Adults: the Forgotten Illiterates

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Widespread basic education has long been a prerequisite for national development. This was the case for the United States, which achieved an 80 percent literacy rate by the mid-19th century, and it has been true for newly developed countries such as South Korea and Singapore, which reached near-universal primary-school enrollment by 1965.

With the emergence of today's "knowledge society," it goes without saying that nations that hope to compete in the global marketplace must do so from a base of well-educated workers and citizens.

Given these facts, data from UNESCO on adult literacy rates around the world are both encouraging and disturbing. The good news: The absolute number of literate adults in the world is rising - from 2 billion in 1980 to 3 billion in '95. That total is projected to reach 5 billion by 2010.

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The bad news: Although literacy appears to be keeping pace with world population growth, virtually no progress has been made in reducing the ranks of adults who can't read and write. In 1995 there were an estimated 885 million illiterate adults worldwide, slightly more than the estimated 877 million in 1980. There are no signs that this number is likely to shrink in the foreseeable future.

Most adult illiterates fall into two predictable categories. The overwhelming majority live in developing countries, especially in rural areas, and two-thirds are women. But it would be a mistake to assume that inadequate basic education is only a third-world problem. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that there are 9 million illiterate persons in Europe, and millions more lack the skills needed to participate in a sophisticated industrial economy.

A recent OECD study shows that even some of the world's richest countries contain significant proportions of literate people whose reading skills fall below the primary-school level - 21 percent in the US, 14 percent in Germany, and 11 percent in the Netherlands.

Illiterate adults in industrialized nations clearly are living at the margins, and such countries have an obvious stake in bringing these people into the economic and social mainstream. Most OECD countries are trying to do this within their own borders, but they have an enormous stake in helping developing countries do the same.

For one thing, access to basic education has been recognized by the community of nations as a fundamental human right. This was reaffirmed as recently as 1990 when the World Conference on Education for All, meeting in Jomtien, Thailand, proclaimed that "basic education should be provided to all children, youth, and adults." It is perhaps ironic that amid all the justifiable talk of human rights violations in China, that nation has been vigorous in pushing basic literacy.

There are pragmatic reasons as well to be concerned about global illiteracy. Reading skills are just as important to the farmer struggling to understand the directions on a fertilizer label as they are to workers in highly automated factories. There is a real danger that the "education gap" between developed and developing countries will exacerbate the economic polarization that exists between these nations and further threaten the global political order.

Recent years also have seen the spread of democratic institutions around the world, most conspicuously in Latin America and the nations of the former Soviet Union. Such institutions have given millions of people their first opportunity to exercise control over their lives. Yet, to function effectively, they must have access to the information needed to make informed choices. Inadequate basic education is incompatible with the political and social order that the Western nations are seeking to promote.

The benefits of promoting basic education are well documented. Studies by the World Bank and others have shown the correlation between investment in education and economic productivity. The economic payoffs of such investments are greatest in low-income agricultural economies and those still in the early stages of development.

The benefits that accrue from investing in girls' basic education are particularly striking. Women with only a few years of schooling are better agricultural producers and generate more income for their families. Their families eat more nutritious meals. Educated mothers are more likely to engage in family planning, and the children that they do bear are more likely to survive infancy, avoid illness, and do well in school. Best of all, such women pass these benefits on to their children, especially their daughters.

Most efforts in recent years to promote literacy have focused on increasing access to formal schooling at the primary-school level, and gains are being made. Primary-school enrollment rose by 50 million from 1990 to '95. Such developments should be celebrated and efforts redoubled. Unfortunately, there is evidence that the focus on children has led international donor agencies like the World Bank to let programs targeted at adults fall by the wayside.

Such policies are short-sighted. The primary-school dropout and repetition rates in developing countries are notoriously high. In Cambodia, only 320 of every 1,000 students who start out in primary school graduate. These figures don't reflect students who never get to school to begin with. Even as enrollment rates increase, such countries continue to produce large numbers of children who will grow up to be illiterate adults.

We can't afford to wait until literate children grow up to be literate adults. Today' s adults are the workers needed to promote economic development and establish democratic institutions. They need help, now.

The continuing presence of nearly 1 billion illiterate adults in the world is a concern for everyone. No nation can feel secure in a world where large masses of people, even whole nations, see themselves as having no stake in the economic and other business of the world community. A world sharply divided between haves and have nots is neither just, stable, sustainable, nor safe.

* Edward B. Fiske, formerly education editor of The New York Times, writes frequently on education issues in developing countries. He is editor of "The Fiske Guide to Colleges," published annually by Times Books.

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