The General Conference of UNESCO adopts a Declaration on the Eradication of Illiteracy during the United Nations Development Decade (1962-1971)


  • The World Conference of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy defines the concept of ‘functional literacy’, Tehran
  • Recommendation No. 58 of the International Conference on Education (IBE) on literacy and adult education

Experimental World Literacy Programme (EWLP)


  • First four EWLP projects launched
  • 8 September, first International Literacy Day, literacy prizes awarded

Support to the International Institute for Adult Literacy Methods, Tehran


During the 1950s and 1960s some governments, chiefly those in Eastern Europe and Cuba, organized large-scale campaigns. In several countries university students acted as monitors; in some specially-trained military units were used; and others called upon the voluntary co-operation of organizations of trade unions, religious bodies, and women’s and youth associations.

In the newly independent countries, the fight against illiteracy took on a new lease of life. The Second World Conference on Adult Education (Montreal, 1960) advocated the organization of a massive campaign which, with the support of industrialized countries, would permit the eradication of illiteracy in just a few years. In 1961, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution inviting UNESCO to make a general review of all aspects of the issue of the eradication of illiteracy worldwide. Responding to this appeal, René Maheu, Director-General, presented a report to the Assembly proposing a universal literacy campaign; this report was adopted unanimously in 1963. (9)

by René Maheu
René Matheu It has become clear that isolated national efforts varying considerably in size and nature cannot be the answer to a problem which is worldwide in scope and that international action was needed. It was within this framework that the General Conference of UNESCO at its twelfth session held at the end of 1962, decided to submit a report to the U.N. General Assembly on the eradication of illiteracy in the world, which included a plan for international action to encourage and bolster national efforts. This report, which I had the honour of presenting personally to the General Assembly in October 1963, was the subject of a long discussion that led to the unanimous adoption of a resolution approving the princ-iple of a World Literacy Campaign. The resolution called on countries with a high proportion of adult illiterates to intensify their efforts to reduce illiteracy, and asked countries which had solved the problem to assist those that had not.

It invited the Secretary-General of the United Nations ‘in collaboration with the Director-General of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Managing Director of the Special Fund, the Executive Chairman of the Technical Assistance Board and the President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and its affiliates, to explore ways and means of supporting national efforts for the eradication of illiteracy through a world campaign and any other measures, if appropriate, of international co-operation and assistance, both non-financial and financial, and to submit a report thereon, together with appropriate proposals, to the General Assembly at its 19th session.’

But to bring literacy to adults on a mass scale will have no chance of success without the understanding and active support of the general public, since it calls for nothing less than a general mobilization of all mankind. This is so not only because of the funds it would require but, more important, because the very unity of mankind is at stake. At a time when science is opening the gateway to the stars, it is unthinkable that two-fifths of mankind should still be prisoners of ancestral darkness. Or are we to have two types of human beings – one for the stars, the other for the caves? There could be no hope of peace if we tolerated an iniquity as flagrant as this unequal division of the benefit of progress.

UNESCO invites all nations and all peoples to join in this great venture for the unshackling of men’s minds and the liberation of a new technological, civic and moral potential everywhere.

Since this important decision was adopted by the General Assembly a number of significant events have occurred within the framework of the U.N. and UNESCO which reveal the interest the idea of a mass literacy campaign has aroused around the world.

Thus, two U.N. regional bodies – the Economic Commissions for Africa and for Asia and the Far East – met respectively at Addis Ababa in February and Tehran in March 1964 and adopted resolutions recommending that the governments of those regions include adult literacy programmes in their national education plans as a part of overall development. Similarly, the regional conferences of the Asian and Arab National Commissions for UNESCO, the former held in Bangkok in February and the latter in Algiers in March, used almost identical terms to stress the importance of literacy in those countries. At Algiers the idea was advanced for a regional system to co-ordinate activities in this field.

Extract from an address to the Interparliamentary Union, Copenhagen (Denmark)
26 August 1964. The UNESCO Courier, 1964.

However, following the decisions of the General Conference in 1964, and the recommendation of the 1965 Tehran Conference advocating functional literacy linked to economic development, (10) the Organization decided to abandon mass campaigns and to adopt an approach whereby literacy education would be integrated within selected industrial or agricultural development projects. This was how EWLP was introduced from 1967 to 1973 with the financial contribution of UNDP; this programme was intended to demonstrate the advantages of literacy from the economic and social standpoints. Twenty-two countries took part in this programme; eleven had selected projects. (11)

In 1975, ten years after the Tehran Congress, the Persepolis Declaration, adopted by the International Literacy Meeting, bore witness to the development of these projects. Literacy is ‘not just the process of learning the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, but a contribution to the liberation of man.[...] It should open the way to a mastery of techniques and human relations.’

So, as literacy is considered in accordance with the stage of development of each society, we discover that it concerns not only developing countries and that industrialized countries also experience a form of functional illiteracy: young people who, having completed primary schooling, cannot read or write; if they do not practice what they have learned, they forget it. With a view to lifelong education for all, post-literacy education and the fight against functional illiteracy are complements to literacy education and primary education. And, it was to this that the UNESCO Institute for Education in Hamburg would henceforth address itself. (12)


The World Congress of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy, which ended September 19 in Tehran addressed a unanimous appeal to the United Nations, its specialized agencies (particularly UNESCO), regional bodies. non-governmental organizations and public and private foundations to help finance a movement to eradicate illiteracy which currently blights 44 percent of the world’s adult population.

Among the most important points stressed in over 80 recommendations adopted by the 88 countries attending, were the following:
Firstly, delegates from both industrial and developing countries have recognized that illiteracy is truly a world problem. Delegates from the more advanced countries have offered aid mainly for training teachers specialized in literacy techniques.

Secondly, the need to integrate literacy fully into economic development has now been unanimously accepted. This does not mean, as several delegates observed, that education should be regarded as important solely in economic terms. It is also the leaven of cultural and intellectual growth and a means to make every person aware of his rights and duties as a citizen.

Thirdly, delegates agreed that the conflict between schooling for children and adult literacy is actually a false dilemma. In fact, both are necessary, the former being a long-term investment and the latter a short-term investment with immediate impact on national development. This is why adult literacy must be integrated into national economic planning to the same extent as the development of the education system as a whole.

The congress gave its full backing to UNESCO’s experimental literacy programme and particularly to pilot projects for which financial help has been requested from the United Nations Special Fund. Some delegates asked that this programme be extended and the number of pilot projects increased. Mr René Maheu, UNESCO Director-General, encouraged the Special Fund to substantially reinforce its literacy activities.

The UNESCO Courier, 1965.

Adult literacy education, Djibouti. Literacy centre for rural women, Jordan.

Paulo Freire
Educator, former Secretary of State for Education, São Paulo, Brazil

Literacy does not imply the ability to remember phrases, words and syllables, out of context, things dead or half dead, but rather having creative and re-creative attitudes. It implies self-learning liable to lead an individual to intervene in his own environment.[...] Literacy cannot be dispensed from above, like a gift or a rule which is imposed, but must progress from the interior to the exterior, by means of the literate person’s own efforts.

L’éducation : pratique de la liberté, Rio de Janeiro, 1967

Malcolm S. Adiseshiah
Deputy Director-General of UNESCO from 1963 to 1970

Functionality is a relationship between an independent variable, in this case literacy, and a dependent variable, in this case ranging from a person’s environment to his fight for his rights of justice and equity.

Prospects, Vol. VI, No. 1, 1976

Sema Tanguiane
(Russian Federation)
Assistant Director-General for education, UNESCO, from 1975 to 1988

The Organization’s action coincided with the fact that, at the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s many Member States passed special laws and stepped up their literacy efforts.

Education for Individual Fulfilment and Social Progress. Special Numbers 30th Anniversary of UNESCO, The UNESCO Chronicle, XXII, No. 9, 1976

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(9) UNESCO’s plan proposed to make 330 million adults literate within ten years, i.e. nearly all the working population aged between 15 and 50 years, at a cost of around $2 billion, of which 75 per cent to be paid by the countries and the remainder, about $450 million, funded through external sources. (In 1963, UNESCO’s regular programme budget amounted to $19.5 million). These funds were not raised at that time.

(10) This Conference took place during a period of economic growth where the lack of skilled, i.e. literate, labour was a problem for many countries.

(11) Eleven functional literacy pilot projects were implemented: four in 1967 (Algeria, Ecuador, Islamic Republic of Iran, Mali); five in 1968 (Ethiopia, Guinea, Madagascar, United Republic of Tanzania, Venezuela); and two in 1971 (India and Syrian Arab Republic). In the United Republic of Tanzania, for example, out of the 466,000 people enrolled in the literacy project carried out between 1967 and 1973 within the framework of EWLP, 293,000 took the final examination, and 96,000 passed, at an average cost of $32 per new literate, $10 of which came from the United Nations (UNDP-UNESCO). The experience acquired in this programme enabled its auto-development and its transformation into a national campaign, reducing the illiteracy rate over recent years from 70 per cent to 21 per cent. In Algeria, 65 groups were involved (1,200 participants in the agricultural sector and 58 others (1,500 workers) in the industrial sectors. See the Experimental World Literacy Programme: critical evaluation. Joint UNESCO-UNDP Report, UNESCO, 1976.

(12) See Literacy in Industrialized Countries, Convergence, Vol. XX, No. 3-4, 1987. Since 1987, UIE manages an information and documentation exchange network on functional illiteracy in industrialized countries. UIE has collaborated in an international survey on adult literacy, conducted by the OECD in seven European Countries. See Literacy, Economy and Society, OECD, 1995.