Literacy and education for democracy: essential milestones to advance the SDGs during and beyond COVID-19

New York: On 8 October 2020, UNESCO presented the UN Secretary-General’s report on Literacy for life, work, lifelong learning and education for democracy at the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly.

Addressing the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly during a virtual meeting, Ms Stefania Giannini UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education, presented the UN Secretary-General’s report entitled Literacy for life, work, lifelong learning and education for democracy.

The report identifies the progress made on literacy, with a particular focus on young people and adults. Set against the largest disruption of education, as described by the UN Secretary General in his policy brief, the report provides recommendations for the further promotion of literacy as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Reviewing the global trends in the field of education for democracy as requested but the General Assembly resolution 73/134 the report also contains information on major efforts being made by Member States, the United Nations system and relevant stakeholders in addressing the subject and the intrinsic relationship of the subject to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Warning that ‘millions of children, youth and adults are missing out on literacy and education programmes, especially at the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis, while it is putting their future at risk and threatening to erase decades of progress’, – the education chief alerted that ‘without accelerated action, less than 70 per cent of adults and slightly more than 80 per cent of youth in low-income countries are projected to be literate by 2030’.

Presenting its findings, Ms. Giannini reiterated the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and an integral part of the right to education. As highlighted in the report, ‘literacy empowers individuals and expands their capabilities for achieving greater freedoms and engaging more effectively in life, work and lifelong learning’ and it should be regarded as a learning continuum, inscribed in a wider set of competencies that are required to navigate in the era of digital technologies. Promising initiatives in this regard are undertaken under the UNESCO’s Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy for 2020 to 2025 that aim to develop better national literacy policies and strategies, meet the learning needs of the most disadvantaged, harness digital technologies and monitor and assess diverse skills and programmes.

During her presentation, UNESCO education chief called for increased funding as the ‘current funding gap stands of 10 billion dollars in the 20 countries with adult literacy rates below 50%‘ is expected to encounter further decline. Against this background, UNESCO is taking further the advocacy for better financing for literacy at the upcoming Global Education Meeting on 22 October.

As COVID-19’s negative impact has caused further waves of xenophobia, racism, and other forms of intolerance and discrimination, education remains essential in preparing people to build more peaceful, tolerant resilient post-crisis societies. Amplifying the report’s recommendations, Ms. Giannini stated that quality education, and particularly target 4.7, is a key enabler to promote just and peaceful societies – Sustainable Development Goal 16.

Stressing the report’s recommendation to “educate young people about their rights and empower them, in particular to shape, in the aftermath of COVID-19, societies that are anchored in respect for human rights and the rule of law”, Mrs Giannini highlighted the importance of developing “educational policies and initiatives that contribute to preventing disinformation and hate speech, in particular through media and information literacy”.


UNESCO leads the coordination of the implementation of the Education 2030 Agenda through a coordinated and sustained collective support, advocacy and knowledge management on different platforms, including the SDG-Education 2030 coordination mechanisms, the Global Alliance for Literacy (GAL), the Global Network of Learning Cities and the Global Alliance to Monitor Learning.

Following the presentation of the report, Member states engaged in a fruitful discussion with UNESCO representative. Some reiterated that literacy, as an integral part of the right to education, is essential for the enjoyment of other rights. Delegates also pointed out that education for democracy could be a tool to address hate speech. Furthermore, an emphasis was put on the protection of education during conflict when the safety of students and teachers in conflict-affected zones is a primary concern.

During this session, the Third Committee, chaired by H. E. Ms Katalin Bogyay, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Hungary to the United Nations, also heard presentations of the reports related to social development, including questions relating to the world social situation and to youth, ageing, persons with disabilities and the family.