International Literacy Day – Let’s Make the World more Secure!

Editorial, by Montse Rafel, Director General of Dianova

In 2003, at the outset of the United Nations Literacy Decade, world leaders had made groundbreaking commitments, in particular acknowledging the right to literacy not only as a political priority but also as a fundamental human right. 

Like any human right, the right to basic education refers to principles of justice and equality; as such, it must be expanded and defended as an end in itself. However, the right to literacy is also a critical factor to human development: literacy is key to reducing poverty and child mortality, improving maternal health and empowering women, and to decreasing inequities. 

At the end of the UN Literacy Decade in 2012, the situation remains critical despite the progress made. According to UNESCO (Decade’s coordinator), 781 million adults worldwide cannot read, write or count and two thirds of them are women; more than 250 million children are unable to read a single sentence, even though half of them have spent four years in school. In addition, 60 million school-aged children have never been to school and in some countries, about 70% of the adult population has no literacy skills whatsoever!

UNESCO is right to point the finger at the poor quality, or outright lack of means of action or follow up. This situation is not acceptable because, global economic crisis or not, the world’s future is at stake. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen already put it back in 2003: "If we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just but also less secure". 

And we do not talk about the countries which are less developed, because they’re all concerned: for example, according to the European Commission, one out of five 15 year-olds in Europe can barely read or write…

Alongside such disappointing outcome, one should also consider the evolution of the stakes of literacy, and accordingly, that of people’s needs. In a world that is more and more interconnected, where information is ubiquitous and easily available on the worldwide web (objective in addition to biased information, rumors or slander), it takes much more than just being able to read, write and count: one must also be adept at identifying, locating, evaluating and effectively using this information.  

One must be able to utilize free thinking and judgment to question that information, to understand it, identify what the information lacks, analyze it, organize it and distinguish rumors from objective facts – not only in terms of reading printed texts but also in terms of viewing and listening and image making, since images and videos are specifically pervasive in young people’s lives. 

Many young people face a huge challenge, that of developing skills and abilities in terms of information literacy, that is the capacity of understanding and utilizing information so as to achieve one’s personal objectives and to participate intelligently and actively in today’s society. In other words, learning to learn

On the occasion of the International Literacy Day, Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, stressed that we should also change the traditional approach of literacy programs to encompass broader skills with regard to the conservation of biodiversity, sustainable lifestyles, poverty reduction as well as civil participation. This is indeed a wonderful vision, however this vision will only be made reality if each nation of the world provides the financial and human resources to ensure that each child can acquire reading, writing and counting fundamentals, and that each people, young and old, be able to learn and develop a real culture of information.