Speech by Princess Laurentien, Estoril Conferences

4 mei 2011

Estoril, Portugal, 4 May 2011

Congratulations again, Mr Beitz.

Your Royal Highness, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It's a pleasure to be with you tonight and would like to thank the Estoril Conferences for your delightful hospitality. The conference went off to an inspiring start. Over the coming days, we'll discuss many more global challenges and an even greater number of possible solutions… We will talk, listen and reflect and hopefully act on what we've learned here when we return to our respective places around the world… My challenge tonight is to add to this scintillating sea of knowledge and wisdom ….

When thinking about global challenges and local answers, it is easy to lose ourselves in abstract notions and equally abstract terminology. We talk about leadership, when we mean an actual person willing to stand up for what he or she believes in and act upon it. We talk about risk management, when it is ultimately about an actual person taking responsibility when something goes wrong. We tend to analyse problems by looking at systems and organizations rather than the behaviour of actual people underpinning them. An organization only has meaning by virtue of the people shaping it; a system is only sustainable with people guiding it with responsible decisions. Solving challenges is also about change. But change only happens when people put their minds to it….to believe in it, to defend it and to go for it. So many of our challenges and ambitions are really about people. Knowledge, innovation, civic engagement, productivity - to mention just a few of the themes raised this afternoon - ultimately - these terms only come to life through the people blocking or enabling them.

Take the problem of closing the gap between providers of financial services and consumers. To close this gap, we need to understand how consumers think, and what choices, emotions and behaviour underpin that thinking. The most vulnerable group of consumers, for instance, tend to be the ones with low literacy skills. Reaching them requires an understanding of their limited reading, writing and numeracy skills. But perhaps more importantly, we need to understand how they feel about institutions such as banks or insurance companies. Institutions represent a world they don't feel part of, or even fear. And fear leads to distrust.  If we accept the premise that a challenge is ultimately about people, we need to identify who has what role in that challenge. In developing solutions to address a particular situation such as distrust, we need to take the trouble to understand why people feel and act the way they do or don't..

All this is no rocket science, you may think.  I couldn't agree with you more.

There's no issue that in my mind lies more at the basis of so many global challenges that we're discussing than literacy. Illiteracy is no abstract notion. It is a daily struggle affecting the current and future livelihoods of nearly 780 million people around the world; can you imagine….1,5 million people in my own country alone. It affects their work and their health. It affects how they feel, consume and vote as well as the way they raise children. And if we talk about the important "under 35-generation" Howard Dean mentioned - in Europe about 20% of graduates from vocational training are functionally illiterate. And imagine this, a reality in so called developed European countries: teachers looking after our youngest children who are incapable of reading a children's book, let alone read aloud… We call it early childhood development. I call it deciding on a child's chances for success later on in life. 

The first time I personally encountered illiteracy was more than 20 years ago, as a Masters student at the University of Berkeley. I did a story about the presentation of a book written by adults who had learned to read and write at a later stage in their lives: Painting our lives with words.'Illiteracy?' I asked myself 'in a developed country such as the US? Surely that cannot be!?'. I'm glad I went. It opened my eyes forever.

Taboo, shame, perseverance, self esteem. These are the keywords that determine their everyday lives. The many former illiterates I met then and since, have taught me the lesson for developing strategic solutions towards tackling illiteracy and many other issues that determine the success of our societies, our economies: that reading and writing represent much more than the technique you and I learned at school. Literacy skills determine someone's most basic sense of self-worth and thus daily functioning and active participation.

Think about what this means for people... Think about the implications for your specific area of interest. If we take the real impact of literacy for granted, we accept that 780 million adults remain at the sideline, while society leaps ahead. Think of what it means for your specific challenges as well as ambitions if you were able to reach and engage so many more people...

We all know the stories of farmers who discover that they can get better prices for their crops once they learn how to read and write. How can homeowners make responsible financial decisions when they cannot read the letters they receive from their bank, let alone change to e-banking? And if we want to address obesity - health problem number one - we should ask whether people have the necessary skills to make informed choices about their health.

And specifically for this conference, what does that mean for the way we need to look at the challenges we're discussing? Illiteracy clearly underpins many other issues. Because how can we achieve our ambitions on competitiveness, healthy living, sustainability, social inclusion and active citizenship when large proportions of the population lack the skills necessary to turn these ambitions into realities?

How will our European ambitions to be an innovative society driven by knowledge ever be within reach, if so many people are excluded?

Literacy transforms individuals, communities, entire social structures and societies. So we will need to look at areas where illiteracy has a spill-over effect; at societal issues that can only be truly solved by also addressing illiteracy.  Investing in the early years of children pays back in many ways later on. How much do we need to know before we make literacy really a political and societal priority?

Particular situations may differ from country to country, but when speaking with representatives from governments, business and civil society across the globe - from France to Nigeria, from India to the US and from Brazil to the Netherlands and here in Portugal, it strikes me time and time again how similar some of the debates are. If we want to tackle illiteracy across the globe, countries traditionally labeled as 'developed' must also face the uncomfortable reality about serious shortcomings in their national levels of literacy.

Over the coming days, we'll talk about the future of democracy, global governance, and international institutions. The debates can be just as intellectual and productive if we take into account the human perspective. Democracy and governance are about the way citizens participate in and contribute to society. About how tolerant they are towards others.  Democracy places a high value on the quality and equality of individuals. Being able to read, write and compute are building blocks enabling someone to absorb, grasp and actively use information independently. It enables you to know the law, to understand your rights and obligations as citizens. In digital and knowledge-driven economies such as the ones we live in, literacy is a precondition for truly participating in democracy and making full use of its benefits.  We should not, and unfortunately cannot, take democracy for granted. Equally, we cannot take literacy for granted.

We will hopefully not only repeat what we already know, but also be willing to adjust our old perspectives. You can do so by looking at your areas of interest with the eye of people who are illiterate. I hope you find that thinking about illiteracy may help to unlock a new route towards solutions.  Because looking at illiteracy often means addressing the fundamental causes to problems, going beyond scratching the surface.

Investing in literacy helps to find local answers to global challenges.

Investing in literacy is about investing in human capital. Or, put differently, about creating opportunities for men and women, teenagers and children... People with emotions and, more often than we think, with huge potential. Let's keep them in mind.

And one more thought I'd like to leave you with, to remain optimistic and not get discouraged by the overwhelming complexity and unprecedented challenges we face, quoting leadership expert Robert E. Quinn: "When we commit to a vision to do something that has never been done before, there is no way to know how to get there. We simply have to build the bridge as we walk on it".

Thank you.