Fifty years ago, almost one-quarter of the world’s youth lacked basic literacy skills compared to less than 10 per cent in 2016. Young people in Asia and Africa, in particular, are far more likely to be literate today than they were in 1946.
Whilst there has been major progress, however, 750 million adults and 115 youth – two-thirds of whom are women – are still illiterate. An estimated 263 million primary school-age children worldwide still face ‘silent exclusion’ i.e., they are either out of school, or enrolled by learning little. According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data, the majority of countries missed the Education for All goal of reducing adult illiteracy by 50 per cent between 2000 and 2015. In other words, we still have quite a bit of work to do.
The absence of basic literacy and numeracy is a huge impediment to individuals in their daily lives. Tasks that we take for granted, such as reading a prescription, filling out a form, sending a text message, are challenges to illiterate adults and youth, and often prevent them from obtaining the most essential services and exercising their basic rights. It is no surprise that the United Nations lists ‘ensuring all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy’ as a Sustainable Development Goal to be achieved by 2030.
Literacy skills are essential for creating a lifelong learning framework, and for informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active participation in local and global social communities. In addition to alleviating poverty and improving the quality of life, literacy also helps to attain gender equity, works towards encouraging greater political participation and sustainable development, and presents immense social and cultural benefits.
This year’s theme which revolves around ‘Literacy and Skills Development’ highlights the integration between literacy and vocational and technical skills acrossthe education and work system. As a result of the inequalities within the global education system, many developing countries have witnessed mounting levels of youth unemployment, largely owing to undeveloped skills that are required in today’s progressive job market. Therefore, when countries focus on youth and adults’ literacy, the effective linkages between literacy and skills need to be determined. Today’s youth need to be trained with the adequate skills and competencies – at school levels – that would allow for a smooth transition into the labor force. Moreover, the focus needs to move from merely literacy to professional skills that guide an individual to possess a diversified set of proficiencies which are suitable for lifelong development.
The emergence of digital mobilization has further amplified the literacy gap between developed and developing countries. This requires from us a new strategy – which couples vocational and technological skills within the literacy agenda. Countries that have successfully implemented this strategy enjoy high rankings for measures of education and skills across varied age cohorts.
According to statistics from the World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Report, Finland is one such example – where the quality of education and supply of skilled labor is ranked as one of the best in the world, followed by Norway and Switzerland. In our region, the UAE leads the forefront in the Middle East, with high literacy rates at an increasing annual rate amongst males and females – which is a remarkable feat in a short period of time. Countries with such high scores heavily invested in areas such as language training, engaging nationwide reading projects and providing training with the latest technology infrastructure at all primary and secondary school levels. In addition, intensive training programs for teachers are exercised on a regular basis in order to enhance their skill level – so that their expertise can be emulated to high literacy rates among students.
As a global philanthropic organization, we are committed to play an active role in advocating for literacy programs and continue to make valuable contributions to achieving the SDG4. This is part of our core mandate to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning by 2030, by supporting education programs in early childhood development, access to quality primary and secondary education, technical and vocational education and training for youth as well as a particular focus on education in emergencies and protracted crises.
Despite the significant strides made in achieving SDG4, the journey doesn’t end here. Governments must resist the temptation of education cuts, despite economic pressures. Education is simply the best path out of the crisis; it is the surest long-term investment in development. Girls and boys must go to and stay in school. No one should end schooling without being able to read. This means they must have something to read - good libraries - and good teachers to help them. We must think big, to make literacy happen outside formal schooling - in the workplace, in libraries and community centers. We can do much more with new information and communication technologies to widen learning opportunities for all. This requires alliances for literacy, especially with private sector companies. The international community needs to strive further in its shared ambitions to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all by increasing efforts, especially in poor countries and for vulnerable populations, including persons with disabilities, indigenous people, refugee children and disadvantaged children in rural areas.