Exclusive: Lily Cole on Project Literacy

Lily Cole is nothing short of ferociously determined: you can’t grace countless magazine covers (Playboy and Vogue among others), graduate from Cambridge with a First, forge an acting career and found a successful start-up unless you are tenacious, industrious and intelligent too. When Cole puts her mind to something, things happen, so, when she became an ambassador for Project Literacy, people listened.

When the project, which aims to help people fulfil their potential through words, first approached Cole, she hadn’t given much thought to illiteracy. On the scale of issues that dominate international debate–human rights abuses, poverty, disease–it didn’t seem to rank particularly highly. “I take it for granted that I can read and write,” she says. “I hadn’t really looked at the statistics around just how many people are illiterate, and more significantly, what the consequences of illiteracy are.” Once she did, she quickly realised that illiteracy looms behind many of these complexities. Research conducted by the project, which was founded by Pearson and is backed by 75 global partners, discovered 757 million adults cannot read across the world, costing the world $1.9trillion each year.

Cole is far from alone in her ignorance of the link between illiteracy and other social problems, and so Project Literacy developed an ‘Alphabet of Illiteracy’, dedicating each letter to a global issue that is aggravated by people being unable to read and write.

A is for AIDS, because if you can’t read or write, you are five times less likely to understand how people can contract HIV. B is for Bloodshed: the rate of violent crimes is almost double amongst the illiterate population.

To mark the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, 26 celebrities have each been assigned a letter and a cause to champion. Russell Brand has D, for Drug Abuse. Julianne Moore is supporting L, because illiterate people have a shorter Life Expectancy. Idris Elba has R, for Radicalization, and Usain Bolt V, for the Voiceless.

Cole’s letter is I, which stands for Infant Mortality. Increasing female literacy by 50 per cent would result in 30 per cent fewer infant deaths. “It just seems like such an extreme consequence of illiteracy, and it’s a connection that I would have never made in the past,” Cole reflects. “But actually, if a woman isn’t literate, it probably means she is not able to access medicine, handle food in the same way, or get a steady income through a job. There are loads of social and economic consequences to illiteracy that can end in the loss of a child’s life.”

For women, who are often already subjugated by the status quo, not being able to read renders them even more powerless. “A majority of the people who are illiterate are women–I find that disconcerting,” she asserts. “Gender and equality are similar deep-rooted problems that give rise to many other issues that I care a lot about. Seeing a relationship between gender inequality and illiteracy brings both of them home a bit further.”

But what can be done to solve such issues? Raising awareness and starting a debate is the first step, explains Cole. “Then you can look a little bit deeper, and in less intuitive places.” Tackling these problems is a collective task, and one that she hopes her skill-sharing platform, Impossible, might help facilitate. She is currently contemplating how she can adapt it to skill-share literacy around the country. “I could teach someone to read or write; you don’t have to be a teacher. It’s such a simple skill that we can share, and I think that could be quite interesting. There are a million ways of trying to adjust the problem, but I do quite like the idea of bringing it back into the community, and reminding us that we all have the power and the ability to move the needle.”—Isobel Thompson

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