The Least Literate Regions Of The World

Literacy levels vary greatly across the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is the least literate region in the present times.

In recent years, literacy rates have continued to rise from one generation to the next. Data collected by UN agencies shows remarkable improvement among the youth in terms of writing and reading skills. A reduction in the disparity between the literacy rates among men and women has also been noted. Fifty years ago, nearly a quarter of the youth across the globe lacked basic literacy skills. By 2016, youth illiteracy levels had been reduced to less than 10%. According to UNESCO, an estimated 750 million adults globally - two-thirds of who are women – were still considered illiterate in 2016. Young people in the 15 to 24 age bracket were about 102 million of the illiterate population. Global youth literacy in 2016, however, remained quite high at 91% of the population while the adult literacy rate was 86%.

Illiteracy Rates In Sub-Saharan Africa

The Sub- Saharan region has the highest illiteracy rate in the world. An estimated 40.1% of the population is illiterate. Fourteen out of the 22 countries in the world with literacy rates below 60% are in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the Brief of the State of Literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa published by USAID in 2016, at least every 7 in 10 children are likely to end up being semi-literate adults, meaning that they will lack the ability to read and write fluently or with ease. The document also states that the number of illiterate people in 18 countries in the region is considerably higher than the number of literate people. According to a report on the early childhood and education in Sub-Saharan Africa, despite recording a steep rise in pre-primary education enrolment between 1999 and 2004, pre-education participation has remained low with a gross enrolment ratio (GER) of just 12% in 2004 compared to 10% in 1999. Some of the countries with the most significant rise in pre-primary GERs are Namibia, South Africa, Cameroon, Kenya, Lesotho, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea. The increase in enrolment rates in such countries is, however, dulled by low completion rates. The absolute number of illiterate people in the region is also on the rise due to population increase. Women make up more than 60% of the illiterate population. Literacy rates vary widely and range between 19% in Mali and 90% in Seychelles. In the past, the region has received large amounts of foreign aid, but the share allocated to education across 22 countries in 2004 was just 11% of the total assistance received. The proportion of aid funds allocated by governments to education that is subsequently channeled towards basic education is also low at only over 20%, which is far below the 50% spent in South and West Asia. The challenges to funding education programs are compounded by the fact that a majority of Sub-Saharan countries spend below 5% of the GNP on education. There are, however, promising signs as political backing for early childhood education and care has been on the rise, especially in countries like Ghana and Senegal. Going into the future private institutions will have a critical role to play in boosting literacy levels in the region as they account for nearly two-thirds of total enrolment in most countries. Governments will also have to place a more profound emphasis on providing education to the population.

Illiteracy In South Asia

Illiteracy is one of the most significant issues facing South Asia. Data obtained from shows that the illiteracy rate in the region is 31.3%. South Asia is also home to over 50% of the world’s uneducated population. Girls also face significant hurdles in pursuing an education in the region. The questionable quality of education imparted to the literate in several countries is also a cause of concern. According to UNICEF, only half of the children at the primary level receive an education that meets minimum learning standards. The World Development Report 2018 placed India at the top of the list of countries in the region where a student in grade two could not perform two-digit subtraction. The nation also ranked second in the list of countries in the region by the number of grade two students who could not read a single word of short text. Data comparison indicates that most governments in the region focus more on access, enrolment, and completion rates compared to the quality of education. Statistics from UNICEF also show that about 20.6 million children at the lower secondary level and 11.3 million children at the primary level are out-of-school. Countries such as Bhutan and Sri Lanka have low levels of learning despite reporting relative increases in literacy rates.

Illiteracy In The Arab states

The illiteracy rates in the Arab states region is 26.6 %. Despite considerable progress since the 1980s, illiteracy remains a significant challenge for Arab nations that are currently facing social, political, and economic difficulties. There are substantial variations in literacy rates among the Arab states for the age group 15 and above. Literacy rates in some states in the region, including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia is considerably high compared to countries like Yemen. Over the years, governments in the region have increased efforts to reduce illiteracy in the region. For example, the United Arab Emirates launched the “Arab Reading Challenge” in 2015 to foster a reading culture. Despite efforts made by various governments in the region, the regional literacy levels remain below the global average.

Illiteracy In Latin America And The Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean have an Illiteracy rate of 7.2 %.The adult literacy rates in the region in nearly 93.9%. The region’s share of literate of individuals aged 15 years or older is almost eight percentage points higher than the global average. Illiteracy levels in the region have been declining in all age groups since 2014. Countries such as Bolivia have accomplished considerable success in tackling illiteracy. Government officials in the country have attributed much of the success to the nation’s “Yes, I can” adult literacy campaign. According to government officials, the illiteracy rates have dropped from 13.28% in 2001 to 3.8% in 2014, thanks to the program. The results have been achieved at a relatively low cost of $2.6 million a year. The roots of the “Yes I can” campaign can be traced back to Cuba, where Leonela, an educator, developed the model. The program relies on local facilitators who engage their communities and teach literacy with the help of audiovisual aids.

Illiteracy In East Asia And The Pacific

The regional Illiteracy rate in East Asia and the Pacific is 5.6%. Compared to the global illiteracy rate of 20%, the region has a relatively low illiteracy rate. According to the UNESCO’s regional overview of East Asia and the Pacific region, countries such as Indonesia and China have had tremendous success in curbing illiteracy in recent decades. In the Pacific region, Tonga and Samoa have high literacy rates of 98% while Papua New Guinea has a 60% literacy rate. Since 2000, early childhood education has expanded considerably. Between 1999 and 2012, the number of children in pre-primary schools increased by 45 %. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) in 2012 was 68% across the region, with East Asia and the Pacific region having a GER of 67% and 93%, respectively. In some countries, public and privates education systems run parallel to each other. In China, children in urban centers utilize relatively well-equipped government centers that have trained teachers, while those in rural areas have to rely on private institutions, especially kindergartens that have untrained teachers. Progress on universal primary enrolment in the region is not uniform. Poverty, location, and ethnicity significantly affect school participation in several countries, such as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Countries such as Vietnam have made commendable progress in reducing the effect of poverty on education. In 2010, the primary education attainment rate among children from impoverished backgrounds in Vietnam was 88% compared to a rate of 95% among children from affluent backgrounds.

Illiteracy In Europe And Central Asia

The illiteracy rate in Europe and Central Asia was 1.8% in 2016. The two regions have low illiteracy rates compared to the global illiteracy rate. According to a UNESCO regional overview report, central Asia and the Eastern and Central Europe regions have made steady progress since the socio-economic, political, and demographic disruptions of the 1990s. Both Central Asia and Central and Eastern Europe have made significant strides in enhancing participation at all levels of education. Most countries in the regions currently have high net enrolment ratios.

Eradicating Illiteracy In The World

The relationship between human development and education is profound under the right circumstances. A literate population is likely to take advantage of opportunities faster and with greater ease compared to an illiterate population. Illiterate individuals also have poor nutrition and hygiene practices. Experts believe that eradication of illiteracy can significantly enhance economic growth and help in diminishing poverty. Governments of all countries bear the greatest responsibility in exterminating illiteracy. Governments need to mobilize adequate resources and also carry out awareness campaigns on the importance of education. Substantial international assistance is also required. Such aid should, however, be concerted and coordinated to ensure optimal results are attained.

The Least Literate Regions Of The World

RankRegion of the worldIlliteracy rates among all adults
1Sub-Saharan Africa40.1%
2South Asia31.3%
3Arab States26.6%
4Latin America and the Caribbean7.2%
5East Asia and the Pacific5.6%
6Europe and Central Asia1.8%


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