28.04.2009 -

HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, UNESCO Special Envoy on Literacy for Development

© Sebastiaan ter Burg

Princess Laurentien has been committed to the cause of literacy for more than 20 years. On March 24 she became UNESCO’s Special Envoy on Literacy for Development worldwide.

She spoke to EduInfo about how she plans to use her position and what her hopes are for the Sixth International Conference on Adult Education to be held in Brazil in May where she will make the keynote speech.

Why is literacy your special cause?
I first became aware of the deep-rooted consequences of illiteracy for both people and society at large nearly twenty years ago in the United States. Years later, I taught illiterate adults as a volunteer when living in Belgium. It was a humbling experience. By sharing their life stories with me, the adult students who had been courageous enough to go back to school, helped me better understand what it means to function in society when you are illiterate.

Today, literacy has never been more crucial for development. In our digital world driven by knowledge, literacy is often a precondition to communication. Literacy goes to the heart of most learning! The benefits of literacy are enormous in all aspects of personal, social and economic life. I am very concerned about the huge gap that remains to be bridged in order to reach the agreed Education for All goal of halving the number of illiterate persons by 2015. Literacy for both young people and adults needs to move up the list of priorities of socio-economic issues, such as providing primary education for children. All issues are interlinked but again, it often starts with being literate and numerate.

The numbers across the globe are simply staggering. Some 776 million adults don’t have sufficient reading and writing skills to function independently. Over 75 million children don’t go to school. And across developed nations, about 5 to 20 per cent of our populations lack the literacy and numeracy skills to come along. This is what I call an unnecessary and uncomfortable truth. I am deeply committed to making a contribution to tackling this.

It is a particular concern to me how this issue is perceived and addressed in developed countries. Surveys reveal the size and scope of the problem of low skills and lack of basic competencies among adults in Europe. There is a persistent misperception about who is affected by illiteracy in Europe - it is not just immigrants or people with special needs. Take the Netherlands, with 1.5 million people who are functionally illiterate: two-thirds were born and bred in our country. The situation is similar in many other developed countries. The first step for countries is to admit that they often have unexpectedly high levels of illiteracy. It’s a difficult, necessary and doable step towards the identification of appropriate solutions.

How have you been involved in literacy work in the Netherlands?
My main initiative is the Reading & Writing Foundation (Stichting Lezen & Schrijven), which I founded in 2004. The foundation is an active catalyst aimed at mobilizing all stakeholders in society to play their part in preventing and diminishing (functional) illiteracy.

The main objectives of the foundation are to raise awareness, bring together experts and unexpected stakeholders, develop pilot projects and involving others to roll out these practical solutions more broadly. We work on the principle of a snowball effect to reach out and involve business, social and government partners who can make a key contribution to this area. We choose promising and innovative projects tackling low literacy aimed at young people and adults, but also mobilizing the business community, parents and educational organizations. We have built our approach around the literacy “marketplace” creating and matching supply and demand: a diverse supply of formal and non-formal educational initiatives, and a demand for such initiatives among all kinds of organizations in society – from trade unions to prisons, from national to local authorities and companies to child healthcare centres. In the area of language and learning more generally, I hold honorary functions within the Dutch Language Society, the Listening and Braille Library of the Netherlands and the Dutch Association of Public Libraries.

How do you plan to use your position as Special Envoy on Literacy for Development?
Let me first say that I am delighted to start working with UNESCO more formally in my new role. I intend to work closely with all experts, adding value where I can to the framework of action provided by the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD, 2003-2012). This framework proposes a new vision of literacy, by situating Literacy for All at the heart of Education for All and by promoting it as a key for development and essential for the health and well-being of people everywhere. I will advocate these important messages, with the aim of helping to make a difference and create new dynamics. Literacy should be everyone’s business, exactly because it goes to the heart of our societies. I will advocate for mobilizing more awareness, commitment and concerted action for tackling the literacy challenge. To tackle this complex issue structurally, we will also have to think outside of the box at times when it comes to solutions and involving stakeholders, from governments to business, from municipalities to educational experts and illiterates themselves. It’s only by joining forces that we can make a real impact. It will therefore come as no surprise that I will focus on reaching out to those not yet fully aware or committed, rather than on preaching to the converted. In brief, I very much hope that I can contribute to reaching the objectives which the United Nations Literacy Decade aims at achieving by the end of 2012: to mobilize stronger commitment to literacy; to reinforce more effective literacy programme delivery; and to harness new resources for literacy.

What are the main messages you want to send on “Literacy for Development”, which is the title of your position as UNESCO Special Envoy?
Literacy is about people, and thus literacy lies at the heart of society. I want to appeal to everyone to join forces for the benefit of development of both people and societies. Literacy is a vital means of human development. It is an enabling skill for further learning opportunities in the framework of lifelong learning. It leads to empowerment, social inclusion, health and better life chances. Everyone deserves to have those chances. So we need to urgently mobilise our entire societies to tackle illiteracy structurally, also by linking prevention and reduction. I would like to convince the key actors of the enormous potential of literacy and also show them the actual costs of illiteracy for our societies. And all this against the backdrop that we have no time to waste.

What will be your involvement in the Sixth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VI) to be held in Belém, Brazil? And what are you hoping for from this Conference?
The Belém Conference will offer a unique platform for policy dialogue and advocacy on adult learning and education at the global level as it will gather Member States, United Nations agencies, multilateral and bilateral cooperation agencies, organizations from civil society, the private sector and learners from all over the world. During my keynote speech at the official opening, I intend to share with this wide audience my concerns and ideas on the way forward, particularly for adult literacy. In particular, I wish to stress the crucial role of literacy for development and for reaching the Millennium Development Goals. (Photo © Sebastiaan ter Burg)

UNESCO’s work on Literacy

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