Mark Richmond is Director for the Coordination of United Nations Priorities in Education. He presents an updated situation of the literacy challenges that the sub-region is facing.
The Beijing Conference is the second of a series of six regional meetings on literacy organized by UNESCO. What are the concrete outcomes expected from such an initiative?
The literacy conferences will provide an opportunity to not only undertake high level advocacy through First Ladies, Ministers and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassadors.
At the same time, they provide a platform for all stakeholders - from Governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations as well as universities - to engage in an open and frank discussion about the challenges countries are facing in providing literacy for all, and to jointly develop recommendations on how to move the literacy agenda.
Moreover, they will provide the opportunity to exchange information on good practices which can be replicated in education systems and development efforts and to develop partnerships and networks for follow-up activities.
Ultimately, the goal of these conferences is to assist countries to address their literacy challenges and to make a real and measurable impact on the life of their populations, which should contribute to sustainable human development and poverty reduction. Therefore, the follow-up after each Conference is of crucial importance.
Why is it so important to focus on literacy?
Literacy, as the foundation of lifelong learning, is a fundamental human right. At the same time, according to the latest UIS figures, 774 million adults - two-thirds of whom are women - cannot read and write, and over 72 million school-age children are not in school.
While literacy is a clear goal of the EFA agenda, action has lagged behind, at both the national and international levels. The international community has once more underlined the importance of literacy in proclaiming the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003–2012).
The goal of the UNLD is to mobilize political will and action as well as the corresponding resources necessary to make literacy an international priority. Literacy, we believe, should be placed at the centre of national education systems and development efforts.
What are the main challenges that East Asia, South-East Asia and the Pacific are facing regarding literacy? What makes this sub-region specific?
The sub-region faces very diverse challenges. While, in general terms, the literacy rate is high (91.7 %), there is a wide range within and between countries and, in particular, a serious gender gap persists, with 70.4% of the illiterate population being women.
While clear progress has been made over the past years, in particular in China, the total number of illiterates in this region remains significant (i.e. 81 million in China, 15 million in Indonesia, 3.8 million in the Philippines). Therefore, much remains to be done.
It also should be pointed out that the challenges we are facing are not only related to basic literacy, but also to ensuring the link between literacy and development. Literacy is based on a continuum of lifelong learning. Skills have to be provided to youth and young adults so that they may gain access to income and employment opportunities as well as enjoy good health.
Will these initiatives be enough to place literacy high on the agenda?
The Literacy conferences will give a major boost to putting literacy on the agenda of national policy-makers and international agencies. However, much remains to be done. A single conference cannot be considered enough.
Effective and sustained follow-up, therefore, is of key importance. Moreover, international frameworks for reinforced literacy action already exist, but they must be put into action.