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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

International Literacy Day 2012

Esther Brimmer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Ronald Reagan Building
Washington, DC
September 7, 2012


It is September, back-to-school season. It is a busy time in our household. My son began 10th grade this week. So now that you know that I am the proud mother of a high schooler, you won’t be surprised to learn that my most poignant contribution to literacy happened over fifteen years ago.

Two days after our son, Nathaniel, was born we came home from the hospital, tired but joyous. My husband and I were so happy to have a healthy baby. So what did we do on the day we brought our son home? I curled up with him and read him “Peter Rabbit” from a beautiful book, a complete collection of Beatrice Potter stories, a gift from Nathaniel’s godfather. Over the years, Winnie-the-Pooh, Kanga, Eyeore and Paddington have all been familiar characters in a household with transatlantic roots. And since I am married to an author of five books, we have brought our son up in a world of words, where reading is one of the joys of life.

Each time we teach a child, a woman, a man to read and write it has a ripple effect --on their families, their communities, and other sectors of their nation well.

We know the facts about literacy education and development. If a country elevates its literacy rate by 20%, its GDP also can increase by as much as 16%. On the other hand if less than 40 percent of a nation’s population can read, it cannot achieve rapid economic growth.

And, according to the United Nations, USAID, the World Bank, and UNICEF, educating girls is the single most cost-effective means of achieving human development and reducing poverty in the developing world.

So how do we get to a place where more people read and write than do not? After all, it is not easy to reach these segments of societies caught in the grip of illiteracy.

First, global partnerships are key. Partners bring diverse perspectives to an issue-- - swapping stories, brainstorming new innovations, expanding the impact of past experience. Together, global partnerships can find solutions to universal challenges such as illiteracy and inadequate education. We know the winners of the Grand Challenge will do exactly this through their innovative projects, which I understand are exhibited in the Atrium Ballroom.

Second, we invest in global literacy education: One way the U.S.does this is through UNESCO’s UN Literacy Decade Fund, which supports innovative programs. One such example is the Global Partnership for Girls and Women’s Education which Secretary of State Clinton launched at UNESCO last year. It targets young African women and girls who are often forced to leave school. The program in Senegal and other places makes sure they have a chance to learn to read.

We can also harness the power of technology to take advantage of educational resources: a whole new way to learn. People who have access to the Web, no matter where they live, have access through Open Educational Resources, known as “O-E-R.”,O-E-R allows students to use the web as a learning tool. People are now just a click away from the best minds and lessons to teach people to read.

These multilateral projects advance effective practices and innovations in countries where the barriers of illiteracy and inadequate education are truly holding back development. We know that if the world can read everyone is better off. The US advances projects that target countries, sectors, and populations where illiteracy and inadequate education stifle development.

An exciting future lies in these types of partnerships, multilateral cooperation, and innovation.

Innovation in education and literacy is why we have come together to celebrate today. As we just saw in the video, the Grand Challenge is a model for how organizations can better work together. Multilateral organizations like the United Nations and initiatives like the UN Decade for Literacy galvanize the global community and provide the structure and direction to work toward achieving a common goal.

As you know, 2012 is the closing year of the UN Literacy Decade. At the State Department I have the honor of managing the United States diplomacy at the United Nations. I note that progress is being made and we have an opportunity to build on the many accomplishments made and lessons learned. We can apply or adapt a success story on one hand with a challenge on the other hand.

Some of the innovations that we, the U.S. are very involved in, along with our global partners, are new technologies such as those that power Open Educational Resources and mobile learning . Both reach new audiences and develop new opportunities for promoting literacy around the world.

We are not only creating, but also connecting resources for learners, educators, and policy makers. Our projects seek to engage stakeholders so that literacy education, best practices, standards, and innovations are part of any national policy agenda.

As we approach 2015, the United Nations is leading efforts to catalyze the “global conversation” for the next generation of the Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This includes the education sector, NGOs, and all key stakeholders to this discussion.

Over the next six months, I ask that you contribute to this process with UNESCO and UNICEF, with other UN agencies and NGOs, and within your own organizations. Become part of this “global conversation on literacy, education, and development” – whether in the corner, at the table, or online in virtual space.

Before I leave, I want to thank all of you for your work and in particular thank you Rajiv for having the vision to create the “Grand Challenge”. By connecting the dots among donors and international organizations, you recognize that none of us can do this alone, and that we all have to work together.

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