In the past four decades, the number of adults who can read has increased by about 1.8 billion worldwide--a net growth of some 120,000 people a day. This continuing improvement in global literacy--from 56 percent of the population in 1950 to about 74 percent today--represents encouraging progress. But it also hides troubling disparities between industrial and developing nations and between men and women.
In 1970, some 94 percent of adults over age 15 were considered literate in industrial countries, compared with only 45 percent in the Third World. Since then, literacy rates in the developing countries have gained ground impressively, climbing to 65 percent. Unfortunately, that still leaves 1.4 billion illiterate adults worldwide. With population having grown even faster than literacy over most of the past three decades, the absolute number of people who cannot read is greater now than it was in the early 1960s.
As education programs proliferated in the developing world between 1985 and 1990, literacy finally began to gain on population growth, and the total number of illiterates worldwide fell by 2.4 million--the first time the number has actually declined. At that rate of improvement, however, it would take 3,000 years for the number of illiterates to approach zero. Furthermore, as the income gap between rich and poor nations is now widening rather than narrowing, maintaining even this rate of improvement may be difficult.
The disparity between male and female literacy is pervasive, cutting across economic and regional lines. In 1970, about 70 percent of the world's men were able to read, but only 54 percent of the women. By 1990, both sexes had increased in overall literacy but the gap between the two had narrowed only slightly--by 2 percentage points. At this rate, it would take more than 200 years for women to be as literate as men.
Even more disturbing is the fact that in some areas, the gender gap has actually widened. In Africa, while women's literacy climbed from 11 percent in 1962 to about 30 percent in 1985, the rate for men increased from 26 to 56 percent during the same period; thus the gender gap increased from 15 percentage points to 26. Since 1985, however, African women have closed the gap slightly. Illiteracy in industrial countries, while affecting a diminishing percentage of the population, appears to constitute a growing social problem. Because an increasing proportion of all jobs in these economies demand some facility in reading and writing, those who lack these skills are often mired in chronic unemployment and poverty.
In the Third World, literacy is not only a key factor in economic productivity but is a basic--though often disregarded--factor in the vicious cycle wherein uncontrolled population growth hastens environmental degradation, leading to still more intractable poverty. Efforts to stabilize population growth are unlikely to succeed without fundamental improvements in the status of women--including their rights and access to education. Closing the literacy gap between men and women may thus be a significant measure of progress in human development. …