Director-General's Message

Message from the Director-General on the occasion of International Literacy Day 8 September 2001

We are celebrating today the first International Literacy Day of the third millennium. We must never forget that literacy is indeed a cause for celebration: for individuals and their families and for society at large. Humankind has achieved spectacular progress in regard to literacy: there are now close to four billion literate people in the world. Moreover, many of today's rapid technological advances are focused on information and communication, which are central to the practice of literacy. The new information and communication technologies offer the prospect of many new and fascinating opportunities to literate persons.

Given the pleasures and benefits that it brings, it is not surprising that the typical imagery of literacy is of opening doors or windows, of light and space, of boundlessness. Literacy is inseparable from opportunity, and opportunity is inseparable from freedom. The freedom promised by literacy is both freedom from - from ignorance, oppression, poverty - and freedom to - to do new things, to make choices, to learn.

As we celebrate International Literacy Day, however, we cannot fail to recognize that literacy continues to be unevenly distributed within and between societies. As a result, the rewards of literacy are unavailable to hundreds of millions of people whose increasing poverty, exclusion and marginalization render the learning society not merely a distant dream but perhaps an unimaginable one. This situation is all the more intolerable because the technology, expertise, experience and resources to build a literate world are available today. The scale and complexity of the task of achieving literacy for all are certainly daunting. There is too much at stake, however, to allow ourselves to become dispirited. We must actively cultivate and strengthen the resolve, commitment and solidarity necessary for fulfilling this vital task, confident in the knowledge that we will thereby change the world for the better.

A United Nations Literacy Decade will be considered for formal approval by the United Nations General Assembly later this year; UNESCO is expected to be nominated as the lead agency for this important development. The UN Literacy Decade will provide a framework for generating renewed momentum towards literacy for all and for developing a new vision of literacy that embraces not only the learning needs of adults but also those of children and youth. Within this vision, there is a clear recognition that the solutions for different educational problems are inter-connected. In particular, the growth of adult literacy, especially of women and female youth, is essential for universalizing access to primary education and improving its quality and relevance. Thus, 'Education for All' and 'Literacy for All', along with 'Universal Primary Education' and 'Lifelong Learning', are not competing slogans but are processes whose goals must be pursued simultaneously and whose dynamics are closely linked.

Similarly, it is inconceivable that poverty eradication can make much headway in the absence of major advances in literacy. This becomes abundantly clear when we recognize that literacy is not just about the mechanics of reading and writing but is about personal dignity, the right to participate, the empowerment of the marginalized and the excluded, and the opportunity to learn in a variety of ways and settings, both formal and nonformal. Literacy is vital for generating the adaptability and resourcefulness required for sustainable human development; this is evident, for example, in efforts to build livelihoods in conjunction with environmental protection, and in the area of preventive health education, especially concerning HIV/AIDS.

Today, therefore, we celebrate literacy as a value in itself that is closely linked to basic human dignity and full citizenship of one's country and of the world. Literacy is also a vital means for securing other benefits and achieving other goals. Touching every aspect of our lives and also the lives of those around us, literacy is truly transformative.

On International Literacy Day, UNESCO traditionally bestows awards to particular individuals and organizations whose work in support of literacy has been outstanding. We realise, however, that the fight against illiteracy is being waged by hundreds of thousands of people, professionals and volunteers, whose quiet but persistent work is indispensable. We dedicate this day to their efforts and achievements.

UNESCO calls upon people and governments everywhere to give increased and sustained support to the drive for literacy for all. Through increased literacy, all of our lives are enriched.


Ko´chiro Matsuura