Over fifty years ago the United nations included literacy as a basic human right along with the right to adequate food, health care, and housing. According to UNESCO global literacy rates have increased dramatically over the last 35 years. However even today UNESCO statistics indicate that there are still over 800 million illiterate adults worldwide.
The very high literacy rates in industrialized countries are misleading, as many adults in these countries have low levels of literacy. The International Adult literacy survey (1998) of OECD countries concluded that 23% of adults had 'very poor' skills. And a further 27% had a 'weak' skills. Both of these groups are defined as having a 'low level of literacy'
Literacy is seldom universal across the whole population. In developing nations the literacy rate of males is significantly higher than that of females. The International Adult literacy survey also indicated a gender discrepancy. With two exceptions (United States and Canada) the proportion of males with at least moderate literacy is greater than t that of females.
To gain a balanced perspective when comparing countries, literacy definitions should be consulted as these vary between countries.