As a 65-year-old organisation, it’s not surprising that our history is broad and varied. We have worked in over 100 countries, with development workers and local organisations from all over the world. But our longest connection is with development based in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

Among the Palestinian people, illiteracy has long been a serious problem with little by way of remedy. In January 1987, we shared an update in our newsletter about the Literacy and Adult Education Office we had set up at Birzeit University in 1976. Printed eleven years after the launch, this article expressed why and how this intervention was necessary, and the necessity for continuing the project.

We undertook a number of research surveys examining a variety of topics related to adult education. The largest of these investigated education and literacy levels in the rural areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The surveys revealed that 47% of those over 15 had either never been to school, or had completed less than four years of primary school, and could not read or write. The incidence of illiteracy in OPT closely paralleled that of many other developing countries, with around 86% of adults over 40 estimated to be illiterate.  And as in most developing countries even today, the illiteracy rate for women was significantly higher for women than men. Our survey recorded a 34% illiteracy rate for men, whilst almost six in ten Palestinian women in rural areas were unable to read or write.

The broad aims of the Literacy Office were to investigate innovative and culturally relevant methods for teaching adults learners, to provide both academic and practical support for literacy teachers in the field, and to integrate literacy training into an overall process of development appropriate to Palestinian society. In the ten years from opening the Office, we opened four village literacy centres in the Birzeit area, teaching conventional literacy classes to adult women, as well as co-ordinating the training of literacy teachers all over the Gaza Strip and West Bank. This was in the form of intensive three-week training sessions, attended by an average of 70 new teachers each year. We also produced educational materials, including agricultural pamphlets, maps and classroom resources.

We knew in 1987 that literacy efforts alone cannot eliminate poverty. As we wrote in that newsletter:

‘Literacy is not ... a pre-requisite for economic or social development. It is an integral part of a wider development process that requires a multi-dimensional approach in order to bring about change.’

But we understood even then that learning something as fundamental as reading came down to motivation. The Palestinian people’s motives for attending literacy classes were many, varied and personal. But they often related to self-confidence and awareness; they wanted something that would give them a belief in themselves, in their culture, and in their ability to implement change. 

And these are beliefs that matter to everyone, the world over.

Over 30 years on from the circulation of that newsletter, the population of OPT is now one of the most literate in the world.[1] 99.45% of men and 99.31% of women aged 15-24 are now literate, and the national statistic for people over the age of 15 is 96.9%.[2]

Progress in development can feel painfully slow. But change happens when dedicated local people choose to make it. We are working with local people to increase literacy levels in communities where girls are left behind - because when girls believe in themselves and their ability, they can change the world around them for the better.

[1] ‘Development for Empowerment: The 2014 Palestine Human Development Report’, United Nations Development Programme, p.1.
[2] UNESCO, 2016.