Over the last five decades, the global literacy rate has improved remarkably: rising by 4% every five years from 1960 onwards[1].  In the same timeframe, the proportion of the global youth population lacking basic literacy skills has decreased to only 10%, compared with 25% fifty years ago[2].

However, despite these, what appear on face value, to be significant improvements, there are still many underlying challenges ahead that must be addressed.

According to latest figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), there are still 750 million people across the globe who can’t read a single word, and more than 2 billion people struggle to read or write a single sentence.  Amongst these groups, marked regional and gender disparities still persist, with literacy rates lowest in least-developed countries and amongst the female population.

Studies have demonstrated that people who are completely or functionally illiterate face the prospect of poor health, welfare dependency, gender inequality and a lack of social cohesion[3].

Literacy is also shown to promote gender equality as a fundamental condition for the full enjoyment of human rights – leading to improved skill development for work and for socio-economic participation by both women and men.

With regards to the economic impact of poor literacy, UNESCO estimates that if all students in low income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, which would be equivalent to a 12% cut in overall global poverty.

These numbers are a stark reminder of the importance of the work still required to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by all Member States in 2015, particularly SDG 4.6: “to ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030.”

At Abdul Latif Jameel we believe that education is a key driver for sustainable change, and that by empowering communities through access to learning and skills development is fundamental to breaking the poverty cycle.

In 2003, Community Jameel joined forces with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to launch the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL),  a global research center working to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence.  One of the Lab’s initiatives, “Teaching at the Right Level” (TaRL), is specifically dedicated to improving learning in literacy and numeracy, using a method involving re-orienting classrooms and tailoring teaching methods according to ability.

In 2017, we unveiled a ground-breaking initiative designed to address the challenges of education and “spark a global renaissance in education for all learners”.  The Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Laboratory (J-WEL), co-founded by Community Jameel and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), brings together educators, technologists, policy-makers and societal leaders, and aims to address global opportunities for scalable change in education.

Fady M. Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman, Abdul Latif Jameel International and President, International of Community Jameel, said:

“Education and learning are fundamental to a strong society and economy.  They promote employment and create increased opportunity for all – all central pillars of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.”

A guiding focus of J-WEL will be learners in the developing world, populations under-served by education such as women and girls; a growing displaced population that includes refugees, and a workforce in need of STEM knowledge and skills (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering).

Through J-WEL, MIT can provide unprecedented access to high-quality curriculum, pedagogical resources, and learning tools that, alongside policy research, will help address the inequities in global education.

Read more about J-WEL here. 

[1] OECD report: “How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820”

[2] http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/literacy

[3] https://worldliteracyfoundation.org/