Literacy (Developing Countries)

Oral Answers to Questions — International Development – in the House of Commons at 1:39 pm on 25th March 1998.

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Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

As our White Paper makes clear, we are strongly committed to the international target of achieving universal primary education in all countries by 2015. We see this as the most important step in increasing literacy worldwide. We are funding a large number of substantive primary education projects in Africa and Asia, all of which will contribute to the eradication of illiteracy. We also support adult basic education in many of our programmes.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer, and acknowledge that that is essentially a job to be carried out by nationals of the countries concerned. Will she acknowledge that universal literacy is the absolute basis of all economic and social progress? In particular, will she have regard to the fact that there is a marked gender imbalance in a number of developing countries, and that mothers are the best first educators of their own children?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

The hon. Gentleman is right. A newly published paper from the World bank looks at what we must do to achieve the international poverty eradication targets throughout the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where there are such high proportions of very poor and illiterate people. The finding is that the education of a generation of children, including the girls, who tend to be excluded in poor countries, is the biggest indicator of development. When that generation grows up, those girls as mothers and income earners transform the lives of the next generation. They are more able to earn a living, they are more likely to control their fertility and their own children are more likely to be educated. If there is one single indicator of development, education of all children, including girls, is it.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe Labour, Glasgow Maryhill

I am sure that there is unanimity throughout the House about my right hon. Friend's last comments. Has she considered how to overcome the difficulty in countries such as Afghanistan, where the ruling authorities are opposed to literacy for girls and women?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

My hon. Friend is right. It is universally recognised—it is not a matter of taste or preference—that there cannot be development unless women are empowered and girls are educated. That is a precondition of development. All agencies and donors throughout the world, including all United Nations agencies, are desperately worried about the situation in Afghanistan, which not only holds back development, but is a breach of the fundamental human rights of women and the universal declaration of human rights. There is an agreement across all the major agencies that we cannot and will not provide support and help in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan unless equal provision is made for girls and women.

Photo of Mr Bowen Wells Mr Bowen Wells Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

Does the right hon. Lady agree that the single most important need in Jamaica is to reduce the level of illiteracy, which for many years has been running at 50 per cent.? Would she support through the aid programme the introduction of compulsory primary education to reduce illiteracy in Jamaica?

Photo of Clare Short Clare Short Secretary of State, Department for International Development

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. On the statistics, Jamaica and the Caribbean have virtually universal primary education, I believe, but there is a high drop-out rate and a serious quality problem. In the past my Department has been engaged in trying to improve the quality of secondary education in Jamaica. I have just been considering the matter. We know in my own city of Birmingham that it is better to pick up a child who is slipping back at primary level than to try to put things right at secondary level. I share the hon. Gentleman's analysis and am looking into the question now.