Laura Bush makes opening remarks at UNESCO’s celebration of International Literacy Day on September 8

“Literacy is at the core of sustainable solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. It provides the foundation for freedom and sustainable economic development,” emphasized Laura Bush, former First Lady of the United States, at the celebration of International Literacy Day at UNESCO in Paris on 8 September. In her role as Honorary Ambassador for the United Nations Literacy Decade, she gave an opening address, helped present the 2009 UNESCO Literacy Prizes and toured the visiting “Camion des Mots” mobile computer classroom with children from the Paris suburbs.

In line with the UN Literacy Decade (2003-2012) calendar, International Literacy Day put the spotlight this year on the empowering role of literacy and its importance for participation, citizenship and development.

“Literacy is not just about reading and writing; it is about respect, opportunity and development,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message, urging “all partners to strengthen their commitment to promoting global literacy and to back this support with the resources needed to achieve real progress.”

Yet, as Koïchiro Matsuura, the Director-General of UNESCO, recalled in his International Literacy Day remarks, “While the empowering role of literacy and its significance for development have been recognized worldwide, there are still 776 million illiterate adults in the world and 75 million children out of school whose rights and needs remain unfulfilled.”

The presentation of the 2009 UNESCO Literacy Prizes, supported by the Republic of Korea and by the People’s Republic of China, followed the opening. Representatives of innovative educational projects based in India and Burkina Faso received the awards of the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize. Projects operating in Afghanistan and the Philippines were honoured with the awards of the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, with a programme in Bhutan receiving an Honourable Mention.

Mrs Bush and Mr Matsuura then climbed aboard the “Camion des Mots” (word truck) parked at UNESCO’s entrance for the launch of its fifth annual tour. The truck, a mobile computer classroom, travels around France visiting schools to encourage reading and writing among 8- to 15-year-olds through interactive games. (Sponsors include the French insurance company MAIF, the magazines
Lire
and L’Express and the Ministry of Education.) At the same time, Mrs Bush and the Director-General met children participating in “Un cahier, un crayon” (a notebook, a pencil), an initiative through which children collect basic learning materials to send to developing countries; the campaign, organized by the humanitarian association Solidarité Laïque with French insurance companies MAE and MAIF, will benefit Burkina Faso this year.

Later, the International Literacy Day lecture on “Literacy and Empowerment” was given by renowned expert on literacy and development Dr Lalage J. Bown, Emeritus Professor of Adult and Continuing Education, University of Glasgow (United Kingdom). A round table followed at which the winners of the 2009 UNESCO Literacy Prizes presented their respective programmes.

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