Press Release

Launch of the United Nations

Literacy Decade


Let “Literacy for All” Be Battle Cry, Says Deputy Secretary-General

Let “literacy for all” be the battle cry for the next decade, said Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette at this morning’s launch at Headquarters of the United Nations Literacy Decade:  Education for All.

During its fifty-sixth session, the General Assembly proclaimed the period 2003 to 2012 as the Literacy Decade with the objective of achieving locally sustainable literate environments by extending literacy to the 860 million illiterate adults and the 113 million children out of school worldwide.  Literacy efforts had so far failed to reach the poorest and most marginalized groups, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  Thus, priority attention would be given to the most disadvantaged groups, especially women and girls, ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous populations, migrants and refugees, disabled persons, and out-of-school children and youth. 

Joining Ms. Fréchette today were Mongolian President Natsigiyn Bagabandi, the driving force behind the initiative, and the Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, under whose direction the Decade would be organized.  General Assembly Vice President Gerhard Pfanzelter (Austria) introduced the speakers and urged the international community to take serious and forceful action to guarantee literacy for all.

President Bagabandi said the international community would fail to guarantee equal human rights for all as long as it accepted illiteracy.  To avoid such a situation, he urged that, within the framework of the Literacy Decade, determined actions be taken to implement the Dakar commitment to halve the number of adult illiterates by 2015.  Literacy was not only the primary requirement for economic well-being, but also a solid base for a fulfilling and happy life. 

Mr. Matsuura said that UNESCO’s slogan, “Literacy as Freedom”, was designed to free people from ignorance, incapacity and exclusion and free them for action, choices and participation.  Through literacy, the downtrodden could find their voice; the poor could learn how to learn; and the powerless could empower themselves.  In that light, the drive for universal literacy was integrally linked to the human rights agenda.  Literacy was not a universal panacea for all development problems, but, as a tool of development, it was both versatile and proven. 

Also today, a video presentation was shown, and chairs of regional groups and civil society representatives spoke.  Part II of the launch is being held in the Exhibition Gallery from noon to 1 p.m.  It includes brief remarks by Nane

Annan, a musical performance by the Children’s Choir, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony by the Mongolian President and Mrs. Annan.

Literacy Statements

LOUISE FRÉCHETTE, Deputy Secretary-General, said that with the Literacy Decade, a new phase was opened in the global effort to spread literacy and its benefits to all peoples and all societies.  Literacy remained part of the unfinished business of the twentieth century.  One of the success stories of the twenty-first century must be the extension of literacy to include all humankind.  There was no time to lose if the world was to meet the goal agreed by governments to increase world literacy rates by 50 per cent by 2015. 

She said that the sheer scale of global illiteracy was massive:  approximately 860 million people -– one in five adults -– could not read or write.  Two-thirds of those were women.  That meant going beyond the efforts of the past, and applying lessons learned from past mistakes.  The most successful approaches had been based on community action that took into account local context and conditions.  Partnerships must be evolved, and the needs of learner communities must be at the centre of the efforts.

Literacy was a human right, she said.  It was unconscionable that 20 per cent of the world’s adult population was still denied that right.  Literacy was not only a goal in itself; it was a prerequisite for a healthy, just and prosperous world.  It was a crucial tool in the work of translating into reality the Millennium Development Goals, adopted as a blueprint for building a better world.  That was especially true of female literacy.  Indeed, there was no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and women.

She said that when women were educated and empowered, families were healthier and better fed.  Their incomes went up, and their chances of protecting against HIV/AIDS increased, as did the chances of education for their children.  What was true of families was true of communities, and ultimately, of whole countries.  That was why the first two years of the Decade would be focused on literacy and gender.  The Decade was a unique opportunity to work together in a sustained way for 10 years in order to make a real difference -– to put to work all the lessons learned about how to promote literacy.

KOICHIRO MATSUURA, Director-General of UNESCO, said that literacy, as a vital aspect of the right to education, was part of the wider drive towards education for all and was an instrument of economic, social and cultural development.  The Decade sought to raise and maintain awareness of the literacy challenge.  It would serve as a stimulus to action by a broad range of partners and stakeholders.  In related efforts, the sheer scale of the literacy challenge must be kept in view -- more than 860 million adults were illiterate, or one in five persons aged 15 and over, and two-thirds of them were women. 

He said that the enormity of the literacy challenge should not daunt, but it should caution against over-ambitious expectations.  Clearly, there was no quick fix for resolving the world’s literacy problems.  The spread of literacy required stamina and staying power from all partners.  Acceleration was needed too.  The rate of growth of world literacy had slowed in recent years, and the years ahead required a real boost.  Raising awareness needed fresh approaches, new strategies and revised methodologies.  Old-style, top-down mass literacy campaigns were unlikely to be effective. 

The changing meaning of literacy itself -– its plural and diverse character, its rootedness in the learners’ context, its different levels and forms -– must be recognized, he emphasized.  And that must be done without losing sight of the highest priority, namely, reaching the poorest and most marginalized groups whose basic literacy skills were most underdeveloped.  Nor should literacy become narrowly parochial.  The literacy challenge today turned on a hinge:  in one direction was the community; in the other was the wider world, into which new learners had a right to gain entry through their newly acquired literacy skills.

Turning to another main aim of the Decade, namely the galvanization of action, he said the International Plan of Action, prepared by UNESCO and approved by the General Assembly, identified several key areas of action and associated strategies.  Resource mobilization at national and international levels was imperative.  Actions, for maximum effectiveness, required close collaboration at all levels.  The gender perspective must pervade all actions, and the “literacy dimension” should be a feature of all policies, programmes and projects. 

NATSIGIYN BAGABANDI, the President of Mongolia, said the United Nations Literacy Decade was aimed at ensuring the present and future well-being of all human beings since the basic interests of individuals lay at its heart.  Literacy served as a vital tool allowing people to use knowledge and information for their happy and prosperous lives and thus offered an opportunity to consciously exercise basic human rights and fundamental freedoms as proclaimed by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

He said that illiteracy led to backwardness, poverty and inequality.  Although the international community had made considerable efforts in recent years to eradicate illiteracy, over 860 million adults remained illiterate causing serious concern among the world’s leaders.  Notwithstanding the progress and development made in the new information-based century, the virtual elimination of illiteracy called for an effective partnership based on redoubled efforts, resource mobilization and coordination of relevant policies and strategies at the global level.

He said the Decade would become an important milestone in the efforts of all countries to eradicate illiteracy and, through education, to empower people so they could effectively overcome underdevelopment, poverty and unemployment and contribute to the cause of sustainable development and democracy.  Indeed, literacy would promote mutual understanding and trust through the exchange of achievements in literature, culture and intellectual development.  It would also make a weighty contribution to building a better and safer life for all.

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For information media. Not an official record.