UN literacy decade: interview with UNESCO’s Director-General

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

February 2003

This article was first published in the UN Chronicle Magazine

Koïchiro Matsuura is Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He was appointed in November 1999 by the Organization’s General Conference to serve a six-year term.

Goals of the UN Literacy Decade 2003-2012

The ultimate goal, adopted in April 2000 at the second World Conference on Basic Education, is to achieve a 50-per-cent reduction in adult illiteracy by 2015.

There are 860 million illiterate adults and therefore there should be no more than 430 million illiterate adults by 2015, even counting demographic development and the fact that the world population is bound to increase. However, our research indicates that if we continue with current trends in the reduction of adult illiteracy, we will still have 800 million illiterate adults in 2015. Some 80 per cent of adults are currently literate, but to reverse the trend and halve illiteracy, the percentage must go up to 90.

That means we have to make very, very serious efforts nationally and internationally to reduce adult illiteracy in all countries. The UN Literacy Decade is therefore very important as an international campaign to drive home to all of humanity that we have a very important goal to achieve.

Literacy as a human right

We believe that everybody has a right to quality education and to literacy. If we continue to have illiterate adults, this means we have not given them their rights and they are deprived of one of the most important human rights.

Another aspect of literacy is that it is an important instrument for poverty eradication. There is a very close linkage between literacy and poverty. Where people are illiterate, they cannot get out of poverty, they cannot earn money. Without being literate, you cannot enjoy your social or cultural life, so to be literate is a fundamental starting point to enjoy a minimal quality of life.

Literacy gender gap

Two thirds of illiterate adults are women. Where mothers are illiterate, they do not have a strong incentive to give an education to their children; so it is a vicious cycle. We still have 112 million children not going to primary school. Illiterate mothers do not understand the value of education, especially girls’ education.

These children then become illiterate adults, and so it continues. In order to send children to primary school and achieve universal primary education, we have to educate mothers. Without this, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve universal primary education.

Who takes responsibility

We have to reach out to refugees and the excluded, the marginalized and also the poor. Illiteracy and poverty live together — illiterate people are poor. So we have to help these people.

It is not easy; of course it is not easy. National governments have the primary responsibility, but local governments also have an important role, as do local communities, civil society and non-governmental organizations. A systematic approach involving all these groups is crucial.

A major part of funding for basic education must come from those countries involved, but the international community must help as well. When countries concerned make the maximum effort to mobilize domestic resources, it does not necessarily mean they will fully fulfil the requirements. This is where the international community must extend cooperation. UNESCO and its partners will help those countries which make serious efforts.

Liberty & Humanity