Speech by Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands

Copenhagen, Denmark, 3 April 2005

at the Hans Christian Andersen Bi-Centenary Celebrations.

Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Lord Mayor,
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,
Dear fellow Hans Christian Andersen Ambassadors,

We've all come to this wonderfully welcoming country to celebrate the master of fairytales. To celebrate how Hans Christian Andersen inspires the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of adults and children around the world.

And by celebrating his unique imagination, we also celebrate and honour the written word.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone could be carried away by the adventures of the Winter Queen, the girl with the red dancing shoes and Little Ida's Flowers?
The harsh reality is that some 1 billion people in all corners of the world cannot read these stories. Illiteracy affects men and women, young and old. In developing nations, it's often an issue of access to education or costs of books. But even in western societies, where education is mandatory, problems of illiteracy persist. In western countries, illiteracy rates vary between 5 and 20 percent.

Do we find this acceptable?
Do we see these figures as mere statistical data or do we realise that behind each number, there's a person like you and me. A person often ashamed of this handicap, deprived of chances everyone deserves?

Illiteracy often leads to immense personal problems: low self-esteem, social isolation or an inability to function independently. Illiteracy also has important socio-economic implications. According to the OECD, being able to read and write is a precondition for the knowledge-based economy, for economic growth and for the equal distribution of means. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan rightly declared literacy a human right.

Illiteracy is much more than an educational issue - it affects society as a whole, since so many people find it a challenge to participate in activities of every day life. How can a child get ahead if he does not know how to read and write? How do you find a job without lying about your lack of reading and writing capacity? How do you participate in democracy, if casting a vote is a daunting task? How do you travel, if you're afraid to get lost because you cannot read the signs, or if you cannot book a trip on the internet? We know what Hans Christian Andersen said: "to travel is to live"

But is this issue, right at the heart of society, getting the attention it deserves?
Two disturbing facts:
One - contrary to what many people think, it is not a generational issue. In fact, as we heard Harry Belafonte say last night, some 175 million children across the world do not have access to education. And many more cannot read or write at an age when they should be able to&. This means that young people continue to fall by the waste side because they don't have the right qualifications to get ahead & to get a job.

Another disturbing fact: illiteracy remains a taboo. Countries are ashamed to admit to failures not only of educational systems, but also of informal societal structures such as the family and communities. These structures are apparently not able to detect illiteracy or stimulate children to learn how to read and write.

Looking at where political priorities are, particularly in the west, more and more centres around knowledge, innovation and research. Knowledge is about information. Information is, more often than not, in written form. The pace is set by rapid technological change, which requires us to constantly update our skills. But while many are focusing on the high end of the knowledge-based economy, we choose to turn a blind eye to what lies at the base. As societies leap ahead, many people are left behind because they lack the necessary reading and writing skills. Reading and writing lies at the core

So what can we do as Ambassadors of Hans Christian Andersen?
For one, I probably speak on behalf of all of us to thank the organisation for this formidable fairytale week end and for putting the spotlight on the unique person of Hans Christian Andersen and the art of writing and story-telling.

As individual Ambassadors, back in our countries and internationally, we have committed ourselves to the written word in the persona of Hans Christian Andersen. Going forward, we could form a formidable network dedicated to promote the importance and benefits of literacy, and to raise awareness about the human, social and economic costs of illiteracy. We can encourage reading to children from an early age. And we can help get this topic onto political agendas - and keep it there. The ABC Foundation plays a central role in this - we should continue to work together, support each other and draw on each other's competencies, knowledge and experiences.

May we all be inspired by the life and work of Hans Christian Andersen. As we know, even he had problems reading and writing as a teenager - but someone gave him a second chance.

Don't we wish this for everyone?