Encouraging news from the Progressive Policy Institute: A higher percentage of the world's population is literate than ever before.
The data come from UNESCO and they show a steady trend upwards. In 1950, some 56 percent of the global population was considered literate. By the turn of the century, 82 percent, and now, 84 percent.
Most encouragingly, more young women around the world are learning to read.
Adult men still know how to read more often than women -- 89 percent of men and 79 percent of women are literate -- but the gap has narrowed from an 82/70 split around 1990. For young people, the literacy gender-gap has closed faster: UNESCO's survey finds 91 percent of boys and 87 percent of girls literate, while the 1990 split was 88/79. East Asia and Latin America have eliminated gender gaps entirely, and East Asia's count of illiterate girls has fallen from 10 million in 2000 to only 1 million now. The largest gaps remain in Africa, South Asia, and the Arab world -- but here too trends are positive: where 49 percent of South Asian girls could read in 1990, today's figure is 75 percent.
There is a strong current of thought in the field of development economics that the single most important factor in improving a variety of outcomes in the developing world -- whether it be overpopulation, economic growth, violence against women, public health -- is increasing female education levels. Learning to read is the obvious first step.
Of course, 84 percent still means that some 774 million people in the world are illiterate. So there's work still to be done.