Photo: GPE/Alexandra Humme on Flickr (CC)
“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world”. With this famous quote, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai encapsulated the powerful impact of education. And indeed, our world has undergone tremendous change as millions of people gain literacy and embrace their true potential. While only 14% of the world’s population could read and write in 1820, now it is 14% of the population who cannot, as the OECD highlights in a report showcasing the radical improvement in life wellbeing in the last century.
There are many reasons to be optimistic. In 2019 literacy rates worldwide stood at 86% according to The World Bank, increasing an average 4% every 5 years since 1960. Such relentless progress responds notably to the expansion of basic education, a fundamental human right that has seen millions of people learn how to read and write for the first time.
Yet, this spectacular growth of literacy has been unevenly distributed. On the one hand, Asia has made significant strides in educating its population as it lifts scores of people out of poverty. The boost in literacy rates in India and China, for instance, has raised the bar for the world’s literacy in a substantial way.
On the contrary, the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and notably sub-Saharan Africa, still lag behind. The United Nations alerts that half of the children out of school live in sub-Saharan Africa, whereas half of the global illiterate population lives in South Asia and a quarter, in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, of the 750 million adults who remain illiterate, two-thirds are women. Likewise, girls are at a significantly higher risk of school exclusion than boys.
In this way, international success in curbing illiteracy worldwide must gain steam if Agenda 2030 is to be fully realized.
The need for education for all
Elation with the spectacular advancements reached so far must not let us fall into complacency. Ethiopian educator Asfaw Yemiru knew it fully well. As showcased by The Economist, he walked barefoot from his remote home village to Addis Ababa with just 50 cents in his pocket and nine years upon his shoulders. Teeming with enticing possibilities, the Ethiopian capital soon found him rising from street beggar to top achiever in primary school.
Resolved to give others the chances he so hard fought for, Asfaw Yemiru then grew those seeds of change to create on the most renowned schools across the country, the Asra Hawariat School for the Poor. As of 2020, more than 120,000 girls and boys swept from the streets trespassed the threshold of this impactful institution. Defunct this year of 2021, Asfaw Yemiru’s cannot but remain a stunning example of the many Global South leaders riding the wave of change in world literacy and education.
Furthermore, this is where Sustainable Development Goal 4. Quality Education rises to prominence. Galvanizing efforts to harness the power of education for development, the Goal is composed of 10 main targets. These focus on everything education-related, from primary and secondary education to technical training, skills for work, scholarships, and teachers. Notably, Target 4.6 addresses literacy and numeracy.
Indeed, the integration of Sustainable Development Goal 4 as the education and literacy-related goal in the Agenda 2030 crucially signals the powerful link between poverty and lack of education. Literacy, both adult and children’s, remains a condition sine qua non for sustainable and inclusive development and feeds on progress from the other SDGs. Literacy spills over across the many dimensions of sustainable development: girl literacy pushes for gender equality; youth literacy directly boosts income and enlarges job opportunities. And this fosters other Sustainable Development Goals in the Agenda 2030, from SDG 5. Gender Equality to SDG 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth.
All in all, such progress in literacy and education, vividly embodied in inspiring stories like that of Asfaw Yemiru, sends shockwaves across the world. With optimism about the progress made so far and awareness of the room for improvement ahead, the global community is poised to step up its efforts on Sustainable Development Goal 4 and achieve world literacy in the coming years. There is no time to waste. We must act now to author the brilliant achievement of making every human able to read and write.