09/29/2015 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Invisible Crisis That We Can No Longer Ignore

The refugee crisis in Europe is, rightly, dominating headlines. The refugees' plight is a very visible one -- tired, hungry, desperate, the absence of hope is etched numbingly across their faces. It stirs us to act and to get involved. It is the right response of a civilised society to a crisis that should never have been allowed to happen.

Yet when asked about illiteracy, another global crisis which impacts three quarters of a billion human beings, many are ambivalent. Perhaps it's because we rarely come across someone who is struggling to write, and it's not obvious when someone is finding it hard to read. And we definitely don't see the consequences.

The curse of illiteracy is that it is largely invisible. But its impact is global and devastating. If you see inequality and poverty, you're seeing the impact of illiteracy.

An inability to access learning makes people more likely to experience poverty and suffer social and economic hardship. This in turn means people's children are less likely to be literate, which creates a vicious cycle.

It is not just a 'third world' or 'developing market' problem -- illiteracy affects every country on Earth. One in four children in America grows up without learning how to read. That in 2015 there are 32 million adults in the United States who can't read should be a national scandal. And the picture is no better in the U.K., home of the world's most used language, where one in five children leave primary school unable to read or write.

Last week, the world's leaders gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where they ratified a series of noble goals. The Sustainable Development Goals will set the direction and agenda for mankind for the next 15 years, tackling everything from poverty to peace. Every single goal is essential, and urgent. But literacy is crucial to the success of all of them.

The rate of violent crimes such as homicide, sexual assaults, arson and robbery are almost double among the illiterate population. Illiterate women are four times more likely to believe that there is no way to prevent HIV infection. Illiteracy has been ranked one of the most significant causes of radicalisation. Improving basic reading skills in low-income countries could lift 171 million people out of poverty.

These are just a handful of countless documented, researched examples of illiteracy's role in major global, human problems. Illiteracy is a cause, not a symptom. But perhaps the most powerful stories in this tragedy relate to gender and the ongoing struggle to liberate and empower women worldwide.

Today 520 million women and girls are illiterate. They are consequently denied access to learn, earn, vote and ultimately thrive. If literacy among women was improved by primary education, child marriages would reduce by a sixth. In studies of female genital mutilation, more than 80 percent of the women were illiterate and unemployed. Four to six years of education for women can lead to a 20 percent drop in infant deaths. For me, the starkest statistic on literacy is that babies born to illiterate mothers in Sub-Saharan Africa are 50 percent less likely to reach their fifth birthday.

And if the moral imperative for coordinated international action against illiteracy isn't enough, then the economic case might just be enough to make the difference. Each year, illiteracy costs a developed nation 2 percent of its GDP and an emerging economy 1.2 percent of GDP. That equates to more than a trillion dollars, lost, every year, to the world's balance sheet.

Why, when the numbers and arguments -- human, social, economic -- are both so documented and persuasive, is literacy not higher up on people's agendas?

We say no more forgetting, sidestepping or ignoring the illiteracy crisis facing the world.

Literacy's role in achieving, and impact on delivering, the world's Sustainable Development Goals over the next 15 years needs to be acknowledged this week by the world's leaders.

We launched Project Literacy, an international partner-led campaign effort, with that simple objective. We ask you to join us in that mission. We have created history's largest ever petition on behalf of the 757 million people who don't have the ability to sign their own name. They must no longer be voiceless.

Everyone with the ability to read this article and write their own name has the ability to help. I hope you do.

Sept. 29, New York: Project Literacy deliver world's largest ever petition to world leaders at United Nations General Assembly, on behalf of 757million people who cannot read or sign their own name. Delivered via a blank placard march, the petition calls for them to acknowledge the urgency of the international illiteracy crisis and pledge to take meaningful action to address it. Photo Credit: AP images for Pearson

As well as advising Project Literacy, Kate James is Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pearson, which has convened and is leading the Project Literacy campaign.

You can sign the Project Literacy petition at