Bringing literacy to the world


Reading and writing are certainly fundamental, but literacy is far more than the 3Rs.

Categories of literacy today include competence in an array of areas — digital literacy, media literacy, financial literacy and business literacy, to name a handful. It’s important that those of us in global development don’t unintentionally adopt western blinders that constrain categories of literacy. Such artificial limitations obscure paths to success.

{mosads}Literacy has dramatically changed over the past half century since UNESCO established International Literacy Day, observed every Sept. 8. Entrepreneurs are all around the world. We see it in the organic rice farmer in Borneo, the school builder in Nepal, the coffee grower in Haiti.


I saw it in a story that would have sent families northward from violence-ridden El Salvador to the U.S. in search work, had business literacy not changed the trajectory. Williams Saravia was fully literate by any traditional definition but unable to support his family — and it clearly wasn’t for lack of hard work. He’d been a promising architecture student who couldn’t afford to complete his degree. So he worked as a farm laborer from sunup until sundown to support his young family, working on someone else’s farm for $6 a day in the morning, then on his own small plot of land each afternoon.

It’s well known that the people of El Salvador are dealing with some of the highest rates of violence in the world. That coupled with fifty percent unemployment among youth, and unlivable wages, pressures young people and families to head north. In desperation, Williams was thinking of doing just that.

Then he learned about a new diploma program to train young people in cocoa cultivation. It’s part of a multi-partner project between Lutheran World Relief working a Salvadoran university, Catholic Relief Services and USAID, all collaborating to revive Salvadoran cocoa, an important crop in pre-colonial El Salvador now nearly extinct.

Williams is now part of reviving El Salvador’s once vibrant cocoa industry thanks to this program which offers intensive training in specialty cocoa cultivation and production, business practices, and skills training curriculum to build confidence, responsibility and job performance skills. In other words, business literacy is key to the curriculum and students are putting that newfound literacy into practice, launching entrepreneurial small businesses. Williams decided he would start a family business making cocoa tablets for hot chocolate, with his own distinctive recipe. His product sold out the first day.

Similarly, Beatriz Villatoro, 28, had attended a vocational college to work in the hospitality industry, but that world bottomed out with the violence plaguing El Salvador. Beatriz searched for full-time employment for nine years. Understandably, she also started thinking better prospects might lie north. Instead, the cocoa program offered her a new route to her own business called Le Chocolat, handmade specialty chocolates made from Salvadoran cocoa. Beatriz is putting profits back into her business to increase her product line and bottom line.

U.S. foreign assistance remains an untold success story and USAID’s range of projects that add to our understanding and application of literacy offer significant opportunities that deserve the support of the business sector in particular.

Entrepreneurial literacy tied to agriculture training has helped small farmers in Ghana gain better access to markets and resources to respond to changing climate and economic conditions. A project that engages professionals to teach business skills in Georgian grade schools delivered a 43 percent improvement in students’ understanding of basic business skills. Rural households in Nepal received training to help access financial services to start or expand commercial farming of vegetables, poultry and livestock. By the end of this 3-year project in Nepal, over two-thirds of participants — 90 percent women — and their families showed improved health, nutrition and education.

In the face of looming foreign assistance budget cuts, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) rightly reminded senators, “One in three manufacturing jobs in America are tied to exports. You can’t export unless there’s people on the other end of the deal to buy it from you…and it begins in many places around the world by ensuring that they are alive, and then to ensure that they have the education they need to develop an economy so their people can become consumers and trade partners with us.”

Expanding the definition of literacy is important to global development and the global economy, as well as individual opportunity.

Daniel Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, an international humanitarian organization. He previously served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as ambassador to Greece and Belarus, Deputy Chief of Mission in Iraq, and a senior official at NATO.

Tags Daniel Speckhard International Literacy Day Learning Literacy Marco Rubio

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