Saudi Arabia beating illiteracy while Iran lags behind
Investing in human capital is a priority for any government that believes in its citizens’ significance and indispensability for socioeconomic and state progression. In particular, the youth is a vital cog in such progression.
Governments that are aware of this importance work hard to harness all available resources to develop and shape human capabilities, create efficient cadres and prepare the youth, via educational institutions, to become effective contributors in the quest for national development. Thus, we find that many countries craft strict laws and regulations to ensure that children, both male and female, participate in education. In addition, they follow up on the issue with keenness and diligence, monitor school dropouts and use all means possible to end illiteracy. Some governments go even further and focus on ending illiteracy in specific areas, such as increasing the percentage of the population that is comfortable with modern technology, foremost of which is computer information technology.
Over recent years, I have been following the state of illiteracy in the region, particularly in the Gulf states. I have noticed that the six Arabian Gulf states that suffered rampant illiteracy more than six decades ago have now become pioneers and are significantly advanced in all levels of education. They have also designed widespread programs to combat illiteracy and even end it completely.
For example, we find that the illiteracy rate in Saudi Arabia reached 60 percent in 1972, while the latest tallies show that it declined to 3.7 percent by the end of 2021. In 2013, illiteracy stood at 6.81 percent for all age groups, men and women. This means that illiteracy has declined by half within eight years. According to Saudi Vision 2030, illiteracy is expected to reach zero by this date through several programs targeting the biggest segment of the illiterate: the elderly. This is in addition to providing all means to facilitate the educational process for them, as well as rewarding those who excel.
These accomplishments paint a clear picture about the policy of the Saudi government on learning at all levels
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
It is worth noting that the school enrollment rate has reached 99 percent and there are regulations and harsh penalties for those who block children from joining the educational process and regularly attending class.
These accomplishments paint a clear picture about the policy of the Saudi government on education and learning at all levels. Additionally, these accomplishments complement the Kingdom’s progress in all other international indicators.
Conversely, we find that illiteracy in Iran is exponentially increasing, a course contrary to what we find across the world. Yousef Nouri, Iran’s former education minister, recently stated that there are 9 million fully illiterate people in Iran. He also noted that the number of children dropping out of school in the three elementary stages had reached 970,000, noting that absolute illiteracy in Iran accounts for 10 percent of the populace. This is a staggering figure.
During his participation in a show on a local educational television channel, according to the Persian-language Radio Farda, Nouri said that “the tally includes the number of illiterates aged above six. They are totally illiterate. They don’t know how to read or write. And I believe that the illiteracy statistics in Iran this year haven’t seen a change.”
Nouri also pointed to the difference in targeted educational segments between Iran and other nations. He said: “At present, Iran is educating those aged between six and 49, while the targeted age all over the world extends to a man’s entire life.” This means that, although there is illiteracy in Iran and it is mounting, the Iranian regime has totally stopped combating illiteracy for those aged 50 and above.
Illiteracy in Iran is exponentially increasing, a course contrary to what we find across the world
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
The Iranian parliament’s Research Center announced in 2019 that the number of absolute illiterates in Iran was nearing 9 million people. In the same year, however, the World Bank estimated that the number of those illiterate in Iran stood at 11.6 million, accounting for 15 percent of the total population. An example of the country’s modest and inadequate efforts to fight illiteracy is the fact that the portion of those lettered among the Iranian people reached 79.5 percent in 1996. Two decades later, in 2021, the literacy rate stood at 88.7 percent.
Taken together, progress in fighting illiteracy over the span of 25 years has been significantly slow and there are years like 2006, in which the rate of literacy declined compared to the previous year. The illiteracy rate in the capital Tehran stands at 6 percent, according to official remarks published by Mawj news agency. The illiteracy rates in Sistan and Balochistan, Khuzestan, West Azerbaijan, Lorestan and Hormozgan are much higher.
In addition to illiteracy, a related phenomenon is school dropouts. According to official figures, the overall number of dropouts in Iran for the academic year 2021/2022 was 911,272 students, a 26 percent increase on the previous school year. The number of middle school students who dropped out increased from 60,000 to 154,000 between 2015 and 2022.
Added to the current realities of rampant illiteracy and school dropouts is the upsurge in child labor in Iran. Official reports show that there are 120,000 child laborers in the country, 70,000 of whom work in the capital Tehran. Up to 14,500 children are homeless and living on the street — known in Iran as “cartonkhab” children — according to a report published by the State Welfare Organization of Iran in mid-March.
A UNESCO report stated that about 2 percent of Iranians aged between 15 and 24 are “completely illiterate,” while 63 percent of those over the age of 65 are also unlettered. As a result, the UNICEF Statistics Center listed Iran as one of the worst nations for children in 2021. Only Yemen and Afghanistan were lower than Iran in the rankings, while Iraq, Syria and Palestine were ahead.
To conclude, if Iran genuinely proceeds in strategically transforming — meaning shifting from the phase of revolution to statehood — and focuses more on development as well as on investing in human capital, it will catch up with the region’s countries in terms of progression. Tehran will also be able to enhance its rankings on global indicators. Otherwise, it will continue to revisit the same issues, but each time will find the negative figures getting much worse — with the Iranian regime doing little to prevent this deterioration.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami