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If you can read this, you probably don't live in a dangerous place

Young girls reading in Jordan. Photo: Tanya Habjouqa
Young girls reading in Jordan. Photo: Tanya Habjouqa

'Literacy, in short, is a prerequisite for peace.'

– Kofi Annan, 8 September 2002

Today marks the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, when UNESCO called on the world to promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies. Since the designation of the International Literacy Day in 1965, the international community has initiated a series of global actions to eradicate illiteracy. Despite these efforts, literacy lags in some areas of the world, especially among women and especially in dangerous places.

In 1987, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 1990 as International Literacy Year. In 2000, the World Economic Forum introduced the Dakar Framework for Action which aimed to achieve 'a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women' in goal 4. Under the 2000-2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework, literacy appeared in goal 2 to 'achieve universal primary education'. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) incorporate literacy more explicitly in target 4.6 by pledging to ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy by 2030. Additionally, the Global Alliance for Literacy will be launched during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the International Literacy Day.

With the series of commitments made by the international community for the past half a century, there has been progress in youth and adult literacy. Between 1990 and 2015, the global literacy rate among youths aged 15 to 24 has increased from 83% to 91% and among adults aged over 15 from 76% to 86%. The actual numbers of youth and adult illiterates have also fallen. This improvement was largely a result of increasing attendance in primary and secondary school among younger generations. Indeed, official development assistance to basic and secondary education has increased more than 50 times during this period.

Yet the world is still home to 826 million illiterate adults. Two thirds of them are women and this proportion has remained unchanged for three decades. The situation is even worse in ‘dangerous places’—countries whose rate of violent death is within the global top 25% or whose rate of creating refugees or internally displaced persons is within the global top 40%. This definition gives a list of 100 dangerous places in the world.

Of the estimated 826 million illiterate adults in the world, nearly half of them (more than 395 million) live in these 100 dangerous places. Considering that dangerous places are home to only 33% of the world’s adult population, they are home to a disproportionately high number of the world’s illiterate. Indeed, the literacy rate in dangerous places as a whole is 78%, while it is a full 10% higher in the rest of the world (88%).

Map showing the 100 most dangerousplaces in the world
A country is one of the most dangerous places in the world if its rate of violent death is in the global top 25% or if its rate of creating refugees or internally displaced persons is in the global top 40%. Dangerous places are home to 33% of the world's adult population and 48% of the world's illiterate adult population.

Illiteracy can be the result of stalled development, including through interrupted education.  Many of the lowest literacy countries in the world have had civil wars, coups or other political instability in the last twenty years. For example, Afghanistan (32%), Central African Republic (37%), Chad (38%), Guinea (25%), Haiti (49%), Liberia (43%), Mali (34%), Niger (15%) and South Sudan (27%).

In times of crisis or prolonged underdevelopment, education is given less priority than more urgent humanitarian needs, such as food, shelter and medical supplies. Destruction of infrastructure and limited access to remaining schools due to protracted conflict, plus ongoing violence and displacement have the potential to deny education for several years, interrupt progress in education, and lead to entire generations missing out on an education. In addition, these countries are more likely to experience 'brain drain' as the literate, educated and skilled are more likely to leave the country during unrest.

Literacy data is poorly reported. Only 5 countries reported data to UNESCO for 2014. There are lower literacy rates in countries, mostly dangerous places, that do not report recent data. Of course, it is possible that outcomes have improved in countries that haven’t updated statistics since 2005 or 2006, but it is impossible to say.  Interestingly, many developed countries do not report their literacy rates to UNESCO. Countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have not reported any literacy data in the last 10 years. In the current age of SDGs and a universal development agenda that involves the entire world—developing and developed countries alike—this will have to change.

Graph showing countries' literacy rates and the years in which they were reported
Of the countries that report their literacy data, dangerous places tend to have lower literacy rates.

Literacy appears in the SDGs through goal 4, Quality Education, which aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. The newest indicator for literacy is SDG indicator 4.6.1: the percentage of the population in a given age group achieving at least a fixed level of proficiency in functional (a) literacy and (b) numeracy skills, by sex. It has only recently been implemented and data is scarce, with only 30 countries currently reporting recent data. Of these, eight countries—Armenia, Colombia, Cyprus, Georgia, Ghana, Lao PDR, Sri Lanka and Vietnam—appear on the list of dangerous places. Their literacy rate is relatively high at 90% on average. This is much higher than the literacy rate in dangerous places as a whole and even higher than the average literacy rate in the rest of the world.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the International Literacy Day in the context of the new development era, the world should pay particular attention to what the data tells us. The illiteracy rate delivers a lot of information beyond 'the percentage of population who cannot both read and write with understanding a short simple statement on his/her everyday life'. The high illiteracy rate, especially in dangerous places, also shows that there are a lot of children, youth and adults facing challenges of being poor, insecure, underdeveloped, displaced and vulnerable to violence who lack the literacy tools that would help them cope with these challenges.

The world needs not only to keep its sustained and focused attention on the promotion of literacy and literate environments in dangerous places, but also to help these places develop the capacity to collect and release relevant data for monitoring the implementation of the literacy goal.


Dr Suyoun Jang was a Researcher with the Peace and Development Programme.
Dr Gary Milante is an Associate Senior Researcher.