Illiteracy in the Arab Region

The Numbers are Worrying, But the Future is Promising

International Literacy Day falls every year on September 8, and on this day, the whole world celebrates its adult education efforts. Arabs, too, have their say on this day, although the annual Arab Literacy Day is January 8.

This is the time, then, to consider illiteracy in the Arab region, the efforts to eradicate it in the here and now, and the plans to eradicate it permanently in the future.

At first glance, available figures reveal a frightening reality. Statistics published by the Arab Organization for Education, Culture and Science (ALECSO) indicate that 21% of the Arab region’s population remained illiterate by the end of 2018. This is one-fifth of the Arab region’s population, approximately 76,000,000 people. This is far higher than the world average which, according to UNESCO, stands at 13.6%.

Initial comparisons between these two figures suggest an alarming situation. The gap gets bigger when viewed from a gender perspective, with illiteracy exceeding 25% among Arab women, but decreasing to about 14% within the male population. When taking into account geography and age, the great disparity between regions also becomes clear. The illiteracy rate of youth (above 15 years) is 2% to 5% in the Arab Gulf region and Palestine. But in Mauritania, for example, the illiteracy rate for the same age group is 48%.

There is room for some optimism, however, when comparing these figures with those of years past. Fifteen years ago, illiteracy was at 35%. This indicates that Arab countries have made great strides towards limiting this phenomenon that impedes the path of development in every Arab country.

There are collective efforts undertaken by The Arab League and ALECSO. Yet these efforts are modest compared to those made by individual countries.

Most Arab countries work on two tracks. The first focuses on encouraging schooling among children, by opening schools in remote areas; by issuing laws requiring children of a certain age to attend school; and by giving priority to marginalized groups, and poorer, less aware areas. The second track focuses on educating adults and eradicating illiteracy among them. This is done by creating specialized centers, and coordinating between the public and the private sectors.

A good example is KSA, a country where the current illiteracy rate is 5%. The Saudi government launched numerous initiatives, strategies and programs, under the supervision of the Department of Continuing Education at the Ministry of Education, and through Learning Neighborhood centers, which are spread throughout the Kingdom. Additionally, Vision 2030 offers significant tools for fighting illiteracy, such as the Estidama initiative, which focuses on the concept of lifelong learning.

In Egypt, where one-quarter of the population over 15 years suffers from illiteracy, a series of community initiatives has been launched under the auspices of the state. These initiatives are implemented by local elected officials in each city, with the aim of completely eradicating illiteracy by 2030. This is in addition to an initiative entitled A Decent Life, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

In Tunisia, where illiteracy stands at 18.5% according to Statistics Tunisia, illiteracy rates have risen after the revolution. This is because many adult education programs were ceased. But, as of the beginning of 2019, the Tunisian government recommenced funding literacy projects.

Each Arab country has its own programs and initiatives to combat illiteracy, as they aim to teach reading and writing to the largest possible number of illiterates, especially the elderly. These national initiatives will undoubtedly contribute to reducing illiteracy rates throughout the Arab region. The numbers now might seem alarming at a glance, but progress is being made – and UNESCO expects that illiteracy will be eradicated from the Arab region once and for all by 2050.