U.N. reports slow decline in number of illiterates

May 26, 1991|By New York Times News Service

UNITED NATIONS -- The number of illiterate people in the world has declined slightly in recent years, a report found recently.

The report, issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, estimated the number of illiterate people in 1990 to be 948 million, a decrease from the 1985 estimate of 950 million.

Last year was International Literacy Year, and the report states, "Through a happy coincidence, International Literacy Year may be looked back upon as the turning point in the struggle for a literate world."

Illiterate people make up 26.6 percent of the world's population; and if current trends continue, the report projects that the number of illiterates will decrease to 935 million, or 21.8 percent, by the year 2000.

While the report indicates that these figures indicate a significant decrease in the proportion of illiterate people -- the number in 1970 was 890 million, or 38.5 percent of the adult population -- it refers to the progress of eradicating illiteracy as being "painfully slow."

The report says that one of the effects of the International Literacy Year was to raise awareness of functional illiteracy in industrialized nations, often estimated at between 10 percent and 20 percent. This has resulted in programs to help solve that problem as well as increase the willingness of industrialized nations to assist poorer countries in their efforts.

This is not the solution for all countries, however, according to the UNESCO report. "In a nation where 50 percent of the men and 80 percent of the women are illiterate, awareness is not the issue," the report says. "What is needed is action and, in the poorest countries, action requires external support as well as national commitment."

One of the efforts receiving support from UNESCO is a rural press, since, the report states, "Literacy has little meaning and .. will be little sought after in societies where newspapers and books remain rarities."

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