PHILADELPHIA – Few public figures have captivated America’s attention quite as much as Pope Francis did when he visited the United States in September. During his six-day tour, he challenged Americans to contemplate the issues of poverty, social justice, and climate change in the context of a shared but increasingly inharmonious planet.
Speaking on the White House’s South Lawn, with US President Barack Obama at his side, Francis called for “a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them.”
Francis’s words highlight the fact that it is no longer enough to think of global development as a discrete set of concepts, such as per capita income growth or the number of university graduates. Instead, development must be seen broadly and in relation to the costs of inaction, particularly for those most in need.
This is important in the context of another historic event that took place during the pope’s visit: the adoption at the United Nations of the Sustainable Development Goals, which will set the development agenda for the next 15 years. Achieving the SDGs – and heeding Francis’s call – will require the international community to fight poverty, boost food security, preserve the environment, and promote gender equality. And, at the center of these efforts will be education – particularly one goal on which we are still falling short: literacy.
In many places, literacy is still a rarity. In Zambia and Mali, for example, only two children in ten can read after two years in school; in Afghanistan and South Sudan, only three adult women in ten can read.
The immediate consequences of this deficit are tremendously painful, and so are the long-term outcomes. Literacy is a necessary precondition for advanced education and critical thinking, which are at the core of our ability to respond to the economic, social, and environmental upheavals many regions are experiencing.
The way people around the world, especially younger generations, think and act about such changes will be central to our collective future. The UN reports that awareness of climate change in wealthy and highly literate countries is nearly twice that in impoverished, less literate countries. Awareness does not always lead to action, but literacy is the limiting factor when it comes to the world’s ability to address its most urgent challenges.
The importance of literacy for sustainable development is nowhere more apparent than in agriculture and health. Research conducted in a variety of countries has shown that literate rural farmers manage systems and technologies (including water conservation and risk evaluation) more efficiently than their illiterate peers. This results in significant increases in agricultural productivity and higher profits.
In the realm of health, research in India has found that literacy leads to significantly better health outcomes – independent of household income. Studies in other countries have shown than literate mothers have a better understanding of health-related behaviors for themselves and their children. In the US, a comprehensive review of more than 3,000 studies found that low adult reading skills were directly related to higher rates of morbidity and worse health.
Fortunately, new technologies can bring about large improvements in literacy among the very poor. The Limpopo Province of South Africa, for example, has one of the lowest reading and school achievement scores. The International Literacy Institute, which I direct, has partnered with the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, a local NGO, to introduce into school computer labs software that supports children’s reading through multilingual content designed around everyday situations involving family, community, and health.
Education – and most of all literacy – will be central to the challenges we face in the future. As we begin to use education as a means to achieve the SDGs, we will have to go beyond raising awareness about globalization, climate change, and sustainability. Our education efforts must include the promotion of innovative ways to address these challenges and overcome them.
As Pope Francis put it in his encyclical on the environment, overcoming our challenges will require a “renewal of humanity.” But there can be no renewal unless we fulfill our promise of providing education for all – starting by working toward universal literacy.