Mapped: The Geography of Global Literacy
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.
Mapped: The World’s Happiest Countries in 2023
Where do the happiest people on earth live? This map is a snapshot of the world’s most (and least) happy countries in 2023.
The World’s Happiest Countries in 2023
Measuring subjective ideas like happiness and life satisfaction is tricky business.
Are wealth and prosperity legitimate measures of happiness? How about safety and health outcomes? In the West, we view democracy as a key component to happiness, yet there are countries under authoritarian rule that score high in the Happiness Index. Questions like these make “ranking happiness” a particularly challenging puzzle, but also one worth pursuing. If policymakers have a clearer picture of what conditions can foster happiness, they can enact policies that can improve the lives of people living their jurisdictions.
The map above is a global snapshot of life satisfaction around the world. It utilizes the World Happiness Report—an annual survey of how satisfied citizens are worldwide—to map out the world’s happiest and least happy countries.
To create the index the map is based on, researchers simply asked people how satisfied they are with their lives. Scores were assigned using these self-reported answers from people living within various countries, as well as quality of life factors. While there may be no perfect measure of happiness around the world, the report is a robust and transparent attempt to understand happiness at the global level. For more detailed notes on the report’s methodology and more, we recommend viewing the info box at the end of this article.
Now, let’s look at the world’s happiest countries in 2023.
Global Happiness, by Country
Global happiness currently averages out to 5.5 out of 10, a decrease of 0.1 from last year. Below is a look at every country’s score:
|#10||🇳🇿 New Zealand||7.1|
|#15||🇺🇸 United States||6.9|
|#19||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||6.8|
|#23||🇨🇷 Costa Rica||6.6|
|#30||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||6.5|
|#50||🇸🇻 El Salvador||6.1|
|#57||🇰🇷 South Korea||6.0|
|#71||🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina||5.6|
|#73||🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||5.6|
|#82||🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR||5.3|
|#85||🇿🇦 South Africa||5.3|
|#87||🇲🇰 North Macedonia||5.3|
|#93||🇨🇮 Ivory Coast||5.1|
|#104||🇧🇫 Burkina Faso||4.6|
|#112||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||4.4|
|#133||🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo||3.2|
|#135||🇸🇱 Sierra Leone||3.1|
Note: Scores have been rounded to the first decimal place.
European countries make up the bulk of the top 10, with Israel (#4) and New Zealand (#10) also making it into the top ranks. Finland sits at the very top of the ranking for the sixth year in a row.
Now let’s look at the world’s happiest countries on a more regional basis.
Current Mood: Happy (6.3)
North America’s happiness score averages out to 6.3/10. The happiest country in the region is Canada, slightly beating out the United States. However, the scores of both countries have actually decreased from last year. It’s difficult to pinpoint why citizens feel less satisfied, but inflation, economic uncertainty, and many other factors could play a role.
The only countries to see improvement in North America were Nicaragua and Jamaica. Although a more recent development, many Jamaicans could be experiencing even more happiness in the near future, with a recent announcement of plans to increase the minimum wage by 44%.
Current Mood: Content (5.8)
South America’s average score is 5.8. Although Venezuela is the continent’s least happy country, its score actually improved from 4.9 to 5.2. That said, the ongoing humanitarian and economic crisis is not likely to instill much hope into the average Venezuelan. Over 6.8 million people have fled the struggling nation since 2014.
The two countries in the region with decreased scores were Brazil and Colombia, where citizens have reported feeling worse compared to the year before.
Current Mood: Happy (6.4)
Europe has some of the world’s happiest countries, with an average regional score of 6.4. Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden, and Iceland repeatedly report high scores, meaning people in these countries feel extremely satisfied with their lives.
Despite fending off an invasion, Ukrainians saw no diminishment of their happiness year-over-year, and many are feeling resilient and purposeful in their fight for freedom. Interestingly, Russia’s score actually increased slightly compared to last year, going from 5.5 to 5.7.
East Asia and Oceania
Current Mood: Neutral (5.6)
East Asia and Oceania’s collective average is 5.6. Oceania alone, however, would have the highest regional score in the world, at 7.1.
Bucking conventional wisdom—at least in the West—China has seen a noteworthy bump (+0.6) in its score in recent years. Across the strait, Taiwan records the second highest score in East Asia, after Singapore.
India once again has the lowest happiness score in its region. The country’s score has dropped -0.7 over the past decade.
Central Asia and The Middle East
Current Mood: It’s Complicated (5.2)
The average score in the Middle East and Central Asia is 5.2, and the array of happiness scores is wider than in any other region.
Afghanistan is the world’s least happy country, with citizens having reported extremely low levels of life satisfaction. Since the Taliban takeover, life has become objectively worse for Afghans, particularly women.
There is a lot of conflict in the region. Citizens of Armenia face particular tension with neighboring Azerbaijan, whose score was not recorded for this year. Conflicts in the Nagorno-Karabakh region have led to hundreds of deaths since 2020 and cause daily struggle for those who live in the disputed territory. Iran is still under economic sanctions and faces ongoing tensions with the U.S. and Israel. Some countries, like Syria and Yemen, are so destabilized that no data is available.
Still, there are bright spots as well. Israel has one of the world’s happiest countries with a top 10 score this year, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have scores on par with many European countries.
Current Mood: Unhappy (4.4)
The least happy region, Africa, averages out to a score of 4.4, and there is a lot of regional variation.
The highest score in Africa goes to the island nation of Mauritius. In addition to the country’s natural beauty and stability, there is growing economic opportunity. Mauritius is classified as an upper-middle-income country by World Bank, and is one of the fastest growing high-income markets in the world.
Sierra Leone has the lowest score of African countries that were included in the index, followed by Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s worth noting, there are a few data gaps in the region, including Burundi, which is currently the poorest country in the world.
Where does this data come from?
Source: The World Happiness Report which leverages data from the Gallup World Poll.
Methodology: A nationally representative group of approximately 1,000 people is asked a series of questions relating to their life satisfaction, as well as positive and negative emotions they are experiencing. The life evaluation question is based on the Cantril ladder, wherein the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for a person (a score of 10/10) and on the flipside, the worst possible life (scored as 0/10). The main takeaway is that the scores result from self-reported answers by citizens of each of these countries. The results received a confidence interval of 95%, meaning that there is a 95% chance that the answers and population surveyed represent the average. As well, scores are averaged over the past three years in order to increase the sample size of respondents in each country.
Criticisms: Critics of the World Happiness Report point out that survey questions measure satisfaction with socioeconomic conditions as opposed to individual emotional happiness. As well, there are myriad cultural differences around the world that influence how people think about happiness and life satisfaction. Finally, there can be big differences in life satisfaction between groups within a country, which are averaged out even in a nationally representative group. The report does acknowledge inequality as a factor by measuring the “gap” between the most and least happy halves of each country.
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