Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Dependence on illiteracy
Illiterate people
Widespread illiteracy
Illiteracy is the inability to read and write. A person is defined as illiterate if he cannot, with understanding, both read and write a short and simple statement on his everyday life; and as functionally illiterate if he cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for the effective functioning of his group and community, and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community's development. Lack of such abilities prevents individuals from going about their daily activities in modern society, seeking suitable employment, or moving about normally with comprehension of the usual printed expressions and messages they encounter. Its consequences include inability to take up basic social services, fill in even simple forms, and understand traffic instructions or other danger signs.
Of the adult world population (aged 15 years and over) the number of illiterates in 1990 was 28% of total, or 965 million; in 1980 was 28.6% of total, or 814 million; compared with 32.9% of total, or 760 million in 1970; and 39.3%, or 735 million in 1960. The burden of illiteracy falls hardest on the poorest and most disadvantaged groups, landless rural peasants, and slum dwellers. Nearly two thirds of those who are illiterate are women and the percentage is increasing. Most of the 965 million adults who cannot read or write are in developing countries.

The absolute increase over the past decade has been of the order of 80 million, about the same figure as over the previous two decades taken together. But the tendency has been for the total of those who cannot read or write to grow much more slowly than the total of those who can. The proportion of illiterates in the total adult population has been shrinking gradually, even as their absolute number has increased. Four out of 10 adults were illiterate in the early 1950s; just over 3 out of 10 in 1970; fewer than 3 out of 10 in 1980. About 40% of the world population of 3.1 billion (namely 1.2 billion) were illiterate in 1962. By 1992, the percentage of illiterates had dropped to 25%, but since the world population had increased to 5.5 billion, the absolute number of illiterates had effectively increased to about 1.4 billion.

Illiteracy among younger adults is lower than among the adult population as a whole, the result of the recent expansion in primary schooling. Nevertheless, by 1980, 2 out of 10 young people were reaching the age of majority without having acquired even a rudimentary literacy. Past experience suggests that those who fail to learn the basic skills by the end of normal school age have limited prospects of acquiring them later as adults. They can be expected to form a sizeable, if diminishing, illiterate segment of the working-age population for the next 40 years or more, until at least the year 2020.

[Industrialized countries] Because of a wide difference between way of determining illiteracy the estimates vary greatly. In one estimate having completed primary school is sufficient to be counted as literate. In another filling out an employment form or completing a multiple choice test is required. In 1970 it was estimated that 3.5% of the adults in industrialized countries over 15 years of age were illiterate. A recent study in the UK came to the conclusion that 7 million people are illiterate in the UK. Another estimate gives 13% of the population of the UK as functionally illiterate, with more illiterate primary school leavers in 1970 than in 1964. It is estimated that 1 in 4 Canadians are illiterate or functionally illiterate. Recent statistics on illiteracy in industrialized countries include: one in three Americans will not be able to read this book (Jonathan Kozol on his book "Illiterate America"); 17% of soldiers entering the Israeli army cannot read or write (Israeli state comptroller Yitzhak Tunic).

In 1982 the USA Department of Education estimated that 10% of native English speakers and 48% of those without English as their first language were illiterate, giving an overall average of 13% in the USA. Following major hurricane damage in the USA in 1989, efforts to provide compensation were severely hampered by the inability of applicants for relief to complete written applications or sign them. In the southern USA, 25% of adults left school at 14, rising to over 35% in the case of blacks.

[Developing countries] There is a distinct regional pattern to adult illiteracy in developing countries. The incidence is highest in Africa, where almost 6 out of 10 adults were unable to read or write according to estimates for 1980 (50% of the men and over 80% of the women). In Asia and the Pacific, by far the most populous region, the proportion of illiterate adults is 4 out of 10. This is also the figure for the developing countries as a group. In Latin America only 1 in 5 adults remains illiterate. Over the past decade, the sharpest reduction in the illiteracy ratio has occurred in Africa. With the other two regions showing smaller (though still impressive) declines, regional disparities have become somewhat less pronounced. China's large population and relatively low level of illiteracy exerts a strong downward pull on the regional figure for Asia and the Pacific as well as on the over-all figure for developing countries. Brazil and Nigeria, the most populous countries in their respective regions, exert a less powerful influence in the opposite direction on the illiteracy ratio of their regions. The regional pattern for overall illiteracy coincides broadly with illiteracy across the income range. Latin America, the region with the highest average per capita income, has the lowest illiteracy ratio; Africa, with the lowest relative income, has the highest illiteracy. As just noted, within regions and among countries in similar economic circumstances, variations remain important. These tend to have deep cultural or historical roots and have diminished only slowly as efforts to raise the level of literacy in countries lagging in this respect continue to be checked by a limited ability to increase the number of those receiving instruction in reading and writing.

1. In developing countries, illiteracy is a major obstacle to sustainable development. At current rates of population and education growth, there will be more than 900 million illiterate people by the year 2000.

2. For the nearly 1,000 million women and men, the illiterate adults of the world, the right to education proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not, as yet, a reality. Illiteracy is not only an obstacle to effective participation in society; in much of the developing world, where mass illiteracy is rife, it constitutes a threat to the progress of society itself with all that entails in suffering, deprivation and missed opportunities.

Counter Claim:
Countless altogether illiterate people have been masters of highly elaborate languages. The ability of an oral tradition to transmit great masses of verse for hundreds of years is proved and admitted. Education is no friend to this oral literature. Culture destroys it, sometimes with amazing rapidity. When a nation begins to read, what was once the possession of the folk as a whole becomes the heritage of the illiterate only, and soon, unless it is gathered up by the antiquary, vanishes altogether. It has been suggested that literacy was the principal factor causing the decline of the English village culture.
Broader Problems:
Lack of ability
Problem Type:
C: Cross-sectoral problems
Date of last update
24.01.1998 – 00:00 CET