Latest News, MEIG Highlights 13 juin 2022

Highlight 37/2022 – Illiteracy in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Albatross hanging over the neck of Agenda 2030

Mireille Pakisa Nzuzi, 13 June 2022

The image was drawn by Adel El Abbaoui.

An albatross, oftentimes, the symbolism of an omen of good luck that leads the stranded ship on its sailing voyage. Despite its good deeds before long, the ship captain unnecessarily slew the bird and hung it around his neck. Thence, the wrath of misfortune « from the land of mist and snow » befell. The becalmed south wind that once steered the ship north now sends her into unchartered waters. The high rate of illiteracy in Sub-Saharan Africa without a shadow of a doubt has become a heavy burden that will wither on the vine the attainment of SDGs by 2030.  

It is indubitably that human capital is the fulcrum for the economic, social, and political development of a country. The strengthening of the latter is mainly based on the two social sectors. On the one hand, the education sector, and on the other the health sector[1]. Henceforth, the preeminence of education as a sine qua non of human capital has been such as to be imbued as goal 4 of Agenda 2030. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the cathedral of the agenda 2030 were born on the factory floor of the Millennium Development Goals. The latter, try they did fail to end poverty by 2015 as they were set to do. It has been widely acknowledged that the Achilles’ heel of the MDGs, is often attributable to the mere fact that they were aimed exclusively at developing countries only. Hence, the justifiable stance taken by the Member States toward ensuring that the SDGs were to be universally applied to all UN member states[2].

To this end, as the crux constellation of the main pillars of sustainable development: economic, social, cultural, and environmental protection, one can see why quality education is pivotal to the attainment of most if not all 17 sustainable development goals. However, it is to be recalled that, with only eight years left to go and armed with the undeniable understanding of the importance of education for the attainment of the latter, literacy is not being given the impetus it so merits.  Although quantum progress has been made to improve access to basic education and continuous reduction of educational inequalities, the global literacy landscape still shows alarming disparities across regions, countries, and population stratification. Worldwide, approximately 773 million youth and adults still cannot read and write and 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills[3].

26% of the world’s illiterates reside in Sub-Saharan Africa with some regions being deeper into the illiteracy obscurantism than others. With almost one adult in two being illiterate, Western Africa has nearly a third of Africa’s illiterate adult population and within this region, the G5 Sahel (Burkina-Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Tchad) records the worst rate of literacy in the world.

Of the aforementioned figure, youth accounts for an astonishing 77%[4]. Young people are those who ought to be the most affected by the SDGs.  They stand to gain the most from high-quality education, decent work, gender equality, and inherit a healthy planet – or to lose the most if the world fails to reach those goals. Africa has the youngest population in the world. The World Bank has noted that, by 2050, Africa will be home to 1 billion young people under 18 years of age. This fast-growing population of young people could either revert to becoming a burden for the region or through the aid of targeted educational policies and programmes endowed with competencies and skills that can be turning the valuable demographic dividend into not merely only the engine of economic growth but also sustainable development.

However, it is estimated that 48 million youth (ages 15-24) are illiterate and 22% of primary-aged children are not in school[5].  These figures reverberate to being consequences thereof the colonial vestiges that have remained entrenched, poor political will, poor budgetary allocation to the educational sector, lack of effort in taking into account and integrating the multiplicity of native languages, neglect of technical and vocational subjects, inadequate curriculum, poor learning achievements, and severe deficit in teachers quantity and quality to name but a few.

Should the alarming rate continue to navigate down these unchartered waters,  these youngsters,  a few years from now, are set to be joining the adults with no or low literacy skills. Literacy and sustainable development are two Siamese twins, side by side they walk. Thus, if states at the global level imminently re-organize and lead a crusade against illiteracy in SSA and let the albatross live to see another day, maybe, only maybe by a roll of a dice, depending on which side this lands, our hope of attaining all the sustainable development goals by 2030 not become a mere nudum pactum.

[1] THE WORLD BANK, “Human Capital Umbrella Programme Annual Report”, 2021, available at World Bank Document (last accessed 23 May 2022)

[2] UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/71/313, “Work of the Statistical Commission pertaining to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” available at  (last accessed 25 May 2022)

[3] United Nations General Assembly “Literacy for life, work, lifelong learning and education for democracy: Report of the Secretary-General (A/75/188)”, (2020), available at (last accessed 24 May 2022)

[4] THE WORLD BANK, “Human Capital Umbrella Programme Annual Report”, 2021, available at World Bank Document (last accessed 23 May 2022)

[5] THE WORLD BANK, “Human Capital Umbrella Programme Annual Report”, 2021, available at World Bank Document (last accessed 23 May 2022)

Mireille Pakisa Nzuzi, Highlight 37/2022 – Illiteracy in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Albatross hanging over the neck of Agenda 2030, 13 June 2022, available at

The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the author and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.


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