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Literacy in the 90's
The Role of SIL

This informative booklet, now published here on the Web, was originally printed in the 1990s. As a historical document, it reflects SIL's work in literacy during that decade.

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Illiteracy: The Enduring Problem

In 1948, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized education as a "fundamental right of every individual" [UNESCO 1948. Article 26.1]. Since then, significant progress has been made in the fight against illiteracy. From 1960 to 1985, the rate of world-wide illiteracy dropped from 39 to 28 percent [Hamadache 4].

Unfortunately, victory is not yet in sight. Literacy efforts have not kept pace with the world's rapid population growth. Today there are 405 million more illiterate adults than there were in 1960 [Hamadache 5].

Most of the worlds illiterate people are poor and live in developing nations.
Most of the worlds illiterate people are poor and live in developing nations.

The scourge of illiteracy most affects the world's poor - those who can least afford yet another burden in life. Developing nations have the largest proportion of illiterates. According to UNESCO's 1988 Statistical Yearbook, 54 percent of the adults in Africa were illiterate in 1985. In India, the rate of illiteracy is nearly 60 percent (1981) and in Bangladesh, over 70 percent (1981). Furthermore, the burden of illiteracy weighs most heavily on women and the rural poor. Throughout the developing world, nearly half the women cannot read, and in extreme cases, illiteracy rates for women exceed 85 percent [UNESCO 1988. (general reference)].

In most areas, the burden of illiteracy is further compounded by problems of geographic isolation, linguistic diversity, malnutrition, overpopulation, social and ethnic tensions, inadequate national infrastructures and non-supportive national and international economic policies.

Clearly, there will be no easy solution to this continuing problem. No government or organization can solve this problem on its own. A concerted international effort is needed with entities at all levels working together towards a viable solution.

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