Combating illiteracy one child at a time

At least 750 million adults and 260 million children lack basic reading skills, according to the U.N., and illiteracy costs governments and economies $129 billion per year.

The U.S.-supported Global Book Alliance wants to change that by putting a book in the hands of every child in the world. If students in low- income countries could read, 171 million people would be lifted out of poverty, according to the alliance.

Reading is more than an engaging pastime. Literacy leads to better employment opportunities for individuals and creates more stable societies. The United Nations estimates a country can increase its economic activity by 2 to 2.5 percent a year with improved literacy rates.

International Literacy Day

Every September 8, governments, communities and teachers promote literacy as a means to reduce poverty and inequality.

This year’s International Literacy Day will focus on literacy in a digital world. The Global Book Alliance, with the support of USAID, will provide communities access to digital libraries with free downloadable materials and large-scale printing. Other groups involved with the alliance include the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UK AID Direct, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and the Kenya Ministry of Education.

Ibrahim Dakane, a teacher in Northern Kenya, says that “no words can describe how it feels to see pupils who could hardly read become fluent readers.” He works with the Global Book Alliance, which has distributed more than 8 million books across Kenya.

Efforts like his and those of the alliance are behind increases over the last 40 years in the share of young people (15–24) who can read and write in some of the world’s most populous countries.

Chart showing literacy rates in some of the world's most populous countries (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)