Literacy is not a luxury; it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens” (Bill Clinton, 1994).
Nearly 30 years ago, the former president of the United States of America recognised the importance of literacy and the opportunity it provides – not only to individuals but the whole community and the entire nation at large.
Currently, about 60% of the active population in Namibia is excluded or not participating in productive economic activities. One of the major causes of this huge significant percentage is illiteracy. A recent report by the National Planning Commission revealed that 80% of the tertiary-educated individuals in Namibia are employed, compared to 42% of secondary educated – and only 27% of those without education at all or only primary school are employed. These statistics are evidence that it pays to be literate.
What is illiteracy?
Illiteracy means lacking the basic skills needed for daily survival. One can lack the skills to read the dosage warning on a medicine bottle, follow cooking instructions, properly manage finances, or apply for a job that allows one to live above the poverty line. Being illiterate is one of the huge contributors to increased government expenditure globally. In fact, illiteracy cost world economies 1.2 trillion US dollars yearly. Imagine how much it can cost a nation like Namibia, let alone communities.
Literacy and communities
Perhaps the best way to understand the relationship between literacy and the community economy is to look at the relationship between literacy rate and crime. Three out of five offenders in Namibian prisons cannot read. This does have a serious impact, not only on the communities and immediate families of these offenders but on the taxpayers as well. Taxpayers are paying for these prisons and all the maintenance and costs they come with. Another aspect of lives that have been largely affected by illiteracy in Namibia, in my view, is health. Researchers worldwide have proven that there is a relationship between communities with high literacy rates and lower infant mortality rates. The rule of thumb is, literate adults have increased ability and knowledge to seek out medical treatment for themselves and their families, as well as a difference in their reproductive behaviour, including increased contraceptive use.
Common knowledge dictates that people with low literacy often struggle to obtain jobs that pay above a living wage. Additionally, once they are employed, they find it difficult to be promoted or get a raise. These people will have difficulties supporting their families and more likely to depend on supplemental means of doing so such as the foodbank recently introduced by the government. The bottom line is these social grants, as much as they are needed they burden the government; these monies could be channelled towards development programmes.
Illiteracy and politics
How can one be expected the equal opportunity to make a decision in elections when they aren’t provided with information in a format that benefits them? Illiterate voters are taken advantage of during political rallies, politicians shout “if you vote me into office, I will build for you bridges” the masses would ululate, yodel and clap hands. The reality is they do not need bridges because there are no rivers. The point is, how can one vote and advocate for themselves if they are unable to read an election manifesto let alone understand it. When people of our communities are given a chance to make a more educated choice, after obtaining information through multiple channels and avenues, they can advocate for themselves and participate in causes they believe in.
A society built on a foundation of literacy will allow the creativity and energy of more voices to be heard and change communities for the better through engagement, lessened costs and a healthier nation. The best way to beating illiteracy is for all of us, you and me, to get involved with local communities, volunteer for literacy programs, donate books to schools, libraries, and other organisations that need them. Illiteracy is 100% preventable.