into the 21st century, we are still a long way off from a literate world.  

The commitment to reducing illiteracy by 50% by 2015 was not accomplished.

On the other hand, the 2012 EFA report pointed out that 160 million adults in 'developed countries' have 'poor literacy skills'.


In Latin America and the Caribbean, the commitment to 'eradicate illiteracy' goes back to 1980. The goal that captured global attention in Education for All and Millennium Development Goals was primary education with a focus on access and enrolment. Early childhood education and the education of young people and adults, at both ends of the 'school-age' spectrum, have always been pushed to the background, and the false option of education of children versus education of adults accepted.

History repeated itself in the race against time in trying to reach 2015 with what was possible and the debate on how to continue beyond 2015. The education - and specifically literacy education - of young people and adults once again gets relegated. Some demand that these goals be added, forgetting that they have always been there and that what has been missing is the political will to fulfill them, both on the part of governments as well as the international agencies. Once again a related goal will be added and once again it will become the usual salute to the flag.

In a world that prides itself on having entered the Information Society with an eye towards the Knowledge Society, that boasts of technological advances and struggles to decrease the digital divide, that tries to gain points in the global rankings on poverty reduction, 'digital illiterates' have become more important than the 'just' illiterate. It seems to bother no one that those people who claim to be illiterate continue to number in the millions, swell the ranks of the poorest and dispossessed, and will never read a book or benefit from the internet.

The number of illiterate people in the millions seems to have become perfectly tolerable and compatible with the progress of humanity. Who wants to take responsibility for them? Who wants to accept that the actual number of illiterate persons must be much greater since, as we well know, many people do not assess themselves as such in censuses and surveys? Who wants to pay attention to the failure of literacy education, to the worrying reality of the millions of people who cannot read or write even though they have formally learned to read and write?

The utopia of a literate world seems to be getting shelved away. Gone are the days of aspiring to end illiteracy (and poverty); the most that is aspired to today is the 'reduction' of both in defined percentages and conveniently prorated. And there are even those who, from an economic calculation, ideology or simply ignorance, are ready to claim that the illiterate persons who live among us in the world today are surely impaired and incapable of learning. 


Renouncing the objective of universal literacy is not only denying a basic learning need and a fundamental human right that assists people of all ages and conditions, but the renunciation of one more piece of dignity and hope in an increasingly dehumanised world.

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