The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, has long been a champion of increased literacy around the world. Since 1946, the specialized agency of the United Nations has fostered educational programs that “further universal respect for justice and the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion.”

Unfortunately for UNESCO and its benefactors, namely impoverished citizens of third world nations, developing countries’ “legacy of illiteracy” has made their mandate harder to achieve. Educational institutions remain highly inaccessible and a poor quality of education has left an estimated 175 million young black people without basic literacy skills.

Disproportionately, illiteracy affects women at a much higher rate than men. Women constitute 2/3 of the world’s 774 million illiterate adults, a fact contributable to underwhelming rates of female school enrollment.

The organization’s annual report titled, “Education for All Global Monitoring Report,” indicated an alarmingly high global illiteracy rate, with one in four youths in developing countries unable to read a sentence.

In the report’s foreword, Unesco director-general Irina Bokova asks for greater assistance in fighting illiteracy, including increased funding and an overhaul of problematic teaching practices.

“As this Report shows, equality in access and learning must stand at the heart of future education goals,” said Bokova. “We must ensure that all children and young people are learning the basics and that they have the opportunity to acquire the transferable skills needed to become global citizens.”

According to the report, an estimated 57 million children do not have access to schools, while 250 million of the children that are enrolled do not learn basic skills, despite half of them already having four years of experience at school. These 250 million children represent $126 billion in wasted educational funds, states the report.

Part of this problem originates in poor standards of teaching. Of 162 countries evaluated, 26 had a pupil/teacher ratio in primary education in excess of 40:1, 23 of which were located in sub-Saharan Africa. However, simply increasing the number of teachers is not a solution unto itself. Hiring qualified teachers is essential to promoting literacy and remains one of Unesco’s main objectives.

In view of these results, Unesco stresses the importance literacy and education has on the rest of the UN’s developmental goals.

“Educate mothers, and you empower women and save children’s lives. Educate communities, and you transform societies and grow economies,” said Bokova.

Emily Bajet

Sources: The Guardian, unicef, UNESCO, UNESCO, UNESCO
Photo: Kibae Park

Technology has, over the years, come to run our lives.  We rely upon it for anything ranging from healthcare innovation to entertainment.  Even now, you are reading this article that was composed on a computer for you to read on the Internet.  No paper newsletter for you.

It is precisely because technology is so all-encompassing for us that the following statistic is so shocking: 1 billion adults worldwide are illiterate.  Equaling 26% of the world’s total adult population, there are 1 billion people who cannot partake in the reading of this article, which you may be taking for granted.

Technology may have made reading and writing even more accessible in our sphere but in lesser-developed areas, such advancements are not seen.  According to UNESCO, the entire continent of Africa has a literacy rate of less than 60%.  Compare that to the 99% literacy rate in the United States.

However, there is hope.

Numerous organizations are dedicated to eradicating illiteracy. Here are five of the top literacy initiatives worldwide.

1. ProLiteracy

The mission statement of ProLiteracy is a perfect articulation of why literacy should be on the forefront of global advocacy: “…when individuals the world over learn to read, write, do basic math and use computers, the more likely they are to lift themselves out of poverty.”  The organization makes literacy for women in developing nations as a top action addressed by their donations and programs.

2. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

UNESCO hosts a “LitBase” website, which chronicles programs worldwide that have been successful in combating illiteracy.  In doing so, UNESCO hopes to have a go-to source for advocates interested in starting or joining the cause.

3. World Literacy Foundation

The World Literacy Foundation was founded in 2003 to promote awareness of illiteracy by bringing together various government organizations and NGOs.  Some of the programs championed by the Foundation include the Write On English writing competition in Azerbaijan, founding the Centre of Hope computer center in Uganda and the USAID-supported Fantastic Phonics computer program.

4. Global Literacy Project

A key program of the Global Literacy Project is the shipment of books and basic educational supplies throughout Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.  The Walk-for-Literacy fundraiser housed at Rutgers University is run through the Global Literacy Project as well.


Founded at the University of Pennsylvania through a partnership with UNESCO, (formerly the Literacy Research Center) has been training teachers and advocates of literacy since 1983. also hosted a summer intensive workshop in Philadelphia for mid-career professionals interested in promoting literacy in developing countries.

Taylor Diamond

Sources: ProLiteracy, UNESCO LitBase, World Literacy Project, Global Literacy Project,
Photo: Vintage 3D