Mapped: The Geography of Global Literacy
Literacy is a fundamental building block that can lead to a strong education, the ability to solve complex problems, and gaining the skills and knowledge to participate meaningfully in society. As a result, it’s also an important facilitator of economic development.
However, it’s estimated that nearly 800 million adults around the world still lack basic literacy skills—and this can create ongoing drag on the economy.
In the U.S., as one example, the people with the lowest literacy scores are 16.5x more likely to receive financial aid from the government. At the same time, they are also more likely to be in the lowest earning wage group, earning less than $300 per week.
Today’s post uses charts from Our World in Data, and it shows what literacy looks like on a global scale, and how is it shifting from generation to generation.
Global Literacy: The Big Picture
Over the past two centuries, global literacy has seen steady growth.
In the year 1800, it’s estimated that a mere 12.1% of the world was able to read and write. The most recent data shows the numbers have actually flipped—and now just 13.8% of the global population is illiterate.
It’s clear that from a high level, progress towards global literacy is being made.
But at the same time, a look at the graph shows that in more recent years, the rate of change has been slowing as we reach the “last mile” of literacy.
The Generational Perspective
Learning to read and write is easiest and most fruitful at a young age, and it’s a skill that is very unlikely to be lost later in life. For that reason, it’s worth looking at the difference between older and younger generations in terms of who is learning these skills.
For this, we zoom into the Middle East and Northern Africa region, which is where the majority of recent gains in literacy have been made:
Here, the difference in literacy between the 15-24 year age group and those over 65 years is substantial, with countries seeing large, double-digit increases in the ability to read and write:
- 🇩🇿 Algeria
The literacy rate is at 92% for the 15-24 age group, compared to 16% of the oldest generation
- 🇮🇷 Iran
99% of the 15-24 age group is literate, while 29% of the oldest generation can say the same
- 🇴🇲 Oman
98% of those aged 15-24 are literate, compared to just 23% in the 65+ age group
- 🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia
98% of those aged 15-24 can read and write, versus 26% of those in the oldest bracket
- 🇪🇷 Eritrea
The literacy rate is at 90% for the 15-24 age group, and 18% for those in the 65+ age group
It’s not that surprising then, that the above countries all now sit in the 75-95% percent range for overall literacy—a number that will likely improve further as education systems continue to help younger generations become literate early in life.
The Literacy Opportunity
While some countries have seen obvious generational improvements in literacy, there are places in the world where changes to educational systems have not fully yet manifested yet, or perhaps the data is not yet available for.
According to the interactive map above, here are some places on each continent where progress must still be made:
- North America
Literacy rates: 🇭🇹 Haiti (61%), 🇬🇹 Guatemala (79%), 🇳🇮 Nicaragua (82%)
- South America
Literacy rates: 🇬🇾 Guyana (88%)
Literacy rates: 🇽🇰 Kosovo (92%)
Literacy rates: 🇦🇫 Afghanistan (38%), 🇵🇰 Pakistan (56%), 🇧🇩 Bangladesh (61%), 🇾🇪 Yemen (70%)
Literacy rates: 🇳🇪 Niger (19%), 🇬🇳 Guinea (30%), 🇸🇸 South Sudan (32%), 🇲🇱 Mali (33%), 🇨🇫 Central African Republic (37%), 🇸🇴 Somalia (38%), 🇧🇯 Benin (38%)
Literacy rates: 🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea (62%)
With many NGOs and educators focused on this problem, there is hope that the “last mile” of global literacy can be solved, leading to more economic opportunity in these places—and also the world itself as a whole.
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
Ranked: The Most and Least Livable Cities in 2022
Which cities rank as the best places to live worldwide? This map reveals the world’s most and least livable cities.
Ranked: The Most and Least Livable Cities in 2022
Pandemic restrictions changed the livability of many urban centers worldwide as cultural sites were shuttered, restaurant dining was restricted, and local economies faced the consequences. But as cities worldwide return to the status quo, many of these urban centers have become desirable places to live yet again.
This map uses annual rankings from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to show the world’s most livable cities, measuring different categories including: stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure.
A Quick Note on Methodology
The ranking attempts to assess which cities across the globe provide the best living conditions, by assigning a score on 30 quantitative and qualitative measures across the five categories with the following weightings:
- Healthcare (20%)
- Culture & Environment (25%)
- Stability (25%)
- Education (10%)
- Infrastructure (20%)
Of the 30 factors within these categories, the qualitative ones are assigned as acceptable, tolerable, uncomfortable, undesirable, or intolerable by a team of expert analysts. Quantitative measures are given a score based on a number of external data points. Everything is then weighted to provide a score between 1-100, with 100 being the ideal.
Ranked: The 10 Most Livable Cities
Of the 172 cities included in the rankings, many of the most livable cities can be found in Europe. However, three of the top 10 are located in Canada: Vancouver, Calgary, and Toronto.
Vienna has been ranked number one many times, most recently in 2019. According to the EIU, the Austrian capital only fell out of the top slot during the pandemic years because its famous museums and restaurants were shuttered.
Only one Asian city, Osaka, makes the top 10 list, tying with Melbourne for 10th place. Notably, not a single U.S. city is found in the top ranks.
Editor’s note: Two cities tie for both the #3 and #10 ranks, meaning that the “top 10” list actually includes 12 cities.
Ranked: The 10 Least Livable Cities
Some of the least livable cities in the world are located across Africa and Central Asia.
|#167||Port Moresby||🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||38.8|
Many of the least livable cities are within conflict zones, contributing to the low ratings. However, these regions are also home to some of the world’s fastest growing cities, presenting many opportunities for ambitious residents.
The Biggest Changes in Ranking
Let’s take a look at the cities that moved up the global rankings most dramatically compared to last year’s data.
Moving Up: The 10 Most Improved Cities
|City||Country||Overall Rank||Rank Change|
|Los Angeles||🇺🇸 US||#37||+18|
Here’s a look at the cities that fell the most in the rankings since last year’s report.
Moving Down: The 10 Cities That Tumbled
|City||Country||Overall Rank||Rank Change|
|Wellington||🇳🇿 New Zealand||#50||-46|
|Auckland||🇳🇿 New Zealand||#34||-33|
According to the report, a number of cities in New Zealand and Australia temporarily dropped in the ranking due to COVID-19 restrictions.
It’s also worth noting that some Eastern European cities moved down in the rankings because of their close proximity to the war in Ukraine. Finally, Kyiv was not included in this year’s report because of the conflict.
Urbanization and Livability
As of 2021, around 57% of the world’s population lives in urban centers and projections show that people worldwide will continue to move into cities.
While there are more amenities in urban areas, the pandemic revealed many issues with urbanization and the concentration of large populations. The stress on healthcare systems is felt most intensely in cities and restrictions on public outings are some of the first measures to be introduced in the face of a global health crisis.
Now with the cost of living rising, cities may face pressures on their quality of life, and governments may be forced to cut spending on public services. Regardless, people worldwide continue to see the benefits of city living—it’s projected that over two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050.
Ranked: The 20 Countries With the Fastest Declining Populations
Population decline is a rising issue for many countries in Eastern Europe, as well as outliers like Japan and Cuba.
Visualizing Population Decline by Country
Since the mid-1900s, the global population has followed a steep upwards trajectory.
While much of this growth has been concentrated in China and India, researchers expect the next wave of growth to occur in Africa. As of 2019, for example, the average woman in Niger is having over six children in her lifetime.
At the opposite end of this spectrum are a number of countries that appear to be shrinking from a population perspective. To shed some light on this somewhat surprising trend, we’ve visualized the top 20 countries by population decline.
The Top 20
The following table ranks countries by their rate of population decline, based on projected rate of change between 2020 and 2050 and using data from the United Nations.
|6||🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina||18.2%|
|18||🇲🇰 North Macedonia||10.9%|
Many of these countries are located in or near Eastern Europe, for reasons we’ll discuss below.
The first issue is birth rates, which according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), have fallen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Across the region, the average number of children per woman fell from 2.1 in 1988 to 1.2 by 1998.
Birth rates have recovered slightly since then, but are not enough to offset deaths and emigration, which refers to citizens leaving their country to live elsewhere.
Eastern Europe saw several waves of emigration following the European Union’s (EU) border expansions in 2004 and 2007. The PIIE reports that by 2016, 6.3 million Eastern Europeans resided in other EU states.
There are two geographical outliers in this dataset which sit on either side of Europe.
The first is Japan, where birth rates have fallen continuously since 1970. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the country’s overall population began to shrink.
By the numbers, the situation appears dire. In 2021, 811,604 babies were born in Japan, while 1.44 million people died. As a result of its low birth rates, the island nation also has the world’s highest average age at 49 years old.
The Japanese government has introduced various social programs to make having kids more appealing, but these don’t appear to be getting to the root of the problem. For deeper insight into Japan’s low birthrates, it’s worth reading this article by The Atlantic.
The second country is Cuba, and it’s the only one not located within the Eastern Hemisphere. Cuba’s fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman is the lowest in the Latin American region. It can be compared to countries like Mexico (2.2), Paraguay (2.5), and Guatemala (3.0).
Cuba’s immigration is also incredibly low compared to its neighboring countries. According to the International Organization for Migration, immigrants account for just 0.1% of its total population.
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