EU News
Printable version E-mail this to a friend

EU leading action to boost literacy in developing countries

In addition to efforts to improve levels of literacy in the EU through its 'Europe Loves Reading' campaign, the European Commission is also at the forefront of action to tackle the problem in the world's developing countries. Since 2007, the Commission has invested €4 billion on education and literacy in 48 partner countries, enabling more than 9 million pupils to enrol in school and more than 720 000 primary teachers to receive training.

1. The importance of literacy for development

  1. Literacy empowers people. Women who take part in literacy programmes have better knowledge of health and family planning. Literate parents are more likely to send their children to school and to help them with their studies.

  2. A child born to a mother who can read is 50% more likely to survive past the age of five.

  3. Literacy develops societies on political level. Literate people are found to be more civically engaged – whether in labour unions, community activities or politics.

  4. Literacy is crucial for economic development and fighting poverty. Literacy has been found to have a positive effect on GDP per capita. If all children in low-income countries could read, it is estimated that poverty could drop by 12%.

2. State of play and challenges in literacy

  1. 775 million adults, two-thirds of whom are women, still lack basic reading and writing skills.

  2. Most countries will miss the Education for All Goal 4 on adult literacy, some by a large margin. Of the 40 countries that had an adult literacy rate below 90% in 1998–2001, only three countries (Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia) are expected to meet the goal of reducing their illiteracy rate by 50%.

  3. Illiteracy tends to prevail in low-income countries where severe poverty is widespread. Literacy is poorest in sub-Saharan Africa and in South and West Asia. Adult literacy rates were below 50% in several countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Haiti, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone), with even less than 30%, such as Niger.

  4. Progress is slowing, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected countries – where 42% of the world’s out-of-school children live (and this percentage is growing).

  5. There is an acute shortage of teachers in developing countries. For example, to achieve universal primary education an additional 1.7 million primary school teachers are needed by 2015.

3. How the European Commission is responding to these challenges

Thanks to the joint effort and action done within the Global Education Partnership, which includes other donors, UN agencies, NGOs, private sector and partner countries, 19 million children have been put into school, 300,000 additional teachers were hired and 30,000 classrooms were built over the last 10 years.

The European Commission supports literacy through its support to the national education strategies – as sector budget support, pooled funding or project support. The EU is committed to education: the Agenda for Change (the Commission's blueprint for development policy, in which it prioritised its work to focus on the countries and sectors where it can make the most difference) recognises our commitment to education and the need to enable young people everywhere to have access to quality education.

Last year, Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs announced that 20% of EU aid will go to Human development in the next EU budget - education constitutes an important part of that.

Country examples

  1. Somalia: has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world: more than an estimated 80 percent of Somalis are not literate. The Commission has funded several youth and adult literacy projects and the support to the education sector in Somalia. Since 2010 the European Commission has helped that more than 40,000 students have gained access to basic, primary and secondary education, more than 330 classrooms were built or rehabilitated, 4,000 primary and secondary teachers qualified and 5,280 trainees were enrolled in vocational training, ensuring the development of skills and promotion of employment.

  2. Afghanistan: the Commission supported a project to provide street children in Kabul with a basic education and vocational training once they had left school. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan have led to widespread poverty which means that many children are forced to help support their families. Our project provided 9,115 vulnerable street or working children with an education and a better start in life. The results were great to see – the children really enjoyed their time learning and 96% of them reported that they were rarely absent from the centre because they liked it so much.

  3. Swaziland: the Commission financed a project to improve access to primary education, to increase quality of education and to support the reform of the education sector. Fees are an obstacle for the poor to attend schools. The project helped to pay fees for 26,000 vulnerable children in 558 schools, to construct 58 classrooms and 36 teachers' houses in schools and to finance the equipment for two vocational institutions.

  4. Namibia: the European Commission has been supporting a comprehensive approach to the education sector by providing sector budget support. One of the priorities has been early childhood development and pre-primary education, which help to lay the foundations for acquiring basic literacy and numeracy. The increased attendance of pre-primary education since 2008 is building the foundations for quality education and has already resulted in reduced drop-out rates in the first grade. Also reinforcing school attendance is providing school meals. In fact, the number of children with access to the provision of meals programme has increased from around 200,000 in 2008 to around 270,000 in 2012.

Finally, the EU has been instrumental in the piloting of an early grade reading assessment in several regions, as a tool for measuring literacy learning.