When some developed countries are mentioned, it is easy to imagine that everybody found there is literate. The assumption is usually aligned with the particular country’s ranking on the economic development index. While it is true that the economic development of a country is generally related to its literacy levels, the relationship is not always directly proportional.

This is especially so for countries which have their development pegged on cottage industries. If a country is purely driven by subsistence agriculture, for instance, its GDP may be high, but its adult literacy levels remain low. The UNESCO world adult literacy rankings reveal as much.

What is Adult Literacy?

UNESCO, the UN body concerned with education, defines adult literacy as the percentage of a given population who is aged 15 years and above, who can read and write, with understanding, simple statements in day to day life. Sometimes the definition is expanded to include numeracy; the proficiency in simple arithmetic.

What Does the Adult Literacy Level Look Like?

Globally, literacy levels stand at an average of 90%. Men have an average literacy level of 90% while the figure is significantly lower for women, standing at 82.7%. Developed countries enjoy the highest literacy average at 99.1%. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have the lowest ranking at 64%, according to a 2015 survey.

Now, looking at it from that angle, it would seem as though the number of illiterate adults is not worryingly high. Furthermore, developed countries may be not faced by this problem at all. But let’s take another perspective.

In numbers, over 750 million adults fall within the illiteracy bracket. Now that’s more like it. That is an immensely massive number by any standards. Looking at it that way, you get the feeling that illiterate people are found all over the world. Moreover, the scale could be including people with elementary literacy. This tells you that some people who are listed as literate will still have problems reading and writing simple communication.

Again, as the world develops and integration happens, the definition of literacy might need to change. What is basic today might not qualify for the same in five or ten years. Today, more than ever before, people from different backgrounds are interacting in matters business and other engagements. As a result, therefore, it may not be shocking if some years from now, literacy is measured by the ability to read and write more than one language.

What Next, Then?

The only logical way is forward. Individual nations and the globe as a whole need to embrace the fact that they could do better with literacy levels. Countries which have achieved the highest standards (Russia leads the list globally) need to work on completing the entire 100% literacy percentage.

It can be achieved, really. The first and most immediate solution is to introduce adult literacy programmes where they don’t already exist. With great strides in the technological front, this should not be a tall order. Adult learners can use facilities such as online tutorials and distance learning modules to improve their literacy levels.

The second and longer-term plan is to focus on ensuring children in their formative stages get an exhaustive education. There should be measures to ensure that no single child reaches fifteen years while they are still illiterate. In this way, all factors constant, the levels of literacy will keep going up.

There is also a need for countries to work together in raising the adult literacy levels between themselves as trade ties continue to grow. More bilateral and multilateral agreements need to come with an attached literacy plan. That is the only way how all countries in a cooperative bloc can reap full benefits.

Over and above all that, there is the need to sensitise adults on the need to improve their literacy. In many places, people fear coming out to expose their illiteracy. There is a certain stigma attached to illiteracy that discourages adults from seeking an education. Fighting this anxiety will go a long way in giving literacy statistics a better look.