EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Our Socially Divided World: The High Cost of Illiteracy

Despite a half-century of unprecedented economic and social development, there are still 875 million adults who are illiterate—unable to take advantage of this basic stepping stone to the modern world. Not only is there a huge number of illiterate adults, but their ranks are being fed by the 115 million children who do not attend school.30

The world's illiterates are concentrated in a handful of the more populous countries, most of them in Asia and Africa. Prominent among these are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico.31

Progress in eradicating illiteracy is uneven, to say the least. From 1990 to 2000, China and Indonesia made large gains in reducing illiteracy. Other countries also making meaningful progress were Mexico, Nigeria, and Brazil. However, in four other populous countries—Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, and India—the number of illiterates increased.32

Worldwide, some 60 percent of illiterate adults are female. In almost all developing countries, the number of illiterate females exceeds the number of illiterate males. In some countries the gap is wide. In Pakistan, for example, 40 percent of males are illiterate compared with 69 percent of females. In India, the gender gap is almost as wide, with 32 percent of males being illiterate and 55 percent of females. These numbers mean that on the Indian subcontinent a majority of women are unable to read or write. For China, it is 8 percent males and 24 percent females. Brazil is the only one of the more populous developing countries where female illiteracy matches that of males, with both at 15 percent.33

Where there is illiteracy, there is poverty. They tend to reinforce each other simply because illiterate women have much larger families than literate women do and because each year of schooling raises earning power by 10-20 percent. Illiterate women are trapped by large families and minimal earning power. In Brazil, illiterate women have more than six children each on average; literate women have only two.34

Even though Brazil has an average per capita gross domestic product of $2,600, its 15-percent illiteracy reflects the heavily skewed distribution of income within the society. When Cristovam Buarque took over as Minister of Education in early 2003, he was aghast to discover that 15 members of the Ministry staff were illiterate.35

Those who are not literate are usually not numerate either. Without rudimentary math skills, it is difficult to think quantitatively. A skill that those who are educated take for granted does not exist for many of the world's adults.

It is difficult to have a functioning democracy with a largely illiterate population. Without literacy and a modicum of education, societies are often governed by superstition, making rational democracy difficult. For those who are illiterate, educational horizons and job opportunities are limited.

Environmentally responsible behavior also depends to a great extent on a capacity to understand basic scientific issues, such as the greenhouse effect or the ecological role of forests. Lacking this, it is harder to grasp the link between fossil fuel burning and climate change or between tree cutting and the incidence of flooding or the loss of biological diversity.

Those who never attend school are also often outside the loop in acquiring basic information on nutrition and hygiene. They may have little exposure to HIV education and no understanding of how the disease is spread. Since vaccinations are often administered through schools, those who do not attend classes may not receive these basic shots. If schools provide free lunches, those who are not there will also miss out nutritionally. For the poorer segments of society, this is not a trivial deprivation.36

There are two key components in eliminating illiteracy quickly. One is to make sure that all children are in school. The second is to teach adults to read and write. Success in the near-term future means waging the war on illiteracy on both fronts.

Literacy is one of many defining social characteristics of a society, and a steppingstone to other improvements, such as better nutrition and better health. It is the key to breaking the self-reinforcing cycle where illiteracy begets poverty and poverty begets large families, trapping people in poverty. The deteriorating relationship between the global economy and the earth's ecosystem requires an all-out effort to bring literacy to all adults in order to break the poverty cycle and to stabilize population.

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30. Mputu, op. cit. note 2, pp. 5-13.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Gene B. Sperling, "Toward Universal Education," Foreign Affairs, September/October 2001, pp. 7-13.

35. Ibid.; Minister of Education from "Start at the Beginning: The First Step to Ensuring Brazil's Future Prosperity is to Improve its Schools," The Economist, 22 February 2003, pp. 13-14.

36. Schools as a vehicle to administer vaccines, medicines, vitamins, and meals in Sperling, op. cit. note 34


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