Reading the past, writing the future: Fifty years of promoting literacy

Executive summary

The present publication takes stock of literacy initiatives world-wide over the last five decades and analyses how literacy campaigns, programmes and policies have changed to reflect the evolutions in our conceptual understanding of literacy.

Fifty countries have been selected in this review based on those that achieved strong progress during the Education for All (EFA) period between 2000 and 2015. These countries serve as a symbol of global progress and wider literacy efforts, although many challenges remain. The fifty selected countries are as follows, listed by region:

● Latin America and the Caribbean: El Salvador, Guatemala,
Honduras, Jamaica, Peru, Plurinational State of Bolivia;

● Northern Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia;

● Oceania: Vanuatu;

● South-Eastern Asia: Lao People’s Democratic Republic,
Timor-Leste;

● Southern Asia: Bangladesh, India, Islamic Republic of Iran,
Nepal, Pakistan;

● Sub-Saharan Africa: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana,
Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Togo, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia;

● Western Asia: Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar,
Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Yemen.

In each of the fifty countries, a literacy programme – often linked with policies and plans of the governments – has been highlighted as one example among many to demonstrate both the societal and personal benefits of literacy. Throughout this review, the voices of learners and other persons engaged in literacy programmes reflect the ways in which literacy has affected their lives, families and communities. The range of programmes illustrates the breadth of participation in literacy efforts and how important it is to engage all stakeholders.

As an introduction, Section I reflects on the definition of literacy and methods of assessment.
Section II outlines the spread of literacy over the long term, based on literacy data available for the largest possible sample of countries since 1950, which distinguish between ’literate’ and ’illiterate’ persons. While the analysis of literacy has moved away from this dichotomous approach towards a continuum of literacy competence, this dichotomy has been – and remains – the predominant basis for statistical surveys of literacy.

Around 1950, hardly more than half of all adults in the world were reported as being literate. Since then, the adult literacy rate at the world level has increased by 5 percentage points every decade on average, to 86 per cent in 2015. However, progress has been far from uniform across countries and regions. Four regional trends stand out:

● Eastern Asia and South-East Asia have almost universalized literacy thanks to steady progress since the 1960s. Given their large initial numbers of illiterate adults, this appears to be the greatest achievement of education policies and literacy interventions. Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have also reached high adult literacy and almost universal youth literacy in recent decades.1

● In Western Asia and Northern Africa, the rapid spread of literacy among young people – especially young women – is a decisive trend of the 1990s and 2000s (regional youth literacy rates reached almost 95 per cent in 2015). The spread of literacy has contributed to the demand for political freedom and socio-economic development expressed by young people in these regions, and will be crucial to their democratization and stabilization.