Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Literacy in the Middle East and North Africa

by Isobel Coleman
May 6, 2013

Graph by author. Data source: World Bank. 2010 data for Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain. 2009 data for Morocco. 2008 data for Tunisia and Iran. 2007 data for Lebanon. Graph by author. Data source: World Bank. 2010 data for Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain. 2009 data for Morocco. 2008 data for Tunisia. 2007 data for Lebanon.


While the Arab revolutions were underpinned by a demand for greater political freedom, economic frustrations–particularly among the region’s large youth population–were also a factor. Millions of young people with university degrees languish for years unemployed, with no hope of getting a job that meets their expectations. Millions more are not completing sufficient years of school to master basic literacy and numeracy skills. As the 2002 Arab Human Development Report noted, adult literacy in the Arab world is shamefully low–and lower than the average in developing countries.

However, countries are making efforts to tackle their literacy challenges. The above graph shows that every country has made concrete progress in tackling illiteracy. Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Bahrain all boast youth literacy rates above 96 percent, but Yemen, Egypt, and in particular, Morocco, still have a long way to go.

The solution to illiteracy is not just government spending: it is a matter of implementing effective programs and putting these programs into action for every child. Egypt’s Early Grade Reading Program is one example of the sort of educational innovation that needs to happen.

Beating illiteracy is just the first step in equipping citizens for a productive economic life. Mohamed Bouazizi, the desperate Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the region’s uprisings, was not illiterate–he had the equivalent of a high school degree. Inculcating students with critical thinking and soft skills is also a prerequisite. But the burden of some 60 million illiterate adults in the Arab world, most of whom are women, is a heavy weight indeed and one that is only beginning to ease with the current generation.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Moxtar

    Tunisia at 96%? Egypt in the 80’s? Surely these are Ben Ali and Mubarak’s era numbers, you should revise your data, even the local governments grudgingly did.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    This is the data that the World Bank uses, but I appreciate any additional information.

  • Posted by Murad Kassim

    Millions of religious school graduates should be considered illiterate, because they produce nothing. An illiterate carpenter or a farmer are more beneficial to the society. The whole system of values in this part of the world should be reconsidered, if a real change is to take place.

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