While more than one in five adults worldwide – i.e; more than 774 million people – can neither read nor write, the overall rate of literacy in the sub-region is high (91.7%). Countries, such as China and Indonesia, have achieved considerable progress in recent decades, but there is still a great disparity between nations. In the Pacific, for example, the rate of literacy is at 60%, for Papua New Guinea, compared to 98% in Tonga and Samoa. The sub-region still numbers close to 125 million adults with poor reading and writing skills. Gender inequality persists in the sub-region as women, many of them living in rural areas, account for 70% of illiterates.
Over two days, participants – first ladies, education ministers, policy-makers, civil society representatives, education professionals, members of bilateral and international organizations – examined subjects such as family literacy, intergenerational teaching, literacy for health and for economic self-sufficiency. More specifically regional issues, such as literacy in a multilingual environment or literacy and rural development, were also on the agenda.
At the close of the conference, participants recommended that follow up actions in favour of literacy be carried out at different levels in the sub-region. They emphasized the need for a strong political commitment at the highest level and close cooperation between governments and civil society organizations. The need to start teaching lieracy in people’s mother tongue before moving on to literacy in the national language was emphasized during the conference, which also stressed the importance of teaching migrants to read and write.
Mr Matsuura invited the international community and donors active in the sub-region to increase their support for literacy. “External aid remains insufficient to meeting the Education For All goals,” he argued. In 2005, only US$2.4 billion were channelled to Education For All (EFA), while yearly needs are estimated to be at US$11 billion if EFA goals are to be met. The part of overseas assistance devoted to literacy is, furthermore, very weak.
The Beijing Conference was held in the framework of a series of six regional conferences to fight illiteracy worldwide. The first took place in Doha (Qatar), in March 2007. Four other conferences on the subject are scheduled by the end of 2008, in Mali, in India, Costa Rica and Azerbaijan.
These initiatives follow the Global Literacy Conference organized by the White House in New York on 18 September 2006, under the auspices of Mrs Bush. The conference marked the launch of a major international literacy campaign within the framework of the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012).