Arab nations have more than 70 million illiterate people and nearly two thirds of them are concentrated in five regional countries, according to the Arab League.
The number means the illiteracy rate in the 21-nation Arab League is currently estimated at 35.6 per cent, nearly double the global rate, said the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (Alesco).
The problem is underscored in Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Morocco and Algeria, which have about 48 million illiterates, nearly 68 per cent of the total.
“This is really becoming a very serious problem, which should prompt urgent measures to tackle it with firmness and determination,” said Mongo Bousnina, Director General of the Tunis-based Alesco.
“Despite efforts by some Arab countries to eradicate illiteracy since the middle of last century, we have noticed that the number of illiterate people is steadily increasing. Our latest statistics showed that the illiteracy rate in the Arab World is around 35.6 per cent compared with a global rate of 18 per cent.”
Quoted by regional Arabic language media, Bousnina said illiteracy in the region has deteriorated despite “repeated strategies” chalked out by Alesco since it was founded in 1970 to spread education and reduce illiteracy.
“The problem has persisted and even deteriorated in some countries despite all these strategies and the creation of an Arab fund for eliminating illiteracy in 1980…what we need now is a serious effort to reverse that trend,” he said.
In a previous report, the Cairo-based Arab League said some regional nations have made progress in literacy campaigns but the rate has remained high in many members, mainly among women.
Strife-torn Iraq, which controls the world’s third largest crude oil resources, appeared to be plagued with the highest illiteracy rate in the region while the Palestinians have the lowest rate.
The League’s 2009 socio-economic report, published by the Abu Dhabi-based Arab Monetary Fund, showed Kuwait had the lowest female illiteracy rate in the Arab World as the emirate is one of the first countries to discover oil and launch a massive development programme to transform its desert nature.
The figures showed there was little progress in literacy achievements in Iraq as the country’s development plans have been obstructed by three major wars, including the 1980-1988 conflict with neighbouring Iran, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing allied offensive to eject the Iraqi forces out of the emirate, and the 2003 US-led attack that resulted in its occupation.
A breakdown showed Iraq’s male illiteracy stood at 43.4 per cent at the end of 2006 and that among women at as high as 74.8 per cent.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip had the lowest illiteracy rate in the Arab region, standing 5.8 per cent at the end of 2008. The rate was 2.8 per cent among men and 8.9 per cent among women.
Kuwait had the second lowest rate of six per cent, followed by Qatar with a rate of 6.9 per cent.
Jordan had the fourth lowest rate of 7.9 per cent while the UAE and Bahrain had the fifth and sixth lowest rates of 10.2 and 11.7 per cent.
Female illiteracy rates were double digit in all Arab nations except Kuwait, Qatar and Palestine, with Iraqi having the highest rate. It was followed by Yemen, with a female illiteracy rate of 61.4 per cent, according to the report.