February 2016: Lily Cole urges action on global illiteracy crisis at Parliament

Launch of new body of evidence demonstrating illiteracy is at heart of the biggest global development problems

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Lily Cole to urge leaders to take action on global illiteracy crisis at Parliament

LONDON, 00:00, 23 February 2016: International actress, model and activist Lily Cole will today give a speech to MPs at the Houses of Parliament calling for urgent action to tackle the global illiteracy crisis, which afflicts one in 10 people alive today and means that one in five British children leave primary school unable to read or write.

She will unveil the ‘Alphabet of Illiteracy’, a new body of evidence suggesting illiteracy is the root cause of almost every major problem humanity faces, from A-Z. The full Alphabet can be explored at projectliteracy.com/abc but examples, drawn from a wealth of academic research and data, include:


  • In studies of female genital mutilation, more than 80% of the victims[1]  and up to 92% of mothers[2] were illiterate and unemployed: the practice of FGM is thus sustained as a societal norm, as well as a source of income for the perpetuators.

Gender inequality

  • Women are disproportionately likely to be unable to read or write: two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults (520 million) are female.[3]
  • Each additional year of schooling a girl receives increases her earning ability by 10-20% and reduces the probability of postnatal child mortality by 10%.[4]

Infant mortality

  • Four to six years of education for women can lead to a 20% drop in infant deaths.[5]


  • Research into Boko Haram’s impact in Nigeria ranked illiteracy as the second highest factor influencing youth radicalisation.[6]

Famous for her vocal belief in the importance of education, Cole will be speaking in her role as Global Ambassador for Project Literacy – a campaign backed by 40 charities and education organisations, including UNESCO,  and the National Literacy Trust, convened by founding partner, Pearson.

Lily Cole will say: “In our alphabet, A is for AIDS, because if you can’t read or write you are five times less likely to understand how people contract HIV. B is for bloodshed, because the rate of violent crimes such as murder and sexual assaults is almost double among the illiterate population. C is for child brides, because if all women had a primary education, child marriages would reduce by a sixth.”

Explaining her support for the campaign, Cole said “As a new mum, I feel more keenly than ever the responsibility to make sure the future for humankind is better than the now.  Illiteracy is not a ‘developing world’ problem. It’s affecting our children, right here in the UK.  The fact that one in five British children leave primary school unable to read or write is a tragedy. And we have to tackle it, now, if we are to build a better future for the world.”

The research is being launched as part of a wider campaign to raise awareness about the devastating developmental impact of illiteracy and to encourage the United Nations to create a more measureable illiteracy target within the Sustainable Development Goals.

People can show their support by signing the the Project Literacy petition at projectliteracy.com/petition. Created on behalf of the 757 million people around the world who cannot read or write, Project Literacy aim to gather 1 million signatures by International Literacy Day in September, when they will present it to the United Nations. 

Dr. Dan Wagner, UNESCO Chair in Learning and Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania, said: “Literacy is a key component in achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals. Without literacy, each of the 17 goals will be limited by the inability of citizens to be sufficiently informed on key issues, and less empowered to take action. There is a strong argument that tackling illiteracy and low literacy, as a ‘foundational’ social problem, would pay greater dividends than tackling each issue separately.”

The speech will be given at a session hosted by Stephen Twigg MP, chairman of the International Development Select Committee.

Kate James, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer for Pearson and spokesperson for Project Literacy, said: “The curse of illiteracy is global and devastating and we are determined to put it more firmly onto the agenda of the world’s leaders.  A combination of raised awareness of the problem, coordinated action from charities, NGOs and governments themselves, and the power of mobile technology will allow us to make real progress towards our goal of, ultimately, making sure that by 2030 no child is born at risk of poor literacy.”

To mark the launch, Project Literacy has created a film that outlines the serious issues that lie at the core of the Alphabet of Illiteracy, which improved literacy can positively impact. You can view the film atprojectliteracy.com/abc


Notes to Editors


  • A selection of Alphabet of Illiteracy images can be found [here]
  • A selection of images of Lily speaking at the event can be found [here]


  • Lily Cole’s full speech is available upon request


Some key stats on illiteracy

Illiteracy is a truly global problem:

  • No country has ever achieved continued economic growth without having first achieved an adult literacy rate above 40%.[7]
  • Illiteracy costs the world $1.19 trillion a year.[8] It costs a developed nation 2% of its GDP each year and an emerging economy 1.2% of GDP.
  • 32 million adults in the United States can’t read.[9] And one in four children grow up without learning how to read.[10]
  • More than 70% of inmates in American prisons cannot read above fourth grade level (typically 9-10 years old).[11]
  • 1 in 5 UK children leave primary school unable to read or write.[12]
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of illiterate adults has increased by 37% since 1990.[13]
  • In India, 287 million people do not have basic reading skills.[14]


  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3282605/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9003955
  3. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/gender/worldswomen.html
  4. http://www.ungei.org/infobycountry/files/file_GirlsCount.pdfhttp://www.learningandwork.org.uk/sites/niace_en/files/document-downloads/womensrighttoliteracy_web.pdf
  5. http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/SR348-Why_do_Youth_Join_Boko_Haram.pdf
  6. http://www.worldliteracyfoundation.org/why-literacy/ 
  7. http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/news/4567_new_report_shows_illiteracy_costing_the_world_1_19_trillion
  8. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007064.pdf
  9. http://www.begintoread.com/research/literacystatistics.html
  10. http://www.begintoread.com/research/literacystatistics.html
  11. http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/sites/default/documents/about-ofsted/speeches/Brighton%20College%20education%20conference%20speech%20-%20HMCI.pdf 
  12. http://www.uis.unesco.org/literacy/Documents/UIS-literacy-statistics-1990-2015-en.pdf
  13. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002256/225660e.pdf


About Project Literacy

Project Literacy is a global campaign convened by Pearson to make significant and sustainable advances in the fight against illiteracy so that all people - regardless of geography, language, race, class, or gender – have the opportunity to fulfill their potential through the power of words.

Official partners include: Worldreader, Room to Read, GOOD Magazine, Reading Partners, BookAid, BookTrust, 826National, Jumpstart, First Book, Raising A Reader, Reading is Fundamental, Reach out and Read, Asia Foundation, We Need Diverse Books,  the National Literacy Trust, the Clinton Foundation, UNESCO, Unreasonable Group, CENPEC (Brazil), Results for Development, and the Center for Knowledge Societies (India), Benetech, Amnesty International (need to be confirmed), War Child (need to be confirmed), Save the Children, World Literacy Foundation, Girls Not Brides (need to be confirmed), 28 Too Many (need to be confirmed), Nutrition and Education International – Afghanistan (need to be confirmed), Kranti – India (need to be confirmed),

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