• Combatting Illiteracy: the path to alleviating poverty

    Posted by Ben

    1 August, 2013

    In this tiny, cramped hall in Nepal’s Palpa District, dimly lit by a single kerosene lamp, one of the world’s most remarkable classrooms fills with students. Twenty-four women – some bearing infants in their arms or swaddled in cloth across their backs – gather for two hours each evening, six days a week, after an already exhausting day collecting water and firewood, preparing food, feeding and caring for children, tending animals, weeding crops, cleaning, and all the myriad tasks Nepali women are required to perform. They gather to learn, for the first time in their lives, to read and write, taught by a trained volunteer from their local community.

    The fact that this classroom, or classrooms like it, can be found in every part of the world does not make it any less remarkable.

    The transformative power of education is seen in the faces of these women, exhausted yet intent. You can hear it in the responses they give when they are asked why, as adults, they have come back to school.

    “Now when I sell my vegetables in the market, I can count the money for myself. And I know if I am being cheated,” says one woman, Rupa.

    “We have learned to read and write,” is Maya’s response. “But we learn more than that. We talk about better ways to grow crops, about the signs of a difficult pregnancy, about how to wash hands and toilet children so they stay healthy.”

    “My daughter,” says Sita, the mother of four children, “is the first girl in my family to attend school. And because of what I am learning in this class, I can help her with her homework.”

    And, the transformative power of education evidenced in these remarkable individual stories is borne out in global statistics. Education saves lives. It also contributes powerfully to a nation’s economic prospects. In Africa, children of mothers with a primary education are 40% more likely to survive past their fifth birthday than children of less educated mothers. Studies show, in fact, that every additional year of schooling for a girl beyond the national average, lowers infant mortality by 5–10% and increases that girl’s eventual wage by 10–20%.

    Since committing to the Millennium Development Goal target of ensuring that all children everywhere complete primary school, the world has made great progress, with the number of children missing out on school almost halved since 2000. However, there are still around 57 million children out of school, and around 30 million of them are girls. See World Bank infographic on global education here.

    Yet, despite this progress and the urgent unmet need, global aid to education seems to be slowing, and the education Millennium Development Goal is likely to be missed by a wide margin.

    Of course, there is more to achieving learning than simply having children attend school. Having a quality education is essential, and there is evidence that education systems in many countries are not helping children learn the basic skills they need in the 21st Century and are not able to adequately monitor child learning. Roughly 123 million young people (aged 15–24) around the world – the majority of whom have received at least a basic education – do not have basic reading and writing skills.

    Access and appropriateness of education are also essential elements to ensure that every child is able to learn to their full potential. Governments need to develop strategies and invest greater resources to overcome the social and spatial marginalisation that lock so many children out of school. They need to ensure that children in rural areas have the same access to a quality education as children in urban areas, that the barriers for girls attending school are brought down, that children from ethnic minorities are able to learn in the mother language, that children with disabilities are included.

    These can be formidable challenges but there is good evidence that quality, education-focused aid helps to overcome them. Credible mechanisms – such as the Global Partnership for Education – exist for the rapid increase and effective disbursement of aid targeted to education. Australia has increased its investment in education and intends to be among the largest bilateral donors of aid towards education by 2015. It’s an investment well worth making.

    We know that aid saves lives, increases opportunity, and boosts economic growth in developing countries.

    Courageous Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban for attending school, reminded the world of the power of education when she addressed the UN General Assembly this month.

    Dear brothers and sisters, we must not forget that millions of people are suffering from poverty, injustice and ignorance. We must not forget that millions of children are out of schools. We must not forget that our sisters and brothers are waiting for a bright peaceful future.

 So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.

One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.


    Ben Thurley is Micah Challenge's Political Engagement Coordinator.