How much does it cost to achieve universal literacy?

46As events for International Literacy Day continue, new cost estimates have been produced by UNESCO showing that US$14 billion will be needed if the 20 countries with the lowest literacy rates, which are members of the Global Alliance for Literacy (GAL), and the E-9 countries with the largest population in the developing world are to achieve universal functional literacy and numeracy skills by 2030.

The costs are presented in a new study authored by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), the UNESCO Division for Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems, and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), in collaboration with the GEM Report team. They were based on an extension of the costing model developed by the Report for the 2015 policy paper ‘Pricing the right to education: The cost of reaching new targets by 2030’. 

As shown in the 2019 GEM Report, despite stagnation in sub-Saharan Africa, progress in youth literacy has been rapid enough in recent years to lead to an absolute decline in the overall number of illiterate youth aged 15 to 24, largely driven by Asia. But the number of illiterate elderly, aged 65 and above, continues to grow; there are now almost 40% more illiterate elderly than illiterate youth.

track 46And as our recent joint report with UIS, Meeting commitments: Are countries on track to achieve SDG 4?, showed, the literacy rate is expected to continue to grow steadily in countries in all income groups between now and the SDG 4 deadline in 2030. At the global level, the youth literacy rate is expected to reach 94% and the adult literacy rate 90% by 2030. But in low-income countries, less than 70% of adults and slightly more than 80% of youth are projected to have basic literacy skills by 2030.

The new costing exercise released yesterday estimated the funding gap for improving these rates so as to achieve SDG Target 4.6 on literacy. The new figures will help facilitate a discussion on the importance of investing in literacy as the foundation of lifelong learning.

The US$14 billion funding gap for universal literacy cannot be covered by countries alone, especially the 20 countries with the lowest literacy rates. UNESCO has long recommended that 3% of governments’ education budgets be allocated to literacy. Yet, even if 5% of GDP were allocated to education as recommended, and the 3% to literacy was also respected, it would not fill the gap for the poorest countries in the group.

GEM Report calculations show that, while GAL and E-9 countries receive over one-third of aid to education (37%), they only receive 0.5% of donor aid to adult literacy programmes. Effective financing would need to reflect this imbalance.

How were the calculations made?

3These estimates assume that 200-250 hours of instruction are needed to master the basics, rising to 500 hours for those that require additional skills training, with groups of no more than 20 people. Teachers’ salaries were estimated on a part time basis, and relative to GDP per capita.

But Target 4.6 is not very precise. It states that ‘all youth’ and ‘a substantial portion of adults’ achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030. But the US$14 billion funding gap estimate refers to achieving 100% literacy for both youth and adults.  This means that the funding gap for achieving Target 4.6 is not that large. A relatively small amount of external support could make a massive difference. What a great opportunity for donors to get involved.



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