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Illiteracy: A Stubborn Problem in Many Arab Countries

CAIRO—In a nation struggling with economic distress after prolonged political unrest, Egyptians face another chronic obstacle to development: widespread illiteracy.

The percentage of the population—10 years old and over—that cannot read and write last year stood at 25.9 percent, according to data recently released by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Egyptians aren’t alone in this struggle: In several other Arab countries including Yemen, Morocco, and South Sudan more than one quarter of the population is illiterate.

In Egypt, 17.2 million people are illiterate—the majority of them over 60 years old and 10.9 million of them women, the state statistical agency said.

“It is sad that we are talking about a very basic level, which is illiteracy, while we have a lot to cover in terms of progressive education and proper learning environments and student-centered pedagogy and all these different learning theories that we are so behind on,” said Mohammed Rizkallah, an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo who has researched illiteracy. “We can’t even start to think about them right now because we lack basic education.”

Indicating the problem could be worsening, the Egyptian illiteracy rate rose by one percentage point—from 24.9 percent in 2012, according to the state statistics agency.

But it is unclear what caused the climb. Rania Roushdy, senior research manager of the Poverty, Gender, and Youth program of the Population Council’s West Asia and North Africa office, said it could be due to a normal measurement error or a change in the way illiteracy was measured, among other factors.

Mahmoud Farouk, executive director of the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies, attributed it to Egypt’s economic decline since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak more than three years ago.

Since then, economic growth has dramatically slowed and more than 5,000 factories have closed, Farouk said. That has limited the government’s capacity to build needed schools and slashed family budgets for educational expenses such as school fees and books. “It leads to more people who cannot read and write—this is the economic effect,” Farouk said.

The typical ratio of one teacher to 80 students may also play a critical role, said Salma Afifi, partnership and PR manager at Educate-Me Foundation, in Egypt. Poverty and the expenses of education also contribute to the high rate of illiteracy, she added.

Illiteracy is not just a statistic for Awatef Osman, 52, a Cairo resident who did not learn to read and write when she was young. She said she started taking a literacy class because she wants to learn how to read and memorize the Quran. She joined a free literacy class in 6 of October City organized by Life Makers Association, a partner in the Vodafone literacy initiative. “Reading has been always a dream; I went to Haj and was not able to perform most of rites of pilgrimage without the help of my roommate who was able to read,” she said.

Gamal Abdel-Ghaffar, 33, who owns a small shoe shop, said that it was challenging to run his small business without learning how to read or write. “Without reading I cannot do anything by my own in the shop. I struggle daily to buy or sell my goods. I hope by the end of these classes I can read and write,” Abdel-Ghaffar said.

Illiteracy isn’t just Egypt’s problem: Thirty three percent of people in the Arab world cannot read or write compared to 18.8 percent worldwide during the period from 2005-2012, according to Egypt’s statistics agency.

Data source: ESCWAG. Literacy rates for most, but not all, countries are for 2012. (Google map by Tarek Oueidat)

In Morocco, the illiteracy rate was 30 percent two years ago—totaling around 10 million people, according to Unesco.  Illiteracy has high costs: For every percentage point the illiteracy rate in Morocco grows, an estimated 1.34 percent is lost in GDP growth—roughly $13 billion, says a study by the Department of the Fight Against Illiteracy, within Morocco’s Ministry of Social Development. Moreover, the average wage of an illiterate person is about 14.6 percent lower than average.

Part of the problem is that low levels of school enrollment, high dropout rates and a mismatch between subjects being offered and job market needs plague the educational system. Moroccan education is also characterized by outdated and ineffective teaching techniques, resulting in an increased rate of failure in standardized exams, said a study by Education Sciences, an international, peer-reviewed journal.

The gravity of the problem pushed Morocco’s government to act, proving partly effective. Illiteracy declined to 30 percent from 43 percent in 2004, according to Unesco. More than 6 million people have benefited from literacy programs nationwide over the last decade.

Now, the state seeks to reduce illiteracy to 20 percent in 2015 before completely eradicating it by 2020, said Habib Nadir, director of a nationwide anti-illiteracy campaign. Moroccan researcher Mohamed Dira, however, said not enough awareness programs or supportive legislation are in place. Most literacy programs depend on volunteers and “there is not enough trained teachers for such programs, which mostly focus on urban populations rather than villagers,” Dira said.

The lack of trained teachers is also holding back the spread of literacy in South Sudan, which has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, Unesco says. Only 60 percent of teachers there are trained, according to Unicef, while only one in three school-age children are enrolled in school and an estimated 400,000 have dropped out since civil conflict started there in December.

In Yemen, more than 47 percent of people are illiterate, the latest governmental data—from 2004—shows. Many of them are women. “Girls’ enrollment at schools does not exceed 5 percent in some areas,” said Ahmed Abdullah, head of Yemen’s Literacy and Adult Education Organization.

Political unrest and a dearth of political and economic stability worsen the problem, Abdullah said. There is also lack of awareness, lack of concerted efforts to work on the problem and lack of sound planning in education, he said.

Still, the number of illiterate people is decreasing as more enroll in formal education, Abdullah said. And the government has a national plan to reduce illiteracy over the next five years. “Everyone now knows the importance of the fight against illiteracy,” Abdullah said. “We just need to intensify and unify the efforts.”

That’s what some education advocates are trying to do in Egypt, where illiteracy eradication has been a government goal for decades. Seeing a need to boost efforts, Vodafone launched Knowledge is Power in 2011, targeting illiterates 15 years of age and older through a nationwide program. Literacy classes implemented by Vodafone’s partners have graduated 240,000 people so far, aiming to reach more than 1 million people this year.

“If we want to move into the future at a good speed we have to depend on education,” said Mohamed Henna, chairman of the Vodafone Egypt Foundation. “We have to improve education and the first step is that we should not have illiterate people in Egypt.”

Yet some question the initiative’s effectiveness.

“I think it’s failed miserably,” said the American University in Cairo’s Rizkallah. “Efforts on the ground have not been recorded. They have not been tested. No one has heard about them,” he said. “If it is working and getting some results, we are not feeling it.”

Henna, however, believes in the effort.

“If you have a problem, you have two options: either ignore it and let it grow, or try to do your best and try to mobilize other people to join you and to believe this is a basic problem—and one of the most advancement-inhibiting problems in the country,” he said.

Lynch reported from Cairo, Faek from Amman. Tarek Ouiedat contributed data analysis and graphics. 


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