The 10-year campaign will be organised by Unesco, the UN's educational, scientific and cultural organisation, a leading partner in the Education For All movement which, following a pledge by 180 countries at the 2000 World Education Forum in Dakar, is working to provide primary education for all children by 2015.
Objectives of the Decade include reducing illiteracy, especially among women. In 2000 there were an estimated 877 million illiterate adults and between 113m and 125m out-of-school children who risk joining them. More than two-thirds of illiterate people live in East and South Asia. In the Arab region and sub-Saharan Africa illiteracy rates are about 38 per cent, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, 12 per cent. Females are twice as likely to be illiterate as males.
Unesco's definition of literacy includes not only mastering the three Rs, but other skills necessary to function in society. These could be reading instructions for using fertilisers or medical prescriptions, knowing which bus to catch, keeping accounts for a small business or operating a computer.
Literacy is important, said Adama Ouane of the Unesco Institute for Education, because it is "the key to the toolbox that contains empowerment, a better livelihood, smaller and healthier families and participation in democratic life".
A successful example of a literacy project is ActionAid's REFLECT scheme, adopted by 350 organisations in 60 countries, which uses materials developed by local communities for adults: maps, diagrams and calendars. Stories, songs and drama are used to study agricultural cycles, disease patterns or individuals' income and any incurred expenditure.
A common obstacle for governments wanting to improve the standard of education is a lack of basic information on the number of illiterate people, and on who and where they are. Methodology for collecting data, assessment and monitoring are often inadequate, so the impact of literacy programmes is often unknown. Unesco is developing systems to collect, process and analyse data in order to improve the situation for the non-formal education system.