THE BLOG
01/21/2016 05:43 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2017

Money Talks, But Reading and Writing Costs More Than We Have Imagined

Illiteracy holds economies back. According to analysis it directly costs the world $1.19 trillion each year. This number is shocking enough in scale and is just the tip of the iceberg.

As world leaders in politics and business come together in Davos for the World Economic Forum this week, they will debate and discuss solutions for many serious issues facing the world today.

But the crucial role that literacy can play in helping to solve these challenges will almost certainly, as in previous years, be overlooked.

To illustrate the devastating impact that illiteracy has, we've examined two of the issues that will be discussed at Davos this week -- gender inequality and malnutrition. As part of a wider effort to understand more fully the role illiteracy plays in creating and sustaining such global problems, we've framed it in a language that the delegates of the World Economic Forum speak fluently: money.

McKinsey reports that gender inequality represents a staggering $12 trillion loss in global GDP . Two-thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women . In some areas, 85 percent of the female population are unable to read or write. Research has shown that for each additional year of schooling a girl receives, she will increase her earning ability by 10-20 percent, reduce the amount of children she will have by 10 percent and cut the risk of postnatal child mortality by 10 percent. Improvements in literacy rates for women and girls would go a long way to reducing this $12 trillion gap.

Malnutrition is another such example. 38 percent of African adults are illiterate, which UNESCO cites as a major barrier to improving child malnutrition and food safety. Literacy is crucial in helping people to absorb health and nutrition advice from experts. This lack of nutritional knowledge in turn triggers a negative trickledown effect to generations to come. With malnutrition costing the global economy $3.5 trillion per year, action to address illiteracy as a perpetuating factor would make tackling it easier.

At Davos gender inequality and malnutrition will rightly get the attention they deserve. What's clear is that functional illiteracy also needs to be part of the conversation if we are to effectively address these major global challenges.

At Project Literacy, a global partnership of NGOs and the private sector, we are campaigning for literacy's role in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals to be recognised and for action to be taken. The power of literacy to kick start economies and drive development must not be underestimated. What will it take to make illiteracy a global economic priority?