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The Cold War Politicization of Literacy: Communism, UNESCO, and the World Bank




  • The authors would like to thank the late Elisabeth Hansot, Will Holland, Ginny Hopcroft, Pedro Noguera, Scott Sehon, David Stark, David Tyack, and two anonymous reviewers at Diplomatic History for their comments on the manuscript. The authors would also like to note that as collaborators on this project they shared equally in this essay's research and writing and have chosen to note their authorship alphabetically.


In 1947, officials at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established an unprecedented, worldwide literacy program. Simultaneously, however, officials at the World Bank refused to support educational programming, arguing that education-related projects could not guarantee a return on Bank investments. In 1962, however, World Bank lending policies began to shift. Lending for primary education increased from zero to 14 percent between 1963 and 1978 and overall Bank spending on education rose dramatically. During this same period, however, critics increasingly questioned the central principles upon which UNESCO officials established their organization's educational programming, fearing that the organization had come under communist influence. This paper reexamines the evolving priorities of United Nations organizations during the Cold War and the increasing politicization of economic development. It offers a critical reassessment of the role of the World Bank and UNESCO in negotiating the ideological conflict between capitalism and communism.