High-tech casts world illiteracy in new light
Soap operas, mobile phones and community radio are being harnessed to improve reading and writing skills in parts of the world with the highest adult illiteracy rates.
But while some areas are making significant improvements - southern Asia has doubled its literacy rate in just two decades while Arab states have seen a 20 per cent increase in the past decade - there are still 796 million illiterate adults in the world today, 64 per cent of whom are women.
Adama Ouane, director of the Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning, based in Hamburg, told a Glasgow conference on international literacy earlier this month that literacy was too complex to be defined in simple terms.
Indeed, there was "no clearcut divide" between literacy and non-literacy, he told a conference entitled "Literacies matter! Scottish and global perspectives" at Glasgow University.
The socio-economic changes in the world meant that new skills and competencies were now being demanded - and they, in turn, had led to a shift in definitions of literacy.
Programmes for literacy and numeracy in the 1960s were the equivalent of two years' primary education; by the early 1970s, this had risen to four years' schooling; but now they equated to 12 years of education, said Dr Ouane.
"The survival skills for an individual to become autonomous are growing in complexity and level," he added.
While international programmes to tackle illiteracy required valid and reliable data, the availability of such data should not be treated as a pre-condition to action, said Dr Ouane. In his home country of Mali, where the literacy rate was only 46 per cent, this alone should be a sufficient catalyst to create a massive literacy programme, he argued.
"Sometimes, there is an overly technocratic approach from funding aid programmes. Sometimes, to improve action, data is needed, but we should not make it a religion or make it a pretext for not acting or giving less resource," he said.
Dr Ouane also criticised those nations which targeted their literacy programmes only at people under the age of 45.
"We need to see literacy as part of lifelong learning as much as it is part of primary schooling," he said.
The current economic, financial and social crises should not be seen as an insurmountable obstacle to literacy and an excuse to abandon efforts to take the cause forward.
"Instead, we should view it as an opportunity to create truly sustainable systems that will promote literacy for all, today and in the long term," he concluded.