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Pakistan’s literacy problem

Sep 08,2019 - Last updated at Sep 08,2019

ISLAMABAD — In every country, literacy has been essential to support a wide range of social and development goals, from political participation to good health outcomes. Among literate mothers, infant mortality rates drop significantly. Children from low-literacy areas, by contrast, not only do worse at school, and hence have fewer economic opportunities, but also have much lower life expectancies than their peers in high-literacy areas.

Yet, in Pakistan, boosting literacy has always been on the back burner, even compared to other education goals, such as improving the primary-to-secondary transition. As a result, the country’s average literacy rate has fluctuated between 57 per cent and 60 per cent over the past decade, well below the regional average of 67 per cent. Pakistan has the second-lowest literacy rate in South Asia after Afghanistan, and in adult literacy it ranks 150th out of 188 countries worldwide.

There are also major gender disparities: the literacy rate for Pakistani males is 68 per cent, compared to 45 per cent for females. Likewise, there is a yawning gap between urban and rural areas, which have literacy rates of 74 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively. What’s more, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries in the region where this disparity persists among younger generations, indicating that overall literacy is unlikely to improve significantly in the near future.

The reason is not hard to pinpoint: Pakistan’s government is not investing in literacy. According to one estimate, the country introduced some 15 major literacy programmes from 1947-2005, but most were terminated before completion, owing to changes in government or funding constraints. Public spending on adult literacy education (ALE) in Pakistan amounted to just 0-0.4 per cent of total education expenditure in 2009-2014.

In fact, over that period, when Pakistan should have been working to achieve the UNESCO Education for All goal, set in 2000, of halving adult illiteracy by 2015, the country’s public spending on ALE declined. Pakistan is not alone in its struggles: most countries failed to make significant strides in adult literacy. But, on some measures, such as gender parity, Pakistan has been far outpaced by other South Asian countries.

For example, the overall literacy rate in Bangladesh surged from 46 per cent in 2007 to 73 per cent in 2017. The country has also made significant improvements in gender parity since 2000, continuing the progress it made in the previous decade. Last year, Bangladesh fulfilled all three eligibility criteria, including “human assets”, which include literacy, to graduate from the United Nations Least Developed Countries list. Promotion to developing-country status is set for 2024.

Bangladesh owes this progress largely to effective public-private partnerships. For example, the Bureau of Non-Formal Education (BNFE) is implementing a literacy programme in cooperation with more than 300 contracted national and international NGOs. The Campaign for Popular Education, a national network of NGOs, collects data on illiterate and marginalised groups that in turn influences policy. And Bangladesh is one of a handful of countries that have established a non-formal education-management information system, which provides reliable data on BNFE services, service providers, target beneficiaries and other relevant topics.

India has also made progress, having increased its adult, over age 15, literacy rate from 61 per cent in 2001 to 69 per cent in 2011. And the country is on track to improve literacy further as a result of initiatives, such as the Saakshar Bharat Mission, a government-sponsored nationwide literacy scheme focused on women, established in 2009. In 2011, India’s overall female literacy rate was just 65 per cent, compared to 82 per cent for men. Rural areas, where literacy is often below 50 per cent, are also a high priority.

To maximise the mission’s impact, educational materials are developed in consultation with learners themselves. They are then scrutinised by the Quality Assurance Committee in national review meetings, field tested, revised to reflect lessons learned and standardised. In order to prevent backsliding, the mission also includes the establishment of libraries and reading rooms. Between 2009 and 2012, the National Literacy Mission Authority certified over 14 million Indian adults for their proficiency in reading, writing, and numeracy.

In the wider region, one can also look to Iran, where the literacy rate tripled from 1966 to 2006. This reflects a top-level commitment: in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Revolution and founder of the Islamic Republic, called upon his fellow citizens to “rise up against illiteracy in a decisive manner”.

Per Khomeini’s order, the Literacy Movement Organisation was established to spearhead progress. The LMO, which received the 2018 UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, is credited with establishing thousands of community learning centers across Iran. Its other initiatives include a programme that encourages students to help their parents become more literate, and, more recently, the Healthy Family mobile application, which offers low-literate and semi-literate Iranians interactive lessons about health, nutrition, and saving water.

Pakistan must similarly make literacy a top priority and implement a nationwide programme that takes into account the country’s multiethnic and multilingual society. Such a programme should also provide newly literate citizens with continuous-learning opportunities to lock in gains.

This past January, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood announced a nationwide literacy drive, with the goal of boosting literacy by at least 12 per cent in four years. But little headway has been made since. To spur progress, research organisations should be solicited to provide policymakers with comprehensive data and evidence-based analysis, as well as technical support for program development.

Pakistan’s neighbours have shown that literacy can be improved considerably, even under challenging circumstances. That requires commitment, planning and resources. But, given the huge benefits of universal literacy, there are few worthier investments.


Zara Kayani, a former fellow at the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS), is a researcher in Islamabad, Pakistan. Project Syndicate, 2019.

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