Yesterday, UNESCO released a report that reveals what it considers to be the best weapon against illiteracy in developing countries: the mobile phone.
The report, titled "Reading in the mobile era: a study of mobile reading in developing countries," asks some vital, timely questions: "How do we bring text to the unreached? What mechanisms exist to get books into the hands of the poorest people on Earth?"
According to the study, as the global population soars, mobile devices—feature phones and cheap smartphones in particular—have become the best, most immediate answer to those questions. The technology is already available to over 6 billion of the planet's 7 billion people, and the study finds that even with the up-front cost of the devices themselves, e-books are vastly cheaper to distribute en masse than traditional paper volumes. That's thanks to the efficiency of digital networks and the mass-production of computer processors and LCD displays.
The study surveyed over 4,000 people in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, and these poll results were supported by in-depth interviews with many of the participants. UNESCO claims that the scale of the study makes it "the most comprehensive investigation of mobile reading in developing countries to date."
According to one survey respondent identified only as Charles, a teacher in Zimbabwe, the prevalence of mobile devices like cell phones gives readers "a chance to choose from a variety of [...] titles. The books I have in my own small library are the ones which I have already read." In places where large public libraries are unavailable, a mobile phone is an inexpensive stand-in.
UNESCO is quick to acknowledge, however, that simple access to literature—digital or otherwise—is not a panacea. The study concedes that while it's certainly a fact that "books, by themselves, will not remedy the scourge of illiteracy, without them illiteracy is guaranteed." Ultimately, the organization concludes that mobile devices are only one tool among others—albeit a very powerful one—that can promote literacy throughout the world.
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