Universal Literacy as a Catalyst for Achieving All MDG Goals Part 1 of 2: The state of global literacy and its role in poverty alleviation.

Submitted by Linda Martin

On September 8, the world focused its eyes on education, in honor of International Literacy Day 2010. Yet as millions celebrated, results from the Millennium Development Progress Report 2010 concluded “Hope dims for universal education by 2015, even as many poor countries make tremendous strides.” Is it possible to mobilize the resources and political support necessary to turn the tide? Can a more integrated approach help accelerate progress in reaching all the MDG goals?

“A quality inclusive education for all is the key to achieving each and every one of the Millennium Development Goals, from reducing poverty to improving health, empowering women and ensuring environmental sustainability,”

Irina Bokova,
Director-General, UNESCO

UNESCO’s new Web site Education and the Millennium Development Goals illustrates ways in which education acts as a potent catalyst for human development. Examples include:

MDG Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseasesA study covering thirty-two countries, “found that women with post-primary education were five times more likely than illiterate women to know about HIV/AIDS”.

MDG Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger According to UNESCO, “Doubling primary school-age attendance rates for rural populations is associated with an average 20 to 25 per cent decrease in food insecurity”.

MDG Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
Examples of the impact of primary education includeHaving a mother with primary education reduces child death rates by almost half in the Philippines and around one third in Bolivia”.


What does it mean to be literate?
A “bare bones” definition of literacy is the ability to read and write. UNESCO provides a definition more applicable to our increasingly complex and inter-connected world. Literacy is the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

Monitoring adult and youth literacy, and global trends.
UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics (UIS) monitors international literacy targets associated with the MDGs. Adult and Youth Literary: Global Trends in Gender Parity-UIS Fact Sheet, September 2010, states that in 2008, 796 million adults worldwide (15 years and older) reported not being able to read and write, of which 64% were female. The overall adult literacy rate was 83%. Adults who lived in Southern Asia and Sub-Sahara Africa comprised three quarters of adults worldwide, who did not read or write. Gender disparity was greatest in Southern Asia, where almost three quarters of all men but only half of the women had the ability to read and write. The literacy rate in Southern Asia was 62%, and in sub-Saharan Africa, 63%.

In comparison, the global youth literacy rate was 89% (92% for males and 86% for females), with 131 million youth worldwide lacking basic reading and writing skills, of which 61% were female (3% less than adult female rates).  Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa were home to 86% of all youths unable to read and write worldwide.

According UNICEF’s report, State of the World’s Children 2009, “although improving, the educational status of young women is still low in several developing regions”.

“Literacy programs, especially when linked to life and livelihood skills, empowerment and peace-building initiatives, have the potential to improve human security, promote reconciliation and prevent future conflict.”

The Global Literacy Challenge

Female net secondary school attendance

  • World 44%
  • Sub-Saharan Africa 22%
  • South Asia 43%

Female youth (15-25 years) literacy rate

  • World 85%
  • Sub-Saharan Africa 68%
  • South Asia 74%


At the primary level, the newly published report, Progress for Children – Achieving the MDGs with Equity (Sept. 2010), notes that 100 million children of primary school age were out of school in 2008, 52% of them girls. South Asia had 33 million children out-of-school, followed by West and Central Africa (25 million), and Eastern and Southern Africa (19 million).Learn more about Monitoring and Evaluation studies from UNESCO’s monitoring Web site.


MDG  Summit in New York, September 20-22
Leaders in the international community will have an opportunity to suggest ways to accelerate progress at a High-Level MDG Summit being held in New York, September 20-22. This is an opportunity to share information about successful cross-sector programs, best practices learned from experienced INGOs and other innovative players, and to forge ahead in partnership to address unreached goals.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, Barriers to Education and Bridges to Achieving MDG Goals.

Related Links

Education and the Millennium Development Goals

UNESCO – Education

Progress for Children: Achieving MDGs with Equity
Millennium Development Progress Report 2010

The Global Literacy Challenge

MDG Info 2010 and MDG Data Wizard

United Nations Girls Education Initiative

UNICEF- education and gender equality resources
UNESCO- The Global Literacy Challenge
The State of the World’s Children 2009
Global Literacy Program, Inc.

Safe Schools – Amnesty International

Center for Global Development

National Institute for Literacy