Measuring Illiteracy Around the World

Knowledge is power — and the ability to read and write is the most fundamental aspect of education. Indeed, a key indicator of a country’s economic prospects is its literacy rate. We wonder: What percentage of the world’s adult population is illiterate?

A. 7%
B. 13%
C. 16%
D. 34%

A. 7% is not correct.

China has an illiteracy rate of about 7%, meaning that 71 million adults in the country cannot read and write a simple statement on their daily life. This is significantly below the 20% illiteracy rate for developing countries as a whole.

China’s illiteracy rate is comparable to that of other emerging market countries in Asia, such as Indonesia (9%), the Philippines (7%) and Thailand (6%).

B. 13% is not correct.

The illiteracy rate among youth — defined as those aged between 15 and 24 — is considerably lower than the rate among adults. The illiteracy rate among girls worldwide is 13%, compared to 9% among boys. This difference is due to the fact that too often, when family resources to pay for education are scarce, the choice is made to send boys to school — and few, if any, girls.

Overall, about one in nine teens and young adults is illiterate. This represents a significant improvement since 1990, when 12% of boys and 21% of girls were illiterate.

C. 16% is correct.

The world’s overall adult illiteracy rate is 16%. Thus, 775 million adults, or about one in six men and women on earth, cannot read or write a simple message. This rate has decreased from 44% in 1950, 24% in 1990 and 18% in 2000.

Much of the progress has come in South Asia, where since 1990 the adult illiteracy rate has decreased from 52% to 36% — and youth illiteracy has fallen from 39% to 20%.

In contrast, with illiteracy rates ranging from 70-77%, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are the world's most illiterate countries. Altogether, eight of the ten countries with the highest illiteracy rates are found in sub-Saharan Africa, underscoring the region’s dire lack of economic development and educational resources.

D. 34% is not correct.

India’s illiteracy rate is 34%, surprisingly high for a country that recently has made headlines as a high-tech center for global outsourcing services in areas such as software development and engineering.

India has nearly four times as many illiterate adults as China — and India’s high illiteracy rate could become a severe disadvantage as the country continues its rise as a global economic power.

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