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The Change Up: Literacy, Rights, and Facts

1. A little over a week ago, on September 8, International Literacy Day was recognized and celebrated around the world. September 8 was declared International Literacy Day (ILD) by UNESCO on November 17, 1965, with the aim of highlighting the importance of literacy in our daily lives and bringing awareness to the many and significant issues around illiteracy.

Today, around the world, at least 750 million young people and adults still lack basic literacy skills, with two-thirds of them being women and 102 million of them youth aged 15 to 24. Furthermore, many of the 192 million unemployed young people and adults worldwide are unable to achieve decent livelihoods due to, among other things, the lack of foundational skills, including literacy, and failing to meet the skill demands of the rapidly changing labour market (UIS 2017; UNESCO 2018).

Literacy is recognized as a key driver for sustainable development in that it enables greater participation in the labour market; improved child and family health and nutrition; reduces poverty and expands life opportunities. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by world leaders in September 2015, promotes, as part of its agenda, universal access to quality education and learning opportunities throughout people’s lives. SDG 4 has as one of its targets ensuring all young people achieve literacy and numeracy and that adults who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them (UN 2018).

In addition to its importance for development and significance for reducing human poverty, literacy is a core component of human rights. It is a mechanism for the pursuit of other human rights; it confers a wide set of benefits and strengthens the capabilities of individuals, families, and communities to achieve and access health, educational, economic, political, and cultural rights and opportunities.

In Eritrea, for decades, education was highly restricted and the country’s literacy rates (across all ages) were quite low, particularly for girls and women. During Italian colonization, the colonial policy toward Eritrea was to “keep the Eritrean’s belly filled while keeping his brain empty” (Trevaskis 1960), while in the mid- 1970s, approximately 95 percent of Eritrean women were illiterate, a figure that would only slightly improve by independence. As well, at independence, overall enrolment rates (within primary levels) hovered at around only 30 percent.

However, since independence, Eritrea has made the promotion of education and literacy key national priorities, reflecting the country’s firm dedication and commitment to equality, inclusive development, social justice, and fundamental human rights. In Eritrea, basic education is compulsory for both girls and boys, and it is offered in the various languages used across the country, thus helping to ensure equitable access to all ethno-linguistic groups. Furthermore, the country has adopted a policy of universal free education from pre-primary to higher education, ensuring that every child, irrespective of background, distinction, or status, has the opportunity to enroll in education. Eritrea also proceeded to build hundreds of schools and learning centers (in both rural and urban areas). For example, although at independence the Northern Red Sea and Gash Barka regions had only 28 and 60 schools, respectively, currently there are nearly 300 and over 400 schools in these respective regions.

Largely as a result of these steps, Eritrea’s primary enrolment rates are now approximately 90 percent, while total student enrolments have grown tremendously. For example, in 1961 there were 50,286 total students enrolled in Eritrea, a figure that would grow to 247,567 by 1992/3. Remarkably, last year (2017) there were over 740,000 students enrolled throughout the country.

In addition to the tremendous growth in enrollment rates, both gender disparity and adult literacy in Eritrea have dramatically improved. Literacy rates for youth in Eritrea, averaging an impressive 92 percent, are the highest in the region, and notably also higher than the continental or global average. In fact, according to UNESCO, Eritrea has had one of the largest increases in youth literacy anywhere in the world over the past 50 years. Encouragingly, youth literacy rates are also considerably higher than those for adults, suggesting that the country’s efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programmes have largely been successful.

Overall, these advancements are a clear reflection of Eritrea’s prioritization of and considerable investment in education. Furthermore, they exemplify the country’s strong commitment to its people and the protection and improvement of basic, fundamental human rights – facts starkly contrasting the persistent chorus of politicized accusations that lack nuance. While there is little doubt that Eritrea faces numerous and considerable challenges within many areas, it is too often criticized for or understood solely in terms of what it has not yet achieved. The significant advancements and important progress it has made in many areas within a short period should be recognized, rather than being simply dismissed or overlooked, while genuine cooperation and support should be promoted.

2. As the winds of change blow across the Horn of Africa, the poor analyses of the region and Eritrea, although having noticeably improved in some outlets, seem to remain. A common feature of many articles and analyses is that Eritrea, which is regularly first described as having “eschewed international cooperation” for decades or “transformed itself into a hermit state,” is now opening itself up or “coming in from the cold.” While it is certainly true that Eritrea has been rapidly establishing and developing regional and international ties, the claims and assertions insinuating that the country had initially chosen to isolate itself are grossly inaccurate and overlook the simple, basic facts. They also serve as further examples of how the gap between the historical reality and the version often described by mainstream journalists and outlets is enormous.

To clarify, the truth is that the international community, largely led by the United States, pursued a policy of isolation toward Eritrea, particularly for the country’s refusal to give up the legal course in terms of the EEBC. Specifically, Eritrea was the target of an externally-driven strategy to isolate it, particularly through attempts at scuppering foreign agreements and economic deals. Recall how, according to a leaked US embassy cable in Addis Ababa sent by Chargé d’Affaires Vicki Huddleston (dated 1 November 2005), the strategy of the US-backed Ethiopian proxy was to, “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” Moreover, a cable sent by Chargé d’Affaires Roger Meece (30 November 2009) reveals that the “USG [US Government] has worked to undercut support for Eritrea,” while another cable (2 November 2009) mentions that the German government’s rescinding of a credit guarantee to banks for a commercial loan of $US146m to Eritrea’s Bisha mining project was the result of “caving in to… American pressure.”

Notably, even within this highly challenging, unenviable context, and despite its numerous and various challenges, Eritrea continued to seek to establish mutually beneficial and respectful partnerships and productive ties with a range of countries, organizations, and institutions.

Of course, the approach taken toward Eritrea was hardly unique. The historical case of Cuba quickly comes to mind. For a half-century, the US extended great pressure on other countries to restrict their own trade and ties with Cuba. Other precedents could also be invoked although this is not the central theme of this brief article.

Ultimately, although the statements about Eritrea’s past are seemingly innocuous, facts and history matter. Greatly. Our views and understanding of history fundamentally shape the ways we view and perceive the present, and significantly influence the solutions we develop for existing problems and challenges. The rapid, momentous events of the last several months are highly encouraging and a greatly welcome development in a long troubled region. Moving forward, peace opens great opportunities for prosperity and better circumstances for ordinary Ethiopians, Eritreans, and others across the Horn of Africa. Many outlets, regional analysts, and so-called experts ought to also get on board with the changes and begin to revise their inaccurate, flawed assessments and analyses.

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