Literacy—the ability to read and write—is arguably the single most important factor in determining a person's career arc. For those who can read and write, the range of possible vocations is vast—even highly skilled, high-paying careers are within reach. For those who cannot, the options are extremely limited—even unskilled minimum-wage jobs can be difficult to obtain.
As a whole, the global literacy rate is high. The literacy rate for all males and females that are at least 15 years old is 86.3%. Males aged 15 and over have a literacy rate of 90%, while females lag only slightly behind at 82.7%. However, massive country-to-country differences exist. Developed nations almost always have an adult literacy rate of 96% or better. In contrast, the least developed nations manage an average literacy rate of only 65%. Direct country-to-country comparisons of literacy tend to be inexact. This is due mainly to two confounding factors: Many countries do not report their literacy every year, and many countries have mismatched definitions as to what qualifies as literacy.
Top 10 Most Literate Countries in the World:
- Uzbekistan - 2018 - 99.99%
- Ukraine - 2012 - 99.97%
- San Marino - 2018 - 99.92%
- Latvia - 2018 - 99.89%
- Estonia - 2011 - 99.89%
- Czech Republic - 2016 - 99.83%
- Lithuania - 2011 - 99.82%
- Tajikstan - 2014 - 99.80%
- Azerbaijan - 2017 - 99.79%
- Kazakhstan - 2018 - 99.78%
Top 10 Least Literate Countries in the World:
- Chad - 2016 - 22.31%
- Guinea - 2014 - 32.00%
- South Sudan - 2018 - 34.52%
- Niger - 2018 - 35.05%
- Mali - 2018 - 35.47%
- Central African Republic - 37.40%
- Burkina Faso - 2018 - 41.22%
- Benin - 2018 - 42.36%
- Afghanistan - 2018 - 43.02%
- Sierra Leone - 2018 - 43.21%
The relationship between literacy and poverty
Poverty and illiteracy tend to go hand-in-hand. Education is often less available in poverty-stricken areas. Moreover, even when education is available, a struggling family might need their children to work and earn money instead of going to school. Most of the countries with the lowest literacy are located in South Asia, West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa—regions which also include most of the poorest countries in the world.
There is also a gender gap in literacy: Of the roughly 781 million adults worldwide who cannot read or write, nearly two-thirds are female. This disparity is particularly noticeable in less-developed countries, in which women are often expected to stay at home and care for the house and children while the men go off to work. The developed nations of the world have much higher literacy rates with smaller gaps—if any—between the genders. For a full list of the best available information on literacy rates around the world, see the table below.