At UNESCO, A New Chapter for Literacy

U.S. Department of State - DipNote Blog

David Killion is the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The days are long for the women of Yeumbeul, a village on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. But after hours of selling fruit in the market, house chores and caretaking for their families, they flock eagerly to the local community center for evening literacy classes. Among them is twenty-year old Kewe Ndiayea, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer, but was forced to leave the school at age eleven when her family could no longer afford the $2 monthly tuition. Today, literacy classes are helping her make this dream a reality, and now Kewe is determined to become the next Diouma Dieng Diakhate, the Senegalese couturier cum political activist.

The Senegal courses are part of the UNESCO Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education, a groundbreaking initiative launched in May 2011 that leverages public-private partnerships to address gender disparities in literacy and secondary education. According to UNESCO, the UN agency responsible for education, nearly 775 million people worldwide lack basic literacy skills and two-thirds of them are women. Girls also make up a disproportionate number of out-of-school children, particularly at the secondary level.

The benefits of teaching women to read and write are well documented. Literate women and their children enjoy better health and experience less poverty. They are more likely to participate actively in civic and political processes and make informed decisions about family finances. Sending girls and women to school also drives economic growth, not only at the local and national levels but the global level as well: a World Literacy Foundation report released in April 2012 estimated that illiteracy costs the global economy more than $1.19 trillion per year.

During International Literacy Day on September 8, we were reminded of how much work still needs to be done to accomplish the Millennium Development Goal of eliminating gender disparities in education by 2015. It’s a difficult challenge that comes at a difficult time, but new education initiatives based on public-private partnerships offer a promising solution. Described as “smart aid,” these initiatives draw on private companies, foundations, schools and even individual educators to offer made-to-measure programs that respond to the needs of local populations and benefit all those involved.

UNESCO’s Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education is leveraging public-private partnerships in five African countries. The Packard Foundation supports the Partnership in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The Varkey GEMS Foundation is the primary funder in Kenya and Lesotho. And Procter & Gamble is helping finance programs in seven regions of Senegal.

Just a year after the launch, the Procter & Gamble-supported Senegal initiatives are proving highly successful. Working under the umbrella of Senegal’s national literacy strategy, UNESCO has established more than 160 physical classrooms, serving more than 3,000 illiterate learners. The women and girls receive literacy instruction directly linked to income-generating activities, motivating them to put their new skills to good use.

In Tanzania, the Packard Foundation Partnership is focused on retention in secondary schools by reversing drop-outs. Young women leave school for a variety of reasons ranging from pregnancy to family issues to the need to work full-time. Through local NGOs, the Partnership is training mentors to improve retention and teach leadership and empowerment skills.

Why is private sector support so crucial to the success of the Global Partnership? First, Corporate engagement helps bring new ideas, technology and visibility to education assistance. Public-private partnerships broaden the network of resources, enabling organizations such as UNESCO to find and bring together the best participants to tackle education challenges. In Tanzania, for example, UNESCO has been able to leverage Packard’s relationship with local NGOs specializing in girls’ education and empowerment.

Second, private sector support provides financial support and sustainability in an era when government budgets are shrinking and development dollars are on the wane. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently found that major aid to developing countries dropped by almost 3 percent in 2011, a trend that is likely to continue in coming years.

Thanks to programs like these, companies can boost visibility, deepen the impact of corporate philanthropy, and even improve their bottom lines. Funding for the Senegal program is being provided through revenue from Always sanitary products sold in France. Specially marketed with the UNESCO logo, the products generated significant sales — a win for both Procter & Gamble and the Partnership. The Always campaign is being expanded to markets in Scandinavia and the Balkans, providing additional funding for literacy programs.

Girls and women throughout the world have a right to access education, not just in their primary years but through the secondary level and beyond. The smart aid model can help make that right a reality, perhaps even in time to meet our 2015 target.


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