Time for optimism or despair? A look at the global literacy landscape on International Literacy Day 2015

September 08, 2015Tara Hill

September 8th marks International Literacy Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the importance of reading, and more importantly, raising awareness of the need for global literacy. Given the emphasis placed on literacy over the years, it is perhaps surprising that in 2015 there is still a need to draw attention to this critical issue. So where does global literacy stand in 2015?

While the international community has made great strides in promoting global literacy in the past 15 years, significant progress is still to be made. The Education for All Global Monitoring Report estimates that there are currently about 781 million illiterate adults – taking into account possible measurement errors this number could well be upwards of 1 billion (UNESCO 2015). Women account for nearly two-thirds of adult illiterates, and this ratio has not changed between 1990 and 2015 (UNESCO 2014). Youth literacy statistics are not much more inspiring:  approximately 126 million 15 to 24 year olds are still unable to read worldwide, accounting for 10.6% of the global youth population (UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2014).

But before we resign ourselves to a thoroughly depressing picture of the state of global literacy, Results for Development (R4D) - CEI's parent organization - has found that there is much to be optimistic about in the global literacy landscape of 2015. For one, the international development community does not seem to have lost sight of the importance of the issue, on the contrary, efforts to tackle literacy at a global level abound. In the context of R4D’s growing portfolio of literacy-related projects (see below), we undertook a landscape analysis of the global literacy sector, including interviews with leaders in the literacy field, to identify which initiatives are currently underway, which areas are receiving most focus, and where the gaps are.

We found a number of initiatives to be excited about. All Children Reading, led by USAID and supported by DFAT and World Vision is running theme-based competitions to identify technology-driven solutions to improve children’s early grade reading skills. The Global Reading Network has been established to bring together governments, practitioners, civil society organizations, teachers’ associations, academics, donors, and other stakeholders committed to improving primary grade reading outcomes. The Mobiles for Education Alliance is focusing specifically on mobile technologies to improve literacy. Project Literacy, a new initiative spearheaded by Pearson, will focus on supporting and generating awareness around the links between parental and child literacy. ProLiteracy is leading pioneering work focused on adult literacy. XPRIZE is running a Global Learning competition in which $15 million will be awarded to teams of software developers that create an open source scalable program to help children in developing countries acquire literacy skills within an 18-month period. The list goes on.

These initiatives share many common focus areas (education technology, early-grade reading, teacher training, mother-tongue reading materials) and approaches (grant-making; conducting, synthesizing, and disseminating research; establishing multi-stakeholder working groups). While it is fantastic to see so many organizations focusing their efforts on these much-needed areas, our analysis also revealed a number of additional critical areas that remain under-emphasized.

These include, among others, adult and women’s literacy (our landscape found only one initiative dedicated to promoting adult literacy at the global level – ProLiteracy), literacy for children with disabilities (while All Children Reading has prioritized this area, the sector as a whole could do more), and literacy initiatives in fragile and/or conflict-affected states. Many interviewed stakeholders spoke of the need for more robust monitoring and evaluation in the literacy field. Perhaps most importantly, while several initiatives have recently sought to increase coordination and collaboration in the literacy field, the sector as a whole remains fragmented, particularly when it comes to bridging public/NGO and private-sector initiatives.

There is enormous potential to make more progress in the next 15 years than we have in the last. Looking at the current global literacy landscape, we see cause for optimism. The energy, innovation, and commitment is all there. In leveraging each other’s efforts and ensuring that our focus is placed not only in areas that command donor and political interest, but in equally important (yet too often overlooked) areas, one can only hope that come International Literacy Day in 2030 we won’t be discussing the same disheartening statistics.

R4D has a growing  portfolio of work related to literacy, including:

  • Feasibility Study for a Global Book Fund: R4D is carrying out a feasibility study for a Global Book Fund that will procure and distribute instructional and level reading materials to schools, homes, and communities around the world.
  • Mobile-Reading to Children: R4D is serving as a learning and evaluation partner to Worldreader’s Mobile-Reading to Children pilot in India, a Pearson-supported project that is one of Project Literacy’s first efforts to test parent-child links in early literacy. It seeks to promote literacy by encouraging parents to read to and with their young children and by empowering them to do so by giving them access to a digital library of high quality, locally relevant books and educational materials via their mobile phones.
  • Dissemination of Learning for the Quality Education in Developing Countries (QEDC) Initiative: R4D is creating a cohesive toolkit to disseminate promising early-grade reading approaches identified through QEDC evaluations of classroom-level teaching and learning interventions.


Tara Hill is a Senior Program Associate on the Results for Development (R4D) Education team. Her work focuses primarily on innovations in education, innovative and results-based financing for education, and evaluation of education programs. She is currently on a six-month secondment with the innovationXchange in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, Australia. 

See more Inclusive Education blogs
Inclusive Education

Add new comment

1 + 6 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.

Who we work with: