WEST AFRICA ∙ Literacy in Niger, where only one in five adults can read

Every year since 1990, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has prepared and released a report analyzing the state of development across the world’s nations. These annual Human Development Reports are released in tandem with indices that rank the countries of the world in terms of their degree of human development, either as an overall concept or by individual factors that contribute to a country’s general level of human development. The UNDP’s Human Development Reports have received praise for their comprehensive treatment of development as a concept encompassing more than countrywide economic growth, to include a focus on people and their opportunities and choices.

“Education Achievements,” encompassing literacy rates, school enrollment rates, education quality, and government expenditure on education, represent an important factor in the calculation of a country’s human development level. The most primordial of these achievements is probably a country’s literacy rate, which is conventionally defined as a set of reading, writing, and counting skills. In the context of human development, Literacy is one of the few development practices that has inspires little controversy. Indeed, the promotion of basic alphanumeric skills is almost universally approved as a practice around which to design development programs and assign development funding. By this token, education is said to serve as an effective weapon in the fight against poverty, equipping people with the tools they need to improve their immediate economic situations and promising multifold economic returns in the future.

It is for these reasons that literacy rates have been significantly improving over the past 50 years, since the celebration of the first international Literacy Day in 1967 and to an even greater degree after the declaration of the Millennium Development goals in 2000. However, one country stands out with a remarkably low literacy rate that is more than ten percentage points below that of its nearest competitor.

The Republic of the Niger, typically known as Niger, has an adult[1] literacy rate of 19.1%[2]. While literacy overall is quite poor, literacy rates among girls and women fare even worse than those among men: among youth aged 15-25, the male literacy rate between 2005-2015 was 36.4%, while the female literacy rate was less than half that figure, at only 17.1%.[3]

What is the cause of Niger’s particularly low literacy rate? Even regionally, Niger stands out:

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Along with parts of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad, Niger is situated in the semi-arid biogeographic transition zone between Africa’s Sahara and Savanna, known as the Sahel. The Sahelian countries represent developing nations with fast-growing populations and enormous potential. However, they also share many of the same political, economic, and social challenges. For example, the security situation throughout the Sahel is quite complicated, as the region is plagued by frequent irregular migration, networks of transnational organized crime, and insurgencies, notably in the form of non-state actors such as Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA).[4] These factors, combined with the limited reach of national governments and deficient infrastructure, render living and working conditions difficult or even dangerous in certain areas.

In many respects, what distinguishes Niger from its neighbors is not obvious. As such, it is useful to provide some country context:

Country Summary: Niger[5]
Population 18,638,600 (July 2016 est.)
Land Area 1,266,700 sq. km
Bordering Countries Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Nigeria
Geography ·       Landlocked

·       >80% desert; recurring droughts

UNDP Human Development Ranking: 187 out of 188 (2015)
Religions[6] Islam (94%), Other (Christianity, Traditional African Religion) (6%)
Languages[7] 11 official/national languages: French, Arabic, Buduma, Fulfulde, Gourmanchéma, Hausa, Kanuri, Zarma & Songhai, Tamasheq, Tassawaq, Tebu
Ethnic Groups[8] Hausa (53.1%), Zarma/Songhai (21.2%), Tuareg (11%), Fulani/Peul (6.5%), Kanuri (5.9%), Gurma (0.8%), Arab (0.4%), Tubu (0.4%), other (0.9%)

Niger came into being as a modern-day state in 1958, after a period of French colonization. Since then it has experienced numerous different political regimes, up to its current seventh republic. This political instability has not fostered development (either in the traditional sense as economic growth or in the more comprehensive sense of human development). Similarly, Niger’s multilingual and multiethnic population has not lent itself to national unity, nor has the geographical dispersal of its population throughout the country.

Indeed, these last three points are very important when considering literacy. As a former French colony, French is considered the “official language” of the country, but in practice it is only spoken by a small, educated upper echelon of the population. The rest of the population speaks one or more of the country’s national languages or other various dialects, with bilingualism and multilingualism present in most cases. The fact that schooling has historically occurred in French, a language to which much of the population has little exposure, long hindered schooling matriculation, in addition to the availability of resources and the scattered nature of the Nigerien population. Today, NGOs and government agencies have realized the benefits of first language education and are beginning to make efforts to address this need, with positive effects. In some cases, however, literacy is a theoretical problem: certain languages do not have a written tradition, which makes teaches reading and writing in those languages impossible. In these cases, development funders and agencies have to resort to teaching in a lingua franca (such as Hausa, which is much more widespread than French or even Nigerien Arabic).

In the future, Niger, like the rest of the nations in the Sahel, is set to experience a youth bulge. Fertility rates are very high at the moment, and the population is growing at an astonishing 3.2% per year.[9] Almost a full half of the population is less than 15 years old.[10] Educating and providing for these children is going to prove to be a formidable challenge for Niger, but it also represents an exciting opportunity for development in a region that is set to be one of the most strategically important zones of the future.

Article written by  Sophia QADIR



[1] Here, this term refers to anyone aged 15 and over.

[2] Human Development Report 2016: Human Development for Everyone. United Nations Development Program.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Please see The EU’s Strategy for Sahel Security, along with The Battle for the Sahel for more information.

[5] Please see the CIA World Factbook: Niger for more information.

[6] Please see Religion in Niger for more information.

[7] Please see Languages of Niger for more information.

[8] Please see Demographics of Niger for more information.

[9] “The World Factbook: Niger.”

[10] Ibid.


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