Want to boost your economy? Tackle illiteracy

While MENA's literacy level has gone up, there is room for improvement

Illiteracy is a global problem affecting 757 million adults and some 115 million youth, across all economic and geographical sectors.

Whether it is reading the label on medicine or food, filling out a job application, or comparing the costs of two items to work out which is the best value, illiteracy and the innumeracy that often accompanies it can make day-to-day tasks near impossible. It’s a problem that impacts 19 per cent of the adult population in Arab states, 30 per cent in south and west Asia and 26 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa, according to figures from UNESCO.

“There are a lot of similarities in the day-to-day life skills people need no matter where they live,” said Andrew Kay, founder and CEO of the World Literacy Foundation, which works to tackle illiteracy.

While there have been improvements in the levels of literacy in the MENA region over the last 25 years – in 1990 Arab states recorded 45 per cent adult illiteracy – thanks to greater awareness and an increase in the availability of primary education, issues remain. The World Literacy Foundation has estimated the cost to affected economies in the billions. In the organisation’s report on the economic and social costs of illiteracy, it estimated that the problem could cost emerging economies up to 1.2 per cent of their GDP. For a country such as Lebanon, that’s the equivalent of $656m. For Egypt, the figure rises to $3.4bn and for India it could be as much as $27.6bn.

“Whether you’re a poor country, an emerging economy or a developed country there are issues across the board,” said Kay.

“By looking at the economics of it and highlighting that there’s an economic cost, as well as a personal cost to leaving this issue to one side, hopefully finance ministers can realise that if spend more on education in the long term it can benefit their country.”

Ensuring people finish school with a high standard of literacy is paramount says Kay, who says poor literacy can cause as many problems as having no reading skills at all. Having no or low literacy skills impacts on people’s ability to earn an income and can lead to social problems such as crime, poor health and prejudice. It is also a problem that can be passed on, with children from families with low-literacy levels often having commensurately lower levels of educational success than children from literate families.

“There are significant consequences for a person who falls through the cracks and finishes school with limited or no literacy skills,” said Kay. “It’s a social issue that is often underfunded and there is an opportunity, both at a local level and even internationally, for philanthropists to make a social investment into literacy, especially in the early years.

“That level of philanthropy can have a lifetime impact on a person, and can significantly influence the positive outcomes in a person’s life.”

Photo credit: USAID Africa Bureau