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We Must Broaden the Circle of Literacy Leaders

by Marcie Craig Post
 | Apr 14, 2015

A large and highly dedicated community of leaders and organizations has long focused on advancing literacy in the U.S. and around the world. Through research, innovative methods, training of emerging new leaders and teachers, and practical work on the ground, they have also devoted considerable resources to accelerating a rise in literacy.

These efforts are necessary to turn the tide of illiteracy worldwide, but not sufficient. If we are to achieve a new level of progress, we need to enlist and inspire a broader community beyond our own. We must engage in more robust discussions with government, business, and non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, as well as with—most importantly—educators, families, and students.

That’s why today, April 14, 2015, through an initiative called Leaders for Literacy Day, we’re organizing a first step in the creation of a cross-sector coalition of education, business, community, foundation, and NGO leaders who will examine what is working to promote literacy worldwide, what is not, and how can we come together to close the gap.

The mission could not be any more urgent. Though there has been progress in recent decades, the challenge is still enormous and stubborn. Thanks in part to enhanced efforts by U.N. member states and affiliated agencies to provide a primary education for all children around the world, the global adult illiteracy rate dropped significantly over the last couple of decades, leaving only about 12% of the world functionally illiterate today, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. But that still leaves about 781 million adults and 126 million youths worldwide who cannot read or write.

In the U.S. alone, 32 million adults—or 14% of the population—can’t read, according to a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. Just as alarming, that’s almost exactly the same proportion it was 10 years ago.

Statistics show that, far more than those who cannot read or write, people who are literate are much more likely to escape the bonds of poverty and live longer; they’re more inclined to vote, take part in their communities, and seek medical help for themselves and their families; and they’re much better equipped to take advantage of knowledge jobs in the digital economy that are proliferating at record levels and represent, according to McKinsey Consulting, more than 230 million positions worldwide.

As societies improve their rates of literacy, they become better trading partners with the rest of the world and are less likely to spawn conflict that threatens regions, whole continents, and the world. So as the world has become more economically and socially interdependent than ever, we all have a stake in moving as many people as possible from illiteracy to literacy. 

Countless individuals, organizations, government agencies, and private companies have contributed significant resources and energy to advance literacy and equitable education worldwide.

The business community, for example, understands that growth and expansion require much higher levels of more educated—let alone literate—people in the available workforce. And businesses can be particularly helpful in identifying proper strategies, stimulating innovation and measuring outcomes.

Companies like Microsoft are enabling critical innovation among students, teachers and schools through cutting-edge technology. In global health, some NGOs have based their logistics and supply chain strategies on Coca-Cola’s elaborate international distribution systems. If we can sell Coke and distribute medical treatment in the most remote parts of the world, why can’t we do the same to raise the rates of literacy?

NGOs are essential partners and play a critical role in advocating for equitable access and broadly sharing their experiences and best practices that can help scale up proven interventions.

In addition, families and children of all ages are critical to creating a culture of learning within every home and every community, making sure students understand how important literacy can be in improving their own lives.
There’s no question that literacy is now and will become increasingly essential to ensuring the productivity of individuals and whole societies. Because we all have a stake in this endeavor, now, more than ever, is the time to expand the circle of those who can help advance literacy for all.

Here are some of the influencers from around the world who are weighing in on the #AgeOfLiteracy.

Marcie Craig Post is the executive director of ILA. Follow her on Twitter: @MarcieCraigPost.


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