Delivering a speech to mark International Literacy Day in 1997 the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called literacy “a bulwark against poverty and a building block for development” and “the means to which every man, woman and child can realise his or her full potential”. 

Almost 25 years later Annan’s words still ring true. The ability to read and write is an essential tool that lights the way to a better life, unlocking opportunities for work, improved health and wellbeing and participation along the way. 

However, too many people continue to be denied the opportunity to acquire basic literacy skills. Globally at least 773 million young people and adults can’t read. 

Shortcomings in both the quantity and, especially, the quality of schooling are the single biggest determinant of whether people learn to read and write.

This is certainly true for Afghanistan where decades of conflict, together with restrictions on the provision of education, mean that less than half of the Afghan population over the age of 15 are literate.

Afghanistan. Daman Middle School in Jalalabad
Image: UNHCR. Pupils at Daman Middle School in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

The good news is that over the past two decades there has been a meteoric rise in the number of Afghan children enrolled in school from 1 million to 9.5 million students

But schooling doesn’t necessarily deliver basic skills

Despite the hard-won gains for access to education, there have remained vast barriers to these children achieving the foundational skills that they should be learning.

Data has suggested that as much as 93% of late primary age children in Afghanistan are not proficient in reading.

The World Bank, which defines this crisis as “learning poverty”, clarifies the term as children being unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. Learning poverty is 35.2% higher in Afghanistan than the average for the South Asia region and 3.6% higher than the average for low income countries.

Although it is possible to learn to read later in life, children who can’t read by age 10 usually fail to achieve literacy later in their school career.

A learning crisis exacerbated by a humanitarian crisis

This year’s International Literacy Day comes at a stark moment when the pre-existing learning crisis risks being exponentially exacerbated by the ongoing and expanding humanitarian crisis and a possible return to restrictions on schooling, especially for girls.

In a country where 42.5% of the population is under 15 years of age, education quality, equity, and access remain urgent concerns for Afghanistan.

However, despite public assurances from the Taliban that they will respect the right to education, including girls’ education, fears remain that the new regime will reimpose laws restricting or banning it, and pursue retribution for those who have previously promoted or provided education and opportunities for girls. 

The international community must do everything in its power to ensure that Afghanistan’s new leaders uphold the right to education.

But securing permission to operate and attend educational facilities alone will not be enough.

Protecting the right to education of Afghanistan’s children and supporting them to acquire the ability to read will require a significant increase in coordinated international support.

Protecting learning for all Afghan children

The recent crisis in Afghanistan clearly threatens children’s continued access to schooling, whether in Afghanistan or in the countries to which they flee in search of protection. For those who remain in school and for those who are forced out of learning, their foundational learning and literacy attainment is at great risk.

As the international community seeks to address this humanitarian crisis and ensure the fundamental rights of Afghan citizens are respected, ensuring children have access to quality learning opportunities must be a central component of this support.

World leaders must support a common international strategy for education

The good news is that there’s a practical way for world leaders to deliver this.

Italy, which holds the rotating G20 presidency this year, has proposed a common international strategy in response to the crisis in Afghanistan to be agreed at an extraordinary G20 summit. 

That strategy must include a plan for education which should include a commitment to increasing humanitarian and development assistance to ensure schools, colleges and universities can continue to operate.

Without this, millions of children and young people will be robbed of the opportunity to learn, including how to read.

Support must also be increased to neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, for the education of both existing and newly arriving refugee children.

Sadly, other developments have made this support more difficult, including the UK Government’s disastrous and short-sighted cuts to the aid budget, including aid to Afghanistan. Although the Government has recently announced an increase in aid to Afghanistan in light of the current crisis, they are still giving less than in 2019.

It is imperative that the UK Government both affirms its support for the common international strategy and, having already cut the aid budget to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI), guarantees that development and humanitarian assistance to address the crisis in Afghanistan is additional to the 0.5% ODA budget.

International Literacy Day underscores the importance of the international community acting quickly to minimise educational disruption for all affected Afghan children, both those who remain in Afghanistan and those who have fled its borders.