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Illiteracy Is the Root Cause of Almost Every Major Problem Humanity Faces

23/02/2016 14:41 | Updated 24 February 2016
Project Literacy

Two weeks ago at a train station outside London, a man of about 20 asked at the ticket window for a ticket to Brighton, then he asked the ticket clerk to let him know when the train came in as he couldn't read. He said he had just left prison.

I have a baby who has recently started saying As, the occasional Ms and sometimes even a Dah. The concept of her learning the full alphabet, and then how to read and write, seems as inevitable as growing teeth.

The importance of her being literate is not intellectual snobbery on my part: it's not about her becoming an academic or even writing a CV. I'll be quite happy if she wants to become a baker or a dancer.

Her literacy is important because I want her to be equipped with the necessary skills to navigate this planet in empowered and simple ways: to be able to read a food packet, a train sign, or respond to a legal contract.

There are 757million illiterate people in the world right now. And this is not a developing world problem: one in five children in the UK, or one in four in the US, leave primary school unable to read and write properly.

Illiteracy is not a sexy or exciting topic. It's not confronting in its raw emotional power... People aren't directly dying or overtly suffering of illiteracy. As far as global issues go, it may feel a little vanilla.

But when you look at the relationship between illiteracy and most other global issues, a statistical pattern emerges. Illiterate people are significantly more likely to be affected by almost every major social issue. Which, understood the other way around, allows us to interpret illiteracy as a causal precondition, rather than a symptom, of many of the world's challenges.

In response to this data, Project Literacy has been formed as a global coalition of NGOs and organisations, who are trying to put literacy at the centre of our thinking in terms of how we address some of the worlds' major challenges today. They have offered 26 reasons why literacy should be at the heart of any political humanitarian agenda: called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. So back to my baby and learning the alphabet... let me give you a couple of letters...

A is for AIDS, because if you can't read or write you are five times less likely to understand how to protect yourself from contracting the virus.

B is for bloodshed, because the rate of violent crimes is almost double among the illiterate population.

F is for female genital mutilation because in some areas more than 80% of the women affected are illiterate.

G is for gender inequality as two thirds of illiterate adults worldwide are women.

I is for infant mortality, because doubling the female literacy rate has been found to reduce infant deaths by 30%.

T is for trillion dollars because the cost of illiteracy to the global economy is an estimated $1.19trillion.

We have come a long way. In the last century we have eradicated devastating diseases and since 1820 we've reduced global poverty levels from 95% to 10% today.

Technology is on our side: mobile devices are providing access to learning to millions of women and children who might otherwise not been able to access it. So we can be optimistic that we are heading in the right direction.

But we cannot be complacent. The sobering reality is that one in ten people do still live in poverty. Some 125million girls alive today are victims of female genital mutiliation. Homelessness still affects 100million people worldwide.

Perhaps the most shameful statistic to us in UK is that 20% of our own children leave school with such poor literacy that their employment prospects are low even if their aspirations are high. For a country that prides itself on offering free education, I think we must really stop and ask ourselves why is this happening, and how can we fix it?

Project Literacy has an ambitious goal: that by 2030, no child will be born at risk of poor literacy. Their first call to action is asking people to sign a petition calling on the UN to put illiteracy more at the heart of how we think about addressing the UN's Global Goals. I would encourage you to sign that petition today.

It's a very simple maxim: inform and empower people to take charge of their own lives, and they will become the agents of the change we wish to see in the world. It reminds me of the old proverb, give a man a fish and he will eat for the day, teach him to fish and he will eat for life. Literacy feels to me, a little bit like fishing.

This is the transcript of the speech Lily gave today to MPs at the Houses of Parliament calling for urgent action to tackle the global illiteracy crisis, which affects one in 10 people alive today and means that one in five British children leave primary school unable to read or write. Read more about Project Literacy here.

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