The Arab world needs literacy programmes more than ever

The illiteracy rate among females in Arab countries is estimated at 26%, the highest in the world.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Catching up. Iraqi men take part in an Iraqi government’s literacy programme for adults in the holy city of Najaf.(AFP)
Catching up. Iraqi men take part in an Iraqi government’s literacy programme for adults in the holy city of Najaf.(AFP)

Statistics on illiteracy in the Arab world indicate that traditional reading and writing programmes are needed even if finding better literacy approaches has become necessary to sweep ignorance off people’s minds in Arab countries.

Data from the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) states that the illiteracy rate in Arab countries is around 21%, much higher than the global average of about 13%.

What is even more alarming than this disparity between rates is ALECSO’s warning that illiteracy in the Arab world is likely to increase because of poor educational conditions in countries facing crises and wars. ALECSO estimated that, because of those conditions, more than 13 million Arab children are failing to get an education.

Many regard literacy programmes in the Arab world as useful only because of their propaganda value for outdated regimes with their outdated policies and plans. It is true that literacy programmes in the Arab world were often political tools in the hands of backward Arab regimes and that condemned those programmes to fail.

However, the poor results cannot deny the importance of literacy programmes and the need by large segments of Arab populations for them, especially among the elderly who were never schooled and young people who stumbled in their academic journeys because of social, economic or security reasons or even because of their own weak potential.

When discussing literacy programmes in the Arab world, many pertinent questions rise and place the onus of giving convincing answers on the shoulders of the programmes’ critics.

What alternatives can be offered if literacy programmes are eliminated? How could the gaps of ignorance be filled, even in their simplest and most primitive manifestations, let alone gaps created by scientific and technological progress? In what ways can the consequences of not sitting in the classroom, even for a few years, be repaired at the basic level of learning the elementary use of the mother tongue?

In this era of technological advancements, illiteracy has taken a new dimension and now refers to not acquiring the basic skills of using software for computers, applications and devices that have become an essential element of everyday life.

However, before we can talk about that type of illiteracy in the Arab world, we must not forget that many Arabs cannot decipher basic codes of our mother tongue or read notices and warnings on medicines or road signs or carry out simple everyday tasks that require reading and writing.

On the other hand, the large numbers of early school dropouts each year in the Arab world make it necessary to review literacy programmes to meet the needs of those groups, which, if neglected, may turn to crime or become a burden to the state and society because of marginalisation.

Despite the differences between past and present, the Arab world has been living with the same challenges for years. The fact that we celebrate Arab Literacy Day, which ALECSO adopted in 1970 to generalise basic education and combat illiteracy, gives the best proof that we are facing the same challenges in the Arab world.

In the not so distant past, Arab countries struggled to spread education among all segments of society and launched many fronts to win the battle for girls’ education. Today, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are fighting early school dropout rates.

The illiteracy rate among females in Arab countries is estimated at 26%, the highest in the world. Of course, cultural and social factors are the main reasons behind this, including the dominance of conservative and masculine culture, early marriage, poverty and parental low levels of education.

ALECSO estimated that 7-20% of children in the Arab world are dropping out of primary school and that in some countries of the region that figure exceeds 30%.

After absorbing these statistics about illiteracy in the Arab world, it doesn’t make sense to argue that literacy programmes are not important or useless. Such a view lacks legitimacy and is detached from reality.