The 10 Least Literate Countries

What many overlook as a basic ability — as common and easy as switching on a light — is to other people around the world a privilege that isn't easily afforded. Literacy, the ability to read and write, is not a universal faculty as many would believe. In fact, illiteracy is just one of many considerable factors that exacerbate inequality and make the advancement of those in underdeveloped societies more difficult.

If we consider how much we rely on these basic but vital tools of communication, which most of us have perfected early in our youth, it’s difficult to comprehend that 22 percent of all adults on earth are illiterate. UNESCO estimates that 30 to 50 million people are added to the growing list of illiterate individuals annually. The underlying reason for these numbers is lack of opportunity. The long-standing notion that illiteracy is due to the individual’s limited intellectual capacity is false; what’s true is that people are illiterate not as a choice or due to ignorance, but as a consequence of being born into a cycle of poverty that restricts accessibility to education. And poverty is not a choice.

The CIA World Factbook reports that there are 775 million people globally who cannot read and write, with 122 million of these individuals being children. Women make up two-thirds of this demographic and the lowest illiteracy rates are found in South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. 98 percent of all illiterate individuals live in developing countries where children are often forced to quit school due to its unaffordable cost or in order to join the labor force as a means of survival. It’s clear that large-scale poverty correlates to a lower literacy rate in a country. To further shed some light on this prominent issue, the following list ranks the countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world based on world comparison statistics collected by the CIA World Factbook.


10 Benin: 42.4 percent literacy rate

Benin is located in West Africa and only 42.4 percent of its population can read and write. As a country ravaged by war and plagued by political instability, Benin’s poor education system has evidently suffered the consequences. Yet progressive efforts have been made since the 1990s that have benefited the people of Benin. Free tuition has increased enrollment rates, which has prompted an increase in the number of girls who attend school, helping to ease the disparity between the sexes in academia and by effect, literacy rates. But high enrollment rates are not indicative of high success rates. Due to the rapid increase in the numbers of those enrolled in school there is a shortage of teachers that can accommodate the many children who seek to learn. Classroom overcrowding deters the effectiveness of a school’s curriculum and this contributes to Benin’s overall poor education system that’s responsible for teaching children to read and write.

9 Guinea: 41 percent literacy rate


8 Ethiopia: 39 percent literacy rate

7 Somalia: 37.8 percent literacy rate


37.8 percent of Somalis can read and write. This may be attributable to the fact that out of the 1.7 million primary school age children, only 710, 860 attend school. The ongoing crisis of war and famine that began in Somalia in 1991 has ravaged the country and practically destroyed its national education system. The low literacy rates today attest to the social and economic crisis the civil war beset on the country of Somalia.

6 Chad: 34.5 percent literacy rate

Chad is located in West Africa and neighbors Niger. Only 34.5 percent of the population in Chad is literate. With the Chadian government only spending up to 2 percent of its national GDP on education, only 36.5 percent of school-age children are enrolled in school. It’s not a surprise, then, that the country has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world since teaching people to read and write is evidently not a governmental priority.

5 Mali: 33.4 percent literacy rate


Only 33.4 percent of people in Mali know how to read and write. Men and women stand on unequal footing with 43.1 percent of males literate and only 24.6 percent of women able to read and write. There are also large disparities between schools established in rural and urban areas, too; teachers who are under qualified typically teach in rural areas. There are also few literate teachers in Mali able to teach literacy programs, which perpetuates the problem.

4 Niger: 28. 7 percent literacy rate

In Niger, a meagre total of 28.7 percent of the population can read and write. A disparate number of women in Niger are literate at 15.1 percent compared to the 42.9 percent of men who can read and write. Niger is also one of the poorest countries in the world and over 50 percent of its population is under 15 years old. The population pressure correlates with the lack of resources available to accommodate educational infrastructure.


3 Afghanistan: 28.1 percent literacy rate


In Afghanistan, only 28.1 percent of citizens can read and write. Only 12.6 percent of women are literate and this is due in part to traditional cultural norms in Afghan society. Extremists and misogynists in Afghanistan take strict and often violent preventive measures to keep girls and women from accessing education. Resistance to equal opportunity for schooling is strong in Afghanistan; in 2008 there were 283 violent attacks on educational institutions. Despite the heavy opposition, Afghan girls remain strong and dedicated to advancing their lives through education. Since 2008, over 2 million girls are now enrolled in school with the numbers steadily increasing.

2 South Sudan: 27 percent literacy rate

Just 27 percent of South Sudan’s entire population can read and write. The country is known as the world’s youngest, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011. It’s self-evident that a young country faces numerous obstacles in reaching a state of self-sufficiency and prosperity and for this reason an efficient education system is still in the works. The consequence of this work in progress is the country’s low literacy rate, which hasn't been helped by the war-torn history of the country.

1 Burkina Faso: 21.8 percent literacy rate


Located in West Africa, Burkina Faso is a former French colony where the primary language is French, though many citizens cannot read nor write the language since a high percentage of the population doesn’t attend school. As a country with historically poor social welfare, only about one-third of children attend primary school. Due to the generally inaccessible locations of the schools, children in rural villages must walk for several miles to reach the nearest school. UNICEF reports that only 65 percent of boys and 54 percent of girls attend school. The dropout rate is increasingly high and it seems clear that a country with so inefficient an education system produces the lowest level of literacy rates in the world. Burkina Faso relies heavily on an internalized economy and so it’s typically a more viable option for most children to abandon education and work instead.


More in The Poorest