01 September 2015
Contributor post
Illiteracy: a worldwide crisis

DD: How is illiteracy a worldwide crisis and how do you define it?

AK: Today, global literacy statistics paint a gloomy picture. Illiteracy threatens over 785 million adults worldwide, translating into one in every five people on the planet with either no or just basic reading skills. Two thirds of the illiterate population are women.

The slumping global literacy rate has detrimental effects on communities all over the world. Many people take literacy for granted, but for those that are denied this basic skill, some of life’s most essential necessities become far out of reach.

The real problems associated with being illiterate involve critical parts of life, such as reading a medicine label, balancing a chequebook, filling out a job application or getting basic job training. Accomplishing these skills is often the path to a better life. Along with the inability to read often comes misunderstanding and confusion, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty and illness. In fact, poverty and burden of disease correlate directly with illiteracy and low literacy. Life expectancy is lowest where people cannot read.

DD: What are the effects and consequences of illiteracy?

AK: The cost of illiteracy to the global economy is estimated at US$ 1.2 trillion. The effects of illiteracy are very similar in developing and developed countries. This includes illiterate people trapped in a cycle of poverty with limited opportunities for employment or income generation and higher chances of poor health, turning to crime and dependence on social welfare or charity. The consequences of illiteracy on individuals and society include the following.

For individuals:

  • Limited ability to obtain and understand essential information.
  • Unemployment: the unemployment rate is two to four times higher among those with little schooling than among those with bachelor’s degrees.
  • Lower income.
  • Lower-quality jobs.
  • Reduced access to lifelong learning and professional development.
  • Precarious financial position.
  • Little value being given to education and reading within the family, which often leads to intergenerational transmission of illiteracy.
  • Low self-esteem, which can lead to isolation.
  • Impact on health: illiterate individuals have more workplace accidents, take longer to recover and more often misuse medication through ignorance of health-care resources and because they have trouble reading and understanding the relevant information (warnings, dosage, contraindications, etc.).

For society:

  • Since literacy is an essential tool for individuals and states to be competitive in the new global knowledge economy, many positions remain vacant for lack of personnel adequately trained to hold them.
  • The higher the proportion of adults with low literacy proficiency is, the slower the overall long-term gross domestic product growth rate is.
  • The difficulty in understanding societal issues lowers the level of community involvement and civic participation.
  • Without the basic tools necessary for achieving their goals, individuals without an adequate level of literacy cannot be involved fully and on a completely equal basis in social and political discourse.

DD: The post-2015 agenda regarding education emphasizes equal and qualitative education. Where does illiteracy fit into the picture?

AK: In our latest report, The economic & social cost of illiteracy, we estimate that trillions of dollars have been put on the cost of illiteracy. One can put figures on the social cost in terms of welfare payments or the burden on the health system. But the real opportunity cost will never be known. These are the costs of lost opportunities to create individual financial wealth, encourage entrepreneurs and build healthier and more stable families whose members can make a productive contribution to all areas of society (political and cultural as well as economic). Education is a basic human right. We still have much more to be done in this area. Community education around literacy is vital; lifting the investment from governments to ensure that every child has free access to an education is key.


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Andrew Kay

Andrew Kay is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the World Literacy Foundation. The World Literacy Foundation's latest report is available at http://worldliteracyfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/WLF-FINAL-ECONOMIC-REPORT.pdf

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