Arab Literacy Day puts spotlight on unmet challenge

All Arab countries have either fought or tried to fight illiteracy but the outcome is still below the expected results.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Catching up. Iraqi women take part in an Iraqi government’s literacy programme for adults in Najaf. 			         (AFP)
Catching up. Iraqi women take part in an Iraqi government’s literacy programme for adults in Najaf. (AFP)

Each year on January 8, the Arab League Education, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) marks Arab Literacy Day. The observance represents a chance to transcend the educational dimensions suggested by the name of the occasion and an opportunity to assess the political, developmental and economic choices made by the regimes in the region.

Since it was adopted by the League of Arab States in 1970, Arab Literacy Day has become an occasion to generate questions related to literacy and other issues. Like every other commemoration, it was turned into an area for debate and competition in the Arab world.

Decades ago, nationalist governments of newly independent Arab countries unanimously brandished the slogan of eradicating illiteracy as a necessary step towards development and raising awareness among citizens. The slogan remains just a slogan and little has been achieved.

Illiteracy data provided each Arab Literacy Day by ALECSO indicate the gradual decline in illiteracy rates in the Arab world, from 37% in 1970 to 21%, currently.

Those figures reflect efforts in the Arab world for about half a century to bring down illiteracy rates but should also be taken with a grain of salt because they are likely to take a turn for the worse, considering the miserable educational conditions in some Arab countries, which are dealing with severe crises and armed conflicts.

ALECSO said about 13.5 million Arab children failed to enroll in formal educational establishments because of conflicts sweeping the Arab world.

Talk about eradicating illiteracy in the Arab world is intimately connected with history and politics in general and the history of the nationalist states in particular. Their pitfalls and slogans were characterised more by ideology rather than by efficiency.

One can’t help but point to the wrong political choices of some figures of Arab nationalism who had problems fixing the right priorities for their people. Thus, military and security concerns had won over social and economic needs and funds that should have gone to education and development went instead to buying weapons.

So, the lofty goal of eradicating illiteracy ended up joining the ranks of the other shiny slogans that served the interests of the regimes more than those of the people.

In addition to confusing priorities, the Arab regimes could not resolve the dilemma of what should come first, literacy programmes or economic development. Can literacy programmes aid economic and social development or was it the other way around and economic development would positively affect literacy and awareness-raising programmes?

In the end, all Arab countries have either fought or tried to fight illiteracy but the outcome is still below the expected results and way below programmes in place and the promises made.

Worse, some Arab countries are experiencing a serious setback in this domain either because of social strife and conflict or because of ideological beliefs by powerful regimes and groups that education, and especially education for females, is a luxury or a breach of tradition.

The success or failure of literacy programmes in Arab countries do not depend only on available official plans and certainly not on slogans brandished by regional organisations such as the Arab League but also rely on the availability of facilitating cultural factors like literacy traditions and of hampering factors such as male conservatism, marriage at an early age and family disintegration. Economic factors, including the development model adopted, poverty, unemployment and deteriorating living conditions, also played roles.

Arab Literacy Day is an annual occasion to ponder this crucial issue. It is also a chance to put intentions to the test and assess the seriousness and efficiency of the Arab world’s approach to dealing with the major challenges ahead. Those challenges are growing rapidly considering the political events in the Arab region and big changes sweeping the world. Even the definition of illiteracy itself is changing.