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Illiteracy Costs the Global Economy $1 Trillion

Recently, the U.N. held closed-door negotiations on the future of the internet. Countries like the U.S. and Britain butted heads with the likes of Iran and Russia, debating whether or not nations can cut off internet access at their whim. Yet while the freedom of the internet is essential, a more pressing issue remains unresolved. Will these nations take on one of the biggest hurdles to accessing the web’s limitless information — illiteracy? 

The costs of illiteracy (being unable to read) are deceptively far-reaching. Illiteracy limits people in developing countries and inner cities, stifles opportunities for innovation and dampens the economic potential of hundreds of millions. Reading and writing are essential skills for economic mobility. And yet, as of today, 9% of the world is illiterate. To boost both the U.S. and global economy, we must invest in solutions to promote literacy on a global level. 

Illiteracy is a worldwide problem. According to UNESCO, there are more than 770 million people around the world who cannot read or write. Sub-Saharan Africa, and south and west Asia, have the worst illiteracy problems, with more than 50% of people unable to read and write. Even in the U.S., illiteracy hovers at around 14%: That’s more than 43 million citizens of the world’s preeminent economic powerhouse. 

Children cannot learn through Google, Wikipedia or local news outlets if they cannot read. Primary school students cannot become doctors, scientists or entrepreneurs without advanced reading and writing skills. Entire cities with high illiteracy rates face bleak economic prospects. The future of the internet, and our ability to leverage it for innovation, are critical economic concerns.

But if you can't read, you can't use the internet.

Worse, illiteracy impacts women more than men. Nearly two-thirds of adult women worldwide cannot read. What that amounts to is untapped economic opportunity. It means that women who would otherwise have the ability to become entrepreneurs, government officials or engineers simply cannot contribute to their communities. When 60%of women worldwide are limited by the easily-solved problem of illiteracy, their collective economic potential is being left on the sidelines.  

Even in America, illiteracy leads to a host of damaging effects. The Washington Literacy Council found that 68% of those arrested in the U.S. are illiterate. The reputed New England Journal of Medicine called it “the silent epidemic” — and in study after study, the patients who could not read repeatedly visited emergency rooms and suffered worse health issues. The Houston Chronicle reported that, due to illiteracy, America suffers “$225 billion lost annually … because of unemployment, lack of workplace productivity and crime.”

Countries should realize the direct and indirect costs of illiteracy. According to the World Literacy Foundation, “The cost of illiteracy to the global economy is estimated at USD $1.19 trillion. The effects of illiteracy [include] … limited opportunities for employment or income generation and higher chances of poor health, turning to crime and dependence on social welfare or charity.” For a problem that can be solved with books and teachers, illiteracy remains remarkably expensive for too many countries.

Fortunately, there are signs of promise and innovation. UNESCO reports that since 1990, the countries afflicted with the lowest literacy rates have made strides to improve them. The Arab states, for instance, have seen a 20% jump in adult literacy in the past twenty years.

This progress is only sustainable, however, with continued support from the industrialized world. And in funding these essential reading programs, as the U.S. has done for decades, will serve not only a humanitarian purpose. It'll be an investment in the global economy.

We must also invest in creative solutions to reach out to illiterate communities, where the problem is generations deep. For example, A Place in The Sun, a Harvard-based initiative to boost literacy in West Africa, is developing partnerships with communities to provide early education curriculum and training to local women. The organization understands how community engagement and teacher training, combined with flexible local support networks, can attack illiteracy at the community level, rather than just school-by-school.

Teaching children — and often, their parents — to read promotes education, economic development, and ultimately, self-sustaining prosperity. The U.S. and its allies must continue to incentivize these types of entrepreneurial and flexible solutions to address a fickle and persistent issue.  

As the U.S. continues to battle on the world stage for internet freedom, it must address one of the biggest barriers to global economic growth: not being able to read the words off of a page.

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