Regardless of how you look at it, the literacy challenge we face today might be one of the largest yet most silent. The statistics tell the story – currently, one out of every four adults worldwide – or 793 million – is functionality illiterate. Compounding the challenge, we face a worldwide shortage of 1.7 million primary teachers, and a dangerous scarcity of the appropriate skills, resources and support materials needed to address it. Even in developed countries, illiteracy is a problem. For example, 1 in 3 children in the United Kingdom do not own a book, and in some underserved areas of the United States, the ratio of children to books is 19 children to one book, whereas children in more advantaged areas each have an average of 13 books.
The literacy challenge for girls is especially acute. An estimated 75 million girls are absent from school classrooms daily, causing a myriad of learning shortfalls. Five hundred million school-aged girls will never complete their education. Child marriage and child labor further exacerbates the problem. Despite this, we see youth around the world rising to the challenge and fighting for their right to be literate and to have access to education.
Malala Yousafzai’s and Shazia Raman’s experiences in Pakistan in October 2012 demonstrate the struggle of girls who want to go to school, but are prevented from doing so by acts of terrorism aimed at keeping girls out. More recently, there was another assault on girls' education when a bus carrying 40 female students travelling from their all-girls college campus in Quetta was blown up by a suicide bomber. Literacy for all is a global issue which transcends geographic and economic borders. Improving literacy levels has a proven causal impact upon economic growth; involvement in conflict; health outcomes; social justice; and gender equity. These positive effects are helping literacy become the number one educational policy and budget priority for governments and agencies alike. As a measure of its importance, current funding provisions to address literacy outcomes exceed $18 billion worldwide.
And yet solving the basic literacy challenge may not be the whole solution. In its recent report on the Twin Challenges, the Africa Progress Panel highlights two crises facing education in Africa: the first is basic literacy; the second is the absence of base ICT skills for employability. It is not enough to develop literacy skills without the related digital literacy skills to enable people to productively participate in an increasingly digital society.
Microsoft has recognized this opportunity and is working to address it on several levels. Through YouthSpark, a global commitment to create opportunities for 300 million youth in three years, Microsoft is focusing on increasing opportunities for all young people to realize their full potential and develop the skills they need for active participation in a digital world. This includes not only digital and technology skills, but also entrepreneurial skills.
In addition to committing the majority of corporate cash giving to support nonprofit organizations that serve youth, YouthSpark brings together an array of global Microsoft programs that empower young people with access to technology and a better education, inspire young people to imagine their opportunities, and help young people find a job or start their own business. These efforts are complemented by Microsoft’s work on Literacy for Life, a voluntary collaboration between Microsoft and organizations such as UNESCO, USAID, World Vision, the Global Partnership for Education and the World Bank, who wish to radically challenge the literacy crisis, and accelerate the delivery and improve the outcomes of literacy education efforts for learners across the globe.
Today, in partnership with the United Nations, we celebrate Malala’s 16th birthday – Malala Day, and the UN Youth Take Over Day. Microsoft honors the courage of youth around the world in this fight and we commit to continue our support globally.