UNICEF Report Exaggerates World Illiteracy Rates, Lacks Context

       Illiteracy is
an enormous problem around the world – few people would deny that – but
UNICEF appears to be exaggerating the level of illiteracy and failing
to put illiteracy statistics into context.

        In its recently
released report, “The State of the World’s Children 1999,” UNICEF
warns “nearly a billion people, two-thirds of them women, will enter
the 21st century unable to read a book or write their names.”
Following UNICEF’s lead, many newspapers in the United States and elsewhere
ran headlines trumpeting the fact that 1 billion people are illiterate.
As the CATO Institute’s David Boaz points out in a recent op-ed, there
are some important qualifiers to these figures that UNICEF leaves out.

        First, UNICEF’s
“nearly a billion” figure is a 14.5 percent markup – the actual
report estimates 855 million people are illiterate. Adding 145 million
people to get “nearly a billion” is quite a feat.

        Second, although
the report insists illiteracy rates will increase in the 21st
century, this is contrary to the historical trends in this century which
UNICEF, conveniently, doesn’t mention in its report. Take literacy rates
from UNESCO during this century:


Estimated illiteracy rate

Prior to 1926

75 percent


52 percent


20 percent


16 percent

        Certainly a
16 percent illiteracy rate is too high, but at the same time it represents
an enormous victory in the space of less than 70 years. There is no
reason to think the illiteracy rate will not continue its long decline.
The major real threat to higher literacy rates are authoritarian governments.
The militant Islamic Taliban recently forbade girls to receive a public
education, for example.


Illiteracy – The Bad News and the Good. David Boaz, The CATO Institute, January 20, 1999.

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