Transforming lives through education

How has education changed our world? Discover how literacy campaigns led by UNESCO improved the lives of millions since 1950, and how international cooperation helped redefine the entire education landscape.
Girls at school
Last update: 19 Julho 2022

Transforming education to change our world

Education is at the heart of UNESCO’s mission to build peace, eradicate poverty and drive sustainable development. The Organization covers all aspects of education and provides global and regional leadership in education, strengthens education systems worldwide and brings together governments, the private sector and civil society to deliver quality education for all. UNESCO publishes landmark reports and data for policymakers, we implement programmes on the ground from teacher training to emergency responses and establish norms and standards for all to guide educational development from preschool to higher education and beyond.

Right to Education

Right to education and literacy in a ruined world

Southern Italy, 1950. Three children are huddled on a narrow desk made out of reclaimed wood, busy scribbling on their notebooks. The war ended five years ago, but the scars of the conflict are still visible in the black-and-white reportage that UNESCO commissioned to legendary photojournalist David Seymour.

The classroom has an earth floor and roughly clad walls. The children’s clothes are ragged. They are wearing home-made slippers because shoes and the money to buy them are a rare commodity in the war-ravaged poor south.

In the wake of World War II, less than half of Italy’s population can read and write, with just a third of Italians having completed primary school.

UNESCO, children at school

Immediately after World War two UNESCO led a major education campaign in Europe to respond to the education crisis, fix and rebuild links between people and strengthen cultural identities after years of conflict. David Seymour’s images show the extent of the fight against illiteracy led by the post-war Italian government and non-governmental organisations backed by UNESCO. 

Looking back at the deprived surroundings Seymour captured in his photo essay, one can see the extent of success. Seventy-one years later, those children’s grandchildren enjoy a 99.16 per cent literacy rate. 

Similar programmes were held across the globe, for instance in devastated Korea where UNESCO led a major education textbook production programme in the 1950s. Several decades after, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Korean citizen Ban Ki-Moon expressed the importance of such a programme for the country's development: 

It looks like a very old faded textbook, but through this textbook, I was able to see the world as a young boy in Korea right after the war. Korea was totally devastated, with nothing left, there were no classrooms for me, and I had to study in the dirt. But with textbooks provided and supported by UNESCO, UNICEF and the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency. Wherever I go, particularly in the developing world, I am asked without fail what is the secret of the Korean people and the government to have such a successful development just in the matter of one generation; my answer has always been simple and clear: education.
Ban Ki-Moon Former Secretary General of the United Nations

Ban Ki-moon places a textbook from his childhood days published by UNESCO at Open UNESCO

The Republic of Korea indeed transformed itself, with the support of the international community, from a beneficiary country to one of the most advanced industrialised countries in the world, and one of UNESCO’s most important donors and contributors.

Reaching the remote villages perched atop the Andes in Peru during the early 1960s wasn’t without its challenges for UNESCO’s technical assistance programme to bring literacy to disadvantaged communities. 

While Peru’s economy was experiencing a prolonged period of export-led expansion, not all Peruvians were able to benefit from this growth, which was limited to the industrialised coast. The Andes communities, instead, were grappling with poverty, illiteracy and depopulation. 

Photojournalist Paul Almasy has left us the poignant image of a barefoot older man while he’s deciphering a newspaper thanks to his newfound literacy skills.

The classroom at the UNESCO mission in Chinchera, in the Andean highlands of Peru, had allowed the old man to discover the world beyond his tiny village.

Since then, the number of non-literate youths and adults around the world has decreased dramatically, while the global literacy rate for young people aged 15-24 years has reached 92 per cent in the 21st century. Such advance in literacy rates reflects the improved access to schooling for younger generations.

High hurdles remain today. 

Beyond literacy programmes, massive investments in skills, teacher training, and education policies are needed across the globe. More than 450 million children have failed to gain basic literacy skills by the age of 10 since world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

Data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) shows that 617 million children and adolescents worldwide are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. This signals ‘a learning crisis’ which jeopardises progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda.

Based on calculations from official World Bank and UNESCO ‘learning poverty’ figures, and UN population data of all 10-year-olds, the Tracker sets out the number of children losing their future potential every year, month, week, day, hour, and second. Findings from the Tracker show that nearly 6 million children turn 10 each month without acquiring the basic literacy skills for their age. That is equivalent to the population of Johannesburg.

UIS

UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Education for girls/women: Gender inequity in schools

There are notably immense gender gaps in access, learning achievement and education, most often at the expense of girls and women. 

It is estimated that some 127 million girls are out of school around the world. For many girls and women around the world, the classroom remains an elusive, often forbidden space. UNESCO monitors the educational rights of girls and women around the world and shares information on the legal progress toward securing the right to education for women in all countries. Despite important progress in recent decades, the right to education is still far from being a reality for many girls and women. Discriminatory practices stand in the way of girls and women fully exercising their right to participate in, complete, and benefit from education.

HerAtlas

Monitoring the right to education for girls and women

Fisherwoman in Madagascar
What makes me proud is that soon I will finish building a new house. I have already been able to buy a cow and I will soon be able to have another pond.
Natacha Obienne

Madagascar’s coastal Atsinanana region is known for its lush rainforests and fish breeding.

The country has a young population, but only one out of three children can complete primary education. Among those who are able to finish primary school, only 17 per cent have minimum reading skills, while just a fifth of them have basic maths competencies. Once they leave school, children face a precarious labour market and unstable jobs, just like their parents.

Natacha Obienne is only 21 years old, but she is already in charge of a small fish farm, a career that is usually pursued by men. As one of the many out-of-school women in her area, she was able to set up her own business after vocational training taught her the basics of financial management and entrepreneurship, as well as the practicalities of breeding fish.

She understood that fish feeding depends on the temperature of the water. If it’s well managed, a higher number of fish is produced. ‘I immediately applied everything I learnt’ she says.

The classroom she attended changed the course of her life and she hopes other young people will follow in her footsteps.

'I no longer depend on my parents and I am financially independent'

 

She’s not alone. Around 3,000 youths in Madagascar have been trained since the start of the UNESCO-backed programme, some of whom have set up their own business and achieved financial independence. Education was the best way to ease people's emancipation. Like Emma Claudia, 25, who after her vocational training started a restaurant with just a baking tray and a saucepan.

Woman owner of a restaurant in Madagascar
What does my family think? They are surprised and amazed by my evolution, because I haven’t been able to complete my studies. I don’t have any school diplomas.
Emma Claudia

While Natacha and Emma Claudia have been able to transform their world through education, millions of children out of school around the world are still denied that dream.

Discrimination against girls remains widespread and nearly one billion adults, mostly women, are illiterate. The lack of qualified teachers and learning materials continues to be the reality in too many schools.

Challenging these obstacles is getting harder as the world grapples with the acceleration of climate change, the emergence of digitization and artificial intelligence, and the increasing exclusion and uncertainty brought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Educational development in crisis time: COVID-19, climate change and fragile countries

The pandemic brought learning to a screeching halt worldwide, creating the most catastrophic disruption to education humanity has ever experienced. 

More than 1.5 billion students and youths across the planet are or have been affected by the closure of schools and universities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many children were suddenly prevented from going to school for several months. Many illiterate youth and adults faced an even harder hit from the pandemic, as many countries did not include adult literacy in their education response plans once the pandemic exploded. Many continuing education programmes were suspended, and only a few courses were available virtually through TV and radio or in the open air, wherever possible.

Education: From disruption to recovery

We resumed school a while ago and it’s been stressful. We are trying to retrieve what we lost during quarantine, the worst thing about not being in school is the number of things you miss. Learning behind a screen and learning in person are incomparable.
Aicha A teenager from Nigeria

Aicha is lucky to be able to continue her education. Her country has the highest rate of out-of-school children in the world – 10.5 million – and nearly two-thirds are women. To compound the problem, Nigeria’s northern states suffer from the violence that targets education.

Crouched over a pedal-powered sewing machine, Harikala Buda looks younger than her 30 years. Her slim fingers fold a cut of turquoise brocade before deftly pushing it under the needle mechanism.

Woman_sewing
The sewing training gave me a voice and skills. I have earned enough to buy a sewing machine and a few dresses.
Harikala Buda

Harikala lives in rural Nepal, where many villagers, particularly women, don’t have access to basic education. Women like Harikala rely on local community UNESCO-supported learning centres to receive literacy and tailoring skills. In a country where 32% of people over 15 are illiterate, particularly women and those living in rural areas, education is the only route to becoming self-reliant.

I have saved a small amount. My husband’s income goes towards running the house, mine is saved. We must save today to secure our children’s future.

 

Having access to a classroom is the first step to creating a better world for the student, the student’s children and the student’s community. This is a lesson that matters a lot to Kalasha Khadka Khatri, a 30-year-old Nepali mother. She grew up in a family of 21, with no option to go to school. Two of her children didn’t survive infancy because she was unable to pay for medical treatment. After acquiring sewing skills at her local community learning centre, Kalasha can now provide for her family.

Harikala and Kalasha were able to learn their skills through the support of the UNESCO’s Capacity Development for Education Programme (CapED), an initiative that operates in some 26 least developed and fragile countries. 

Their stories highlight the power of education to transform lives, build self-confidence, contribute to social and economic progress and promote equality of opportunities for those who learn and for the future generations that depend on them. 

In hard-to-reach areas, classrooms offer learning opportunities to people who have never had access to education, or who are forced to leave the system. In the past, they were a safe place where children in war-torn countries could hope to build a better future for themselves and their communities.

In Russia, too, Alexander and his school friends had to cope with virtual learning and the lack of interactions.

All Russian students were moved to online studying. Needless to say, it was a rough year for all of us, several friends were struggling with depressive moods. They were missing their friends and teachers. So did I.
Alexander

Aicha and Alexander are among the 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet who have been affected by school and university closures due to the pandemic.

To protect their right to education during this unprecedented disruption and beyond, UNESCO has launched the Global Education Coalition, a platform for collaboration and exchange that brings together more than 175 countries from the UN family, civil society, academia and the private sector to ensure that learning never stops.

The global health crisis has also revealed the massive importance of digital connectivity and online platforms, as well as that of radio and television. Looking to the future of global education, UNESCO has urged to begin considering access to information – another fundamental right – connected to the right to education in ways that were not foreseen even a decade ago.

As the world slowly turns the corner on the global health crisis, teachers and students around the world are now yearning for classroom-based learning to return.

For many poor children in developing countries and rich economies alike, school is a cherished space where they can access books, receive guidance from teachers and, sometimes, the only proper meal of the day. Building this environment requires policy advice, stronger education legislation, funds mobilisation, advocacy, targeted programme implementation based on sound analysis, statistics and global information sharing. Quality education also calls for the teaching of skills far beyond literacy and maths, including critical thinking against fake news in the digital era, living in harmony with nature and the ethics of AI, to name just a few of the critical skills needed in the 21st century. 

UNESCO’s mission to help develop high-quality and inclusive education systems goes beyond literacy. It encompasses education for sustainable development, the fight against intolerance – including racism and anti-Semitism ­– and support for the creation of textbooks and educational materials.

To the many people still living in conditions of poverty, exclusion, displacement and violence, the future appears as a door closing on possibilities, rather than one opening to hope and promise. 

As a fundamental and universal human right, education can reverse the course of this narrative.