West Africa and Afghanistan on the front lines of the fight for literacy

Article, 07.09.2015

In August 2015 UNESCO published its latest statistics on illiteracy around the world. They show that today there are more than 757 million adults and 115 million young people who cannot read or write a simple sentence. The SDC is committed to strengthening educational systems where the need is greatest.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has just published its eAtlas of Literacy online. This mine of information on literacy around the world provides a large number of easy-to-navigate interactive maps of the world's regions. Users can consult overall statistics as well as statistics broken down by population group (women, youth, etc.), zoom in on a particular country, and even find facts and figures going back to 1970s. The figures are complemented by explanatory texts.

UNESCO eAtlas of Literacy

The UNESCO eAtlas shows the countries whose populations lag the furthest behind in literacy: most countries in West Africa, the Central African Republic, and Afghanistan, where 68% of young women aged 15 to 24 can neither read nor write. Despite real progress achieved in recent years, more than 757 million people globally – two thirds of whom are women – lack basic literacy skills.

Literacy rate of young people aged 15 to 24 by country (UNESCO)

Map of the world showing literacy rates by country.
In Niger, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan (dark blue) fewer than 50% of young people are able to read and write. © UNESCO

In 2014 the SDC allocated CHF 63 million to projects aimed at strengthening basic education around the globe. Particularly worth noting in this context are the SDC's targeted activities to support the countries that lag the furthest behind in terms of literacy, i.e. the Sahel countries and Afghanistan.

Countries benefiting from SDC education projects

Map of the world showing the countries that benefit from SDC educational activities
The SDC's basic education activities mainly focus on the Sahel region, Afghanistan and South Asia. © SDC

In Myanmar, where the SDC is encouraging the integration of young women into the labour market, their literacy rate is now similar to that of their male counterparts. In Eastern Europe, the SDC is contributing to a fund created to reduce educational disparities between Roma and non-Roma children.

Improving youth and adult literacy skills is a key element of the SDC's efforts to guarantee good-quality basic education accessible to all. Literacy programmes developed in accordance with lifelong learning principles are essential to enable young people to learn a trade and improve their chances of finding their job.

Illiteracy and functional illiteracy

The terms "illiteracy" and "functional illiteracy" are often confused. Illiteracy refers to the inability to read and write of people who have had no or almost no schooling. Functional illiteracy, on the other hand, refers to the situation of adults who have attended school but who have inadequate reading, writing and numeracy skills. It is estimated that one adult in six, i.e. 800,000 people, are functionally illiterate in Switzerland.