According to data compiled by Our World in Data and the World Bank, the literacy rate of the world's population from secondary school age onward was only 12 percent in 1820 - around one person in ten. In 1900, it still barely exceeded 20 percent. From the 1950s on, world literacy began to take off, hitting 42 percent in 1960 and 70 percent in 1983. Today, the global literacy rate stands at 87 percent, or almost nine out of ten people worldwide.
As our graphs show, strong regional inequalities remain, however. A 99 percent literacy rate has been reached in most developed countries, across Europe and the former CIS nations as well as in Argentina and Uruguay. But developing countries, especially emerging markets, have been catching up. In 2018, Brazilian literacy stood at 93 percent, compared with 97 percent in China and 74 percent in India.
Overall, South Asia was still lagging behind somewhat, also at an overall literacy rate of 74 percent, comparable to that of the Arab World at 73 percent or the Middle East and North Africa at 80 percent. East Asia and the Pacific as well as Latin America and the Caribbean fared much better at literacy rates of 96 percent and 94 percent, respectively.
Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa still had the worst literacy rates in the world. In some places, literacy even fell recently due to conflicts disrupting school education. In Mali, an already low literacy rate of 35 percent in 2018 dropped to only 31 percent in 2020. This is one of the lowest rates in the world together with South Sudan (35 percent) and Afghanistan (37 percent), while data for Chad has not been available in some years. The overall literacy rate of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 66 percent in 2020.
Especially in regions with low literacy, it is women who are left out of this elementary part of education first. While in 2020, 90 percent of the world’s men over the age of 15 could read, this was only the case for 87 percent of women. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the gap was even larger at 72 percent of males and only 59 percent of females.