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ZAWYA published an article by Sara Al-Mulla on how illiteracy is still the dominant factor in the MENA region. It recommends notably no less than Radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all.

Radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all

The picture above is for illustration and is of the Gulf Times.

Students learn the alphabet in a classroom of 12 women of different ages all eager to learn to read and write at the literacy centre of Umm al-Hareth secondary school on April 17, 2009, in Amman, Jordan. Getty Images By Sara Al-Mulla, Arab News

In today’s world, knowledge is deemed to be the key to progress; spearheading innovations in myriad futuristic sectors, commandeering global competitiveness and empowering people to live high-quality lives. Indeed, the true wealth of any nation lies in its human capital’s ability to thrive.

The Arab region has achieved great strides in the field of education in the past five decades, with the widespread establishment of schools, high enrolment rates and government support for students. Data from the World Bank demonstrates this remarkable progress, as the Arab region has lifted literacy rates from 43 percent in 1973 to 79 percent in 2019. Despite this phenomenal achievement, illiteracy remains a shortcoming in the region. It is estimated that about 50 million adults in the Arab world are illiterate today, limiting their roles as active members of their societies. These figures are aggravated by the 6 million children who have been forced out of school due to conflicts and poverty.

The calamity of illiteracy manifests itself in a number of threats. Without the basic tenets of communication, people could find themselves drastically limited in their life choices and their ability to carry out important daily tasks. For example, illiterate people are unable to examine a medicine label, read a bank statement, skim through the news, calculate a financial investment, understand government policies, or communicate with family and friends via mobile phones or online social networks.

Illiterate parents also tend to have lower expectations with regards to their children’s educational attainment, aggravating generational illiteracy. Dr. Bernadette Dwyer, a professor of literacy studies in education at Dublin City University, made a powerful statement in this regard: “Literacy permeates all areas of life, fundamentally shaping how we learn, work, and socialize. Literacy is essential to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, and community engagement.”

Illiteracy also costs the global economy an estimated $1.19 trillion annually in lost economic productivity, according to the World Literacy Foundation. Globally, illiterate people earn 30 to 42 percent less than those who are literate, severely limiting their capacity to thrive and access important goods and services, such as food, shelter, education, and healthcare services. Furthermore, illiteracy has been linked to unemployment or low-quality jobs, lower lifelong earnings, reduced access to professional development courses, poorer health outcomes, increased crime rates, lower civic participation and community involvement, lower feelings of self-worth, increased isolation, limited retirement savings, and welfare dependency.

In order to tackle the issue of illiteracy in the region, it is imperative that policymakers understand its root causes. Perhaps the greatest barrier to literacy is the rampant poverty rate in certain communities, where children are forced to work to help their families make ends meet. At the same time, low economic productivity in many Arab nations has limited public funding for schools and reduced financial support for families in the form of tuition subsidies and scholarships. Poverty has also worsened gender discrimination in many parts of the region, resulting in limited female enrolment in schools due to early marriage and pregnancy, violence or cultural norms about the role of women.

Additionally, deteriorating safety issues and raging conflicts have, in recent years, resulted in an exodus of children from schools. Another leading cause of illiteracy is the presence of children with learning disabilities or difficulties that go undetected or untreated. Special education is expensive to finance for families on their own, as they would need to pay for diagnostic tests, treatments, dedicated shadow teachers, and special resources.

Research shows that children living in rural areas are more likely to drop out of school compared to children in urban areas, as nearby schools are lacking. Other institutional aspects that undermine children’s ability to learn include unsatisfactory learning environments, overcrowded classrooms, shortages of trained teachers, unengaging school curricula, and insufficient learning resources.

As such, radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all. It is imperative that household data be captured to elucidate illiteracy rates according to geographical location, age group and gender. Additionally, such research should evaluate the root causes behind illiteracy so that appropriate policies and programs can be formulated to overcome these specific barriers.

Solutions could be designed based on the size of the cohorts, such as the establishment of modern schools to cater for large groups or individualized workshops that are tailored to the needs of small groups of learners. Enrolment can be encouraged by taking on local volunteers who can sign people up or via applications on online portals. Additionally, relevant and engaging educational curricula need to be designed to accommodate local workplace needs, in addition to the hiring of skilled teachers. For participants who are unable to attend school due to work or family responsibilities, one-on-one tutoring sessions could be facilitated on a weekly basis to meet their learning needs.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is the cultural attitude toward education. Nationwide grassroots and media campaigns can play an influential role in highlighting the priceless value of literacy and its beneficial effects on people’s lives, especially among cultures that have contradicting viewpoints on the subject. Furthermore, governments could partner with nonprofit and private sector organizations that dedicate their funds and efforts toward literacy programs.

Nations are today competing against one another in terms of their ability to transform knowledge into economic productivity and high-quality living for their citizens. Literacy is the key for Arab nations if they are to create a new renaissance period.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at http://www.amorelicious.com.