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The Challenge of Illiteracy Globally

In the last decade great gains have been made in eradicating illiteracy globally, however, a long road still lies ahead before full success can be contemplated.

World literacy map-2008

In the Global Literacy Project program areas in South Africa we also see the legacy of exclusion from the apartheid years still having an impact. Literacy rates in South Africa continue to be lower than optimal. The United Nations estimated illiteracy at 12%, or 3.9-million of the 33-million adults in South Africa in 2007. One of the basic causes of this is the lack of money to fund education. Although up to 20% of the nation's budget is spent on educational programmes, resources are not yet sufficient to counteract decades of insufficient teacher training, lack of supplementary materials in indigenous African languages and the absence of access to books--all key factors for low literacy rates. It must be also noted that South Africans express a keen urge to better themselves but they also want to hold on to indigenous knowledge as contained in their mother tongues. Thus when we discuss illiteracy in South Africa (as well any other society) we have to also ask: "Illiterate in which language?"

Beyond the problem of historical legacy, a more immediate issue is that drop-out rates are also a problem. Some schools can see drop-out rates above 50%, with many students finding no point in continuing as they are completely unplugged from the lessons or they have no sense that school will translate into employment. A substantial portion of the population does not have books in their homes. This often means that the attitudes toward reading are not supportive to the expansion of a culture of reading. Some perspectives we have noted on the ground:

  • Reading is not something people do during their free time;
  • Reading is not seen as something useful outside of school;
  • Reading is often not seen as an empowering skill that translates into economic empowerment

Gender and Illiteracy

Governments have become increasingly willing to invest in girls' and women's rights leading to increasing girls' enrolment in school. According to UNESCO, the global net enrolment ratio has increased from 80 per cent in 1991 to 88 in 2005. The gender gap in enrolment has shrunk in most regions, and the gender gap in literacy is also narrowing. Still, much remains to be done in relation to girls' education to ensure that girls finish primary and secondary school, to eliminate violence against girls in school, and to bring more non-enrolled girls into school. Of the estimated 72 million primary-age children that were not in school in 2005, 57 per cent were girls, and this may be an underestimate. (

Sub-Saharan Africa has made significant improvements in overall primary education enrolment although a significant percentage of girls still have problematic access to schooling. In South Asia, although absolute enrolment levels have increased for both boys and girls, the gender gap in primary education does not seem to be narrowing. In the Middle East and North Africa, gender disparities are still present although decreasing. (Sources: UN Statistics Millennium Indicator Database; UN Statistics Division database)

Gender and literacy 2008

Faltering Commitment at the Secondary School Level (Post-primary Education)

Girls' enrolment rates in secondary schools have not experienced the same level of increase as in primary education. According the the United Nations Development Fund for Women, gender gaps are widening in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) and South Asia. For women, in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the ratio of secondary education enrolment to primary education enrolment is only 23% and 35%, respectively.

Illiteracy Correlates with Other Development Challenges

ILLITERACY is costing the South African economy as much as R550 billion a year, according to a recent study conducted by Stellenbosch University’s economics department. According to the International Monetary Fund, the current GDP per capita in South Africa is $10 244. The study found that if the quality of schooling in the country was where it should be – a level befitting a middle income country – GDP would be 23 percent to 30 percent higher than it currently was and GDP per capita would be about $12 000 (R86 000) a year (

In the recently released World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011, the South Africa ranked 137th out of 139 countries when it came to the quality of maths and science education and 125th for the quality of primary school education.

Illiteracy has been long correlated to other challenges to human rights. For instance, regions of high illiteracy show high incidences of child labor abuse...

child labor globally - 2006

There is also a significant correlation between women's illiteracy and high birth rates...

female literacy versus birth rate - 2000

Education for women is the key

Because child care remains the domain of women in most countries, higher education levels mean lower birth rates. Women in African countries with a high literacy rate tend to have fewer children than their counterparts in countries where the literacy rate among women is lower. For example, in South Africa, where around 90 percent of women can read and write, the birth rate is 2.5 children per woman, whereas in Chad, where around 80 percent of women are illiterate, it is 6.3 children per woman. (, Jun 22, 2010)

The following correlation exists between the prosperity of the various African countries and their birth rates: the higher the gross domestic product per capita, the lower the average birth rate. The relationship between birth rates and prosperity does not apply only to developing countries.We find the same relationship when we compare GDP per capita and birth rates of countries worldwide...

fertility rate versus GDP

The Millennium Development Goals

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End poverty by 2015. This is the historic promise 189 world leaders made at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000 when they signed onto the Millennium Declaration and agreed to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs are an eight-point road map with measurable targets and clear deadlines for improving the lives of the world's poorest people.

What’s supposed to be different this time?

Given the proliferation of UN Conferences and commitments, it’s important to understand why the Millennium Goals may be unique in some importnat ways:

  • All the world’s major economic players have signed on board the commitment. Also important is the fact that as poorer countries pledged to improve policies and governance and increase accountability to their own citizens; wealthy countries pledged to provide the resources. Since the commitment to achieve the goals comes from the highest political levels, for the first time, entire governments are committed to their achievement—including the trade and finance ministers who hold the world’s purse strings.

Even so, how are we doing as a planet to achieve the very minimum of these goals? The BBC news service recently did an analysis... take a look. It would appear that we all as global citizens need to ensure that governments are held to the highest possible standards of performance with respect to the goals.


Aitchison, J.J.W. 2003. Struggle and compromise: a history of South African adulteducation from 1960 to 2001. Journal of Education, No. 29, pp. 125-178.

Centre for Adult Education. 2006. Bringing literacy home. Family literacy Conference Proceedings. 19 - 21 September 2005. Pietermaritzburg: Centre for Adult Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal.


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