Aaron Benavot


In 2000 more than 160 countries agreed to the six "Education for All" goals affirming a lifelong vision of learning opportunities that en compasses infants, children, teenagers and adults. Yet recent policy suggests that some goals clearly carry more weight than others. Since 2000, the international development agenda has been forcefully driven by the goal of achieving universal primary education, one of the Millennium Development goals. The relative neglect of other levels of education – early childhood 1 and adult literacy 2 in particular – ignores the interdependent nature of the goals and the positive impact they exercise on each other. Neglecting one goal undermines the achievement of all. Aaran Benavot is Senior Policy Analyst at UNESCO. 3


Building the Case for Literacy

"Illiteracy is receiving minimal political attention and remains a global disgrace, keeping one in five adults (one in four women) on the margins of society" states the 2008 EFA Global Monitoring Report.

In an increasingly globalised society, where basic literacy and nu meracy skills are more essential than ever, 774 million adults lack the elementary knowledge vital for improving their health and livelihood, helping their children with school, playing an active role in their communities and making more informed political and economic choices – in short, for securing a better future for themselves and their families. None of the Millennium Development Goals, in particular those aiming to reduce poverty, improve child and maternal health and combat HIV/ AIDS, will come close to being reached without systematic investment in literacy programmes for out-of-school youths and adults.

Literacy is the foundation for all further learning. It carries benefits running from the deeply personal to the political, social and economic spheres of life. Increasingly, studies describe how literacy acquisition improves an individual's self-esteem and confidence. Such a sense of empowerment opens the way to civic participation, to better knowl edge of health and family planning, and to higher protection against HIV/AIDS. More literate parents – whether through formal schooling or adult programmes – are more likely to send their children, espe cially girl children, to school and to help them with their homework. Although the economic returns to formal schooling are well known, the impact of acquiring and sustaining literacy and numeracy is much less studied. The sparse evidence that does exist indicates that the returns on investment in adult literacy programmes compare favour ably with those at the level of primary education.

Monitoring Literacy: Statistical Caveats

Literacy data are problematic. Cross-national literacy statistics, which have been used by the international community for over 50 years, are largely based on official national census figures. In practice, experts determine an individual's literacy level by one of three methods: 1) self-declaration, in which respondents report their literacy level on a census questionnaire; 2) third-party assessment, involving one individual – typically the head of household – reporting on the literacy levels of all adult household members; and 3) educational attainment, in which number of years of school completed is used as a proxy to distinguish the "literate" from the "non-literate" . Each method has serious limitations; all bolster a conventional dichotomous view of literacy, which defines individuals as either "literate" or "illiterate" .

Based on conventional assessments, international agencies report 774 million illiterate adults, some 18 % of the world's adult population. Since 1990, the number of illiterates has fallen by over 100 million, mainly due to a marked reduction (by 94 million) in China. Today, the vast majority of adults lacking minimal literacy skills live in South and West Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. Partly reflecting discrimination in access to school, women represent 64 % of adult illiterates. At the global level, only 88 adult women are con sidered literate for every 100 adult men.

Although the adult literacy rate 4 increased from 56 % in 1950 to 82 % in the most recent period, it is still only about 60 % in South and West Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab States. Three-quarters of the world's illiterates live in 15 countries. 5 South and West Asia has the lowest literacy rate of any region (60 %), mainly due to the levels in Bangladesh (47 %) and Pakistan (50 %). In some countries (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali), the adult literacy rate is abysmally low – under 20 % – severely limiting opportunities for young people and adults.

Low literacy rates tend to prevail in low-income countries where se vere poverty prevails. In Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Mozam bique and Nepal, for example, where 78 % or more of the population lives below US $ 2 per day, adult literacy rates are below 63 % and the number of adult illiterates exceeds 5 million in each country. At the household level, evidence from thirty developing countries indicates that literacy correlates with household wealth. In seven sub-Saharan African countries with particularly low overall literacy rates, the lit eracy gap between the poorest and wealthiest households is more than forty percentage points, and the gap is nearly always greater for women than for men. Even in countries where the overall rate is above 90 %, literacy disparities by household wealth exist. Literacy rates also tend to be lower among rural populations (e.g., 44 % rural vs. 72 % urban in Pakistan), indigenous peoples, language minorities, migrants and people with disabilities.

The fourth EFA goal calls on countries to "achieve a 50 % improve ment in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all." What are the chances of achieving this? First, the wording of the goal is problematic: strictly speaking, a 50 % improvement in levels of adult literacy is impossible for countries that already have literacy rates of about 67 %. The EFA Report pragmatically interprets the goal as im plying a 50 % reduction in illiteracy rates, consistent with the wording and intentions of the 1990 Jomtien World Conference on Education for All. According to projections run for 101 countries, 53 countries are "at risk" or "serious risk" of not achieving the adult literacy target by 2015; 18 are moving rapidly towards the target but still have a low chance of achieving it, mainly due to low starting positions. 6 Finally, 30 countries stand a high chance of achieving the target by 2015 as their literacy rate is already relatively high and continues to increase steadily. Most countries in the "serious risk" category are in Africa, but Cambodia, Egypt, India, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Pakistan and several Latin American countries (Guatemala and Nica ragua) are also among this group.

Beyond Conventional Measures

Conventional assessments of literacy do not capture the rich politi cal and scholarly debates that have taken place in recent decades, influenced by academic research, institutional agendas and national contexts. Nor do they accurately reflect the scale of the global literacy challenge.

Cercle Reflect en Afghanistan Source: Jenny Matthews/ActionAid 

Cercle Reflect en Afghanistan Source: Jenny Matthews/ActionAid


Over the past five decades, definitions of literacy have shifted, from a discrete set of technical skills, to human resource skills for economic growth, to capabilities for socio-cultural and political change. In the academic community, theories of literacy have evolved from those focused solely on changes in individuals to more complex views en compassing the broader social contexts (the "literate environment" and the "literate society" ) that encourage, enable and sustain diverse literacy activities and practices.

Since the 1950s, international organisations – UNESCO in particular – have played an influential role in developing literacy policies. The first global survey of adult literacy, covering over 60 countries, was published in 1957, at a time when policy-makers were beginning to consider how education and literacy could better enable individuals to participate in and benefit from a modernizing economy. This and other publications contributed to a standard definition of literacy, adopted by UNESCO's General Conference in 1958: "A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his [or her] everyday life." This definition became a guidepost for measuring literacy in national censuses. Still today, about 80 % of the 107 countries surveyed by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics define literacy as the ability to read and/or write simple statements in either a national or native language. 7

Beginning in the 1960s, the concept of functional literacy gained credence alongside the notion of literacy as an integral component of social change, best embodied by Paulo Freire's theory of "conscienti zation" . Reflecting this shift towards a broader concept encompass ing a range of human concerns and aspirations, UNESCO's General Conference in 1978 adopted a definition of functional literacy still in use today:

"A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his [or her] group and community and also for enabling him [or her] to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his [or her] own and the community's development."

In line with these broadened dimensions, alternative measurement methods of literacy have been developed to give a more nuanced and accurate picture of the phenomenon. They incorporate direct assessment and the testing of literacy skills on wider scales rather than dichotomously, and conceive of literacy as a multi-dimensional phenomenon, embracing a variety of skill domains. Typically, direct measurements of literacy show that conventional methods often overstate actual literacy levels. These direct assessments improve the quality of literacy data and provide more accurate information with which to assess existing programmes and design appropriate policies.

In 2006 Kenya conducted a national adult literacy survey using direct assessment of 15,000 households (see article by Joyce N. Kebathi page 69). It estimated the adult literacy rate at 62 %, much lower than the self-estimated rate of 74 % from the 2000 Multiple Indica tor Cluster Surveys. In Morocco, 45 % of respondents in a sample reported being literate, but only 33 % demonstrated basic compe tence in literacy. Similar patterns are found in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and the United Republic of Tanzania. Among Ethiopian women with one year of schooling, 59 % were considered literate by household assessments yet only 27 % passed a simple reading test. Several developing countries are now designing literacy surveys to provide more accurate knowledge about literacy. In 2001 the China Adult Literacy Survey reported diverging skills levels of various sub populations in the urban labour force. In Brazil, four surveys have been carried out since 2001 to measure adult literacy levels based on skills testing, with the aim of generating strong public commitment towards literacy. Botswana has conducted two national literacy surveys that constitute a milestone in its effort to provide decision-makers with a reliable database.

In addition, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics has launched a direct literacy assessment project, the Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme (LAMP), aimed at informing policy by providing reliable, comparable estimates of functional literacy and numeracy skills. These developments are important: more – and more regular – direct assess ments are needed to allow countries to make informed policy decisions. Nevertheless direct assessments must be constructed with local con texts in mind and be relatively simple and inexpensive to implement. If literacy modules currently under development were to be incorporated into the household surveys carried out in developing countries, they would be a valuable tool for accurately assessing literacy.

Historical Perspectives

Although the world literacy rate increased at a faster pace in the 1970s than in subsequent decades, a more sweeping historical perspective sheds light on how many societies have made the transition to wide spread literacy. Today, more than 80 % of the global population over age 15 is reported to possess at least minimal reading and writing skills. An unprecedented social transformation has taken place since the mid-nineteenth century, when only about 10 % of the world's adults could read or write. This dramatic increase has occurred de spite the quintupling of the world's population, from about 1.2 billion in 1859 to over 6.4 billion today.

The spread of formal schooling, well-organised literacy campaigns and policies supporting adult learning opportunities have all played influential roles in expanding access to literacy. The literate environ ments found at home, at work and in local communities are also pow erful levers driving the motivation to become and remain literate.

The expansion of formal schooling is the single most important factor driving the spread of literacy worldwide over the past two centuries, and especially in the past fifty years. Schools have been, and con tinue to be, the place where most people acquire their core literacy skills. There has been significant progress since 2000, with primary

Afghani women in Kabul during elections 

Afghani women in Kabul during elections
Source: Jenny Matthews/ActionAid


school enrolment increasing by 36 % in sub-Saharan Africa and 22 % in South and West Asia. This expansion must continue, with special measures to eliminate barriers for the most vulnerable and disadvan taged children and to improve educational quality. Issues of access, quality and gender parity remain predominant concerns. Direct and indirect fees remain a foremost barrier, especially for poorer families. Some 72 million children remain out of primary school, in large part due to poverty, ethnic discrimination, disability and residence in a rural area or an urban slum. Girls account for 60 % of out-of-school children in South and West Asia and the Arab States. Once in school, the lack of qualified teachers, learning materials and an adequate learning environment all too often add up to a poor-quality education. In several countries of sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than half of pupils who start Grade 1 reach the last grade. Some classrooms in Africa enrol over 100 students to a teacher; schools without textbooks or notebooks are not uncommon. Data on learning outcomes from na tional and regional assessments suggest that average achievement levels in reading and mathematics and other core subjects are low and, in some cases, have decreased. Thus, strategies that pay heed to both universal access and qualitative improvements (e.g., more and better trained teachers, availability of textbooks and learning materi als, sufficient instructional time, better informed language policies, improvements in learning outcomes) are keystones for strengthening the performance of national education systems, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States and South and West Asia.

But this is not enough. Adult programmes must complement schooling, as many young people never attend school, drop out after being enrolled, or fail to acquire basic knowledge and learning skills. Different countries have used different approaches to adult literacy. Cuba's 1961 mass cam paign made more than 700,000 people literate in one year. India's ongo ing Total Literacy Campaign – a highly targeted programme launched in 1992 – has made millions of adults literate. Whatever the route to tackling the challenge – mass campaigns or more targeted interventions – literacy programmes for youth and adults require urgent scaling up. Their volume today is simply inadequate to meet the global challenge.

Strategic Imperatives

A broad political vision of progress calls for action on three fronts, as suggested in the above overview:

  1. continued expansion of primary and lower secondary education with a focus on reducing gender disparities, reaching marginalised and disadvantaged groups, and improving quality;
  2. the scaling up of literacy programmes for youth and adults; and
  3. investing in the literate environment.

Political commitment is the first step. Relatively few governments have coherent, long-term national literacy policies encompassing governance, programme design and delivery and the promotion of an environment in which individuals are encouraged to acquire and sustain their literacy skills. Such policies call for strong leadership in which central guidance and coordination are dovetailed with lo cal implementation and community ownership. Governments must clearly define responsibilities for adult literacy, which is often diffused across several ministries and/or private associations. There are some encouraging signs of a renewed emphasis on literacy. Several gov ernments have recently begun to devote increasing attention to the field, including Brazil, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Nicaragua, Indonesia and Venezuela. In several cases, this renewed attention is reflected by the creation of a dedicated ministry (e.g., Mali), in others by close partnerships with local governments and NGOs.

These partnerships are vital but are all too often threatened by fragmentation or even competition. The involvement of the media, universities, ministries other than education, local authorities, civil so ciety and the private sector holds much potential. Brokering national partnerships to make literacy more visible can increase cohesion in national literacy efforts. In 2003, for example, the Brazilian govern ment launched an accelerated initiative, Literate Brazil, which funds government agencies and NGOs with experience in adult literacy to enable them to expand their coverage. In 2004, the initiative expand ed its partnership with local governments. Senegal has developed close partnerships with civil society organisations to increase learning opportunities for youth and adults. In East Asia and the Pacific, the spread of community learning centres that combine education with development activities has given momentum to literacy.

Finally, experience offers a guide to good practice in adult literacy programmes. A cardinal rule is to start with learners' needs and demands: why and what are they interested in learning? In what language? Although the use of vernaculars in adult programmes is pedagogically sound, learners often express a demand for literacy in a regional and/or national language. Are programmes sensitive to the realities of learners' lives, from child-care, social and gender norms to the exigencies of agricultural cycles?

The status of literacy educators is cause for serious concern. Good educators are the crux of successful literacy programmes, but they are paid little, lack job security, have few training opportunities and rarely benefit from ongoing professional support. According to a survey of 67 programmes around the world conducted for the report by the Global Campaign for Education and ActionAid, most literacy educators earn between one-fourth and one-half of a basic primary school teacher's salary.

Alongside the expansion of youth and learning programmes, many stakeholders now recognise the need for developing policies to strengthen literate environments – contexts in which individuals are encouraged to acquire and apply their literacy skills. Various com parative studies show positive correlations between reading materials in the home and reading achievement at school. A recent study in 35 countries, for example, found that exposure to home-based literacy activities was positively related to Grade 4 reading achievement.8 Sadly, minimal written materials are often lacking in pupil households. According to the Southern African Consortium on Monitoring Edu cational Quality, at least 70 % of Grade 6 students reported having fewer than ten books in their homes.9 Many countries are harnessing the potential of the print and broadcast media to promote literacy; quite a few are developing special publications to promote reading among the newly literate. Improving policies on book publishing, the media, access to information, school textbooks and public libraries are important building blocks for nurturing learning and must feature in any comprehensive national literacy strategy.

The scaling up of adult literacy programmes requires a coordinated financing strategy. Budgetary allocations to literacy must increase, and not at the expense of investment in the quality of schooling. Policy-makers need to come up with baseline figures for significantly expanding national programmes by assessing the costs of training, development and printing of learning materials, payment of literacy educators, start-up and operating expenses. At present, adult literacy represents approximately 1 % of national expenditure on education.

Integrated Community Based Adult Education Programme Information Centre in Tanzania 

Integrated Community Based Adult Education Programme Information Centre in Tanzania Source: ActionAid

This is not enough. Broad-brush work commissioned by our report suggests that some US $ 26 billion is required from now to 2015 to en able more than 550 million people to complete a literacy programme of 400 hours. This is merely an indicative framework to stimulate policy debate in countries.10

Boosting International Support

The international community must pull its weight if countries most in need are to expand learning opportunities for millions of young people and adults who are deprived of access to literacy and adult education opportunities. Countries committed to adult learning require predict able, long-term aid to carry through essential policy reforms. Detailed figures on aid for literacy and adult education programmes are difficult to come by. Aid to "basic education" (as defined by the OECD) is on the rise – both bilateral and multilateral – but still represents only 4.0 % of total aid. Overall, nearly 45 % of bilateral commitments to education are focused on the post-secondary level. The needs remain enormous at all levels of education, formal and non-formal. The 2008 Global Monitoring Report estimates that US $ 9 billion of aid is required to reach the goals of universal primary education and gender equality alone. Aid to basic education amounted to US $ 5.0 billion in 2006, up from US $ 3.7 billion in 2005 but below the US $ 5.3 billion committed in 2004. Of this, bilateral aid to basic education stood at US $ 3.9 bil lion. Yet aid to basic education will reach only US $ 6 billion by 2010 even if the promises of the Gleneagles G-8 summit in 2005 are met.

It is crucial that this aid be better coordinated and used effectively to help countries better manage key reforms, especially in the area of literacy and adult education. Alongside the expansion of primary education, donors must reassess the place of literacy in their policies and in discussions with governments. Very few agencies can indicate their support to literacy.

Although the global education situation is improving, a much bolder, long-term commitment is required for donors and developing coun tries to fulfil the compact they made at Dakar to guarantee every person's right to education and adult learning opportunities. Literacy skills are more vital than ever in today's evolving knowledge societies. Furthermore, widespread literacy can never be considered a won cause. Economic decline and political crisis can lead to stagnation in schooling and literacy levels, even in countries with high education indicators (e.g. several Central Asian countries). Pockets of illiteracy even persist in highly literate and schooled societies. International surveys reveal that even in developed countries where most adults perform well (e.g. Nordic countries), about 10 % have skill levels barely above the minimal threshold due to factors such as poverty, low socio-economic status, ill health and disabilities. Hence, missed opportunities to acquire literacy skills during childhood and adoles cence can be compounded during adulthood. These realities call for a lifelong, "expanded" vision of education as justly expressed in 1990 at the Jomtien World Conference on Education for All and reiterated in 2000 at Dakar.


1 See 2007 EFA Global Monitoring Report: "Strong Foundations: Early childhood care and education".
2 See 2006 EFA Global Monitoring Report: "Literacy for Life".
3 The author is grateful to Cynthia Guttman, Communications Officer for the EFA Global Monitoring Report, for her assistance in writing this article. www.efareport.unesco.org

4 The number of literate persons expressed as a percentage of the total adult (age 15 or above) population.
5 India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Egypt, Brazil, Iran, Morocco, D.R. Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, Nepal.

6 See 2008 EFA Global Monitoring Report: "Education for All by 2015: Will We Make It?" p. 181-82.
7 See 2008 EFA Global Monitoring Report: "Education for All by 2015: Will We Make It?" , pp. 237-243.

8 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.
9 Kenneth Ross, M. Saito, S. Dolata, M. Ikeda, and L. Zuze. 2004. Data archive for the SACMEQ I and SACMEQ II Projects. Paris: UNESCO-IIEP.
10 See commissioned study by Aggio/Van Ravens on the report's website www.efareport.unesco.org. The study includes a tool allowing users to alter costing assumptions for individual countries.