Tag Archives: Development Goals

International Literacy Day: A Look at Eritrea’s Progress

youth literacy rate in Eritrea (92%) is considerably higher than that for adults (77%)
The fact that the youth literacy rate in Eritrea (92%) is considerably higher than that for adults (77%) provides strong evidence to suggest that the country’s efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programs have largely been successful.


Yesterday, September 8th, International Literacy Day (ILD) was recognized and celebrated around the world. While the global COVID-19 crisis meant that ILD events were different than usual, the day remained an opportunity to focus on literacy and education globally.

The roots of ILD date back to 1965, when the idea was first conceived at the “World Conference of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy” held in Tehran, Iran. The following year, ILD was founded by a proclamation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights.”

Then in 1967, the first ILD was celebrated. Thereafter, on every September 8th since 1967, ILD has been celebrated in countries around the world with the aim of highlighting the importance of literacy in our daily lives, bringing awareness to the many and significant issues around illiteracy, and advancing the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable world.

Literacy, most commonly defined as the ability to read and write, is important for several reasons. To begin, it is a key driver of economic growth and critical for sustainable development. Its fundamental importance to development is reflected within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a global set of goals for all countries – low, middle, and high – income – to meet by 2030. Numbering 17 in total, the SDGs were adopted by world leaders in September 2015. SDG-4 focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education, as well as promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. One of SDG-4’s targets is ensuring that all young people achieve literacy and numeracy and that adults who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them.

Notably, a large body of work has shown that literacy enables greater participation in the labor market; improves child and family health and nutrition; can help to reduce poverty; increases participation in communities and the political process; and greatly expand life opportunities. A glance at global income figures illustrates the existence of a strong correlation between national average incomes and literacy, with higher literacy rates being associated with higher national average incomes.

According to UNESCO, Eritrea has had one of the largest increases in youth literacy anywhere in the world over the past 50 years.

In addition to being critical for economic growth and sustainable development, literacy is a fundamental component of human rights. As put by UNESCO in an April 2013 statement,

“Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives.”

Crucially, literacy has been recognized not only as a right in itself but also as a mechanism for the realization of other human rights. It confers a wide set of benefits and strengthens the capabilities of individuals, families, and communities to achieve and access health, educational, economic, political, and cultural rights, and opportunities.

The overall significance of literacy was captured by Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO. In a 2018 statement, Azoulay declared: “Literacy is the first step towards freedom, towards liberation from social and economic constraints. It is the prerequisite for development, both individual and collective. It reduces poverty and inequality, creates wealth, and helps to eradicate problems of nutrition and public health.”

However, despite the broad importance of literacy, and although much progress has been made in improving literacy rates around the world since the first ILD was celebrated over 50 years ago, illiteracy remains a global problem. Although estimates vary, it is believed that today at least 750-800 million young people and adults around the world still lack basic literacy skills, with two-thirds of them being women and over 100 million of them youth aged 15 to 24. Furthermore, many of the millions of unemployed young people and adults worldwide are unable to achieve decent livelihoods due to, among other things, the lack of foundational skills, including literacy, and failing to meet the skill demands of the rapidly changing labor market (UIS 2017; UNESCO 2018).

Eritrea is making steady progress in improving adult literacy.

In Eritrea, for decades, education was highly restricted. Unsurprisingly, the country’s literacy rates (across different age categories) were quite low, particularly for girls and women. During Italian colonization, the colonial policy toward Eritrea aimed to “keep the Eritrean’s belly filled while keeping his brain empty” (Trevaskis 1960).

About 50 years ago, youth literacy in the country was 20-21%, while in the mid-1970s, approximately 95% of Eritrean women were illiterate, a figure that would be only slightly improved by the time of independence. As well, at independence, overall enrolment rates (within primary levels) hovered at around only 30%.

Since independence, however, there has been tremendous progress and improvement in literacy. In fact, at present, Eritrea’s literacy rates are some of the best in the region. For instance, consider World Bank data for adult literacy, which is defined as the percentage of people ages 15 and above who can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement about their everyday life.

Eritrea has an adult literacy rate of 77%.

The figures for the other countries in the Horn of Africa (for which data is available) are as follows: Ethiopia 52%, South Sudan 35%, and Sudan 61%. Meanwhile, the average for the continent of Africa as a whole is 66%. It is well worth noting that Eritrea’s literacy rate is higher than that of many other African countries, despite the fact that all the African countries (bar one) became independent decades before Eritrea.

Even more impressive is Eritrea’s youth literacy rate, which is the percentage of people between ages 15 and 24 who can read and write. Literacy rates for youth in Eritrea, averaging a remarkably high 92%, are not only the highest in the region, but they are also higher than the continental or global average.

According to UNESCO, Eritrea has had one of the largest increases in youth literacy anywhere in the world over the past 50 years. Encouragingly, the fact that the youth literacy rate in Eritrea is considerably higher than that for adults provides strong evidence to suggest that the country’s efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programs have largely been successful.

So what accounts for Eritrea’s tremendous progress and success in improving literacy? While unable to fully review all of the factors here, I will briefly touch upon a few key points. One significant factor is that since independence, Eritrea has made the promotion of education and literacy a key national priority.

For example, consider the National Charter (1994), which describes Eritrea’s vision and ideals, as well as outlines its general principles and goals. It states that “Our vision is to eliminate hunger, poverty, and illiteracy from Eritrea[,]” and also declares that,

“Education is the foundation of development. To provide equal educational opportunity means to provide equal opportunity for development. We must widely expand education so that our people can be free from ignorance, acquire knowledge and skills through various means, and enhance their productive capacity to build their country. Education is a fundamental right to which every Eritrean is entitled. Therefore, we must expand education to the rural areas, of the country where educational opportunity has so far been scant. We must build an advanced educational system that serves national unity and development, and equips people with knowledge and skills. Without the development of education, we cannot build our country or enhance democracy and justice.  Our greatest asset is our human resource. Therefore, we must assign a high priority to its development.”

Education in Eritrea has also long been an area of significant investment, with government expenditure on education being between 8-10% of the national budget. A great part of the investment is in infrastructure.

Eritrea has built hundreds of schools and learning centers (in both rural and urban areas). For example, although at independence the Northern Red Sea and Gash Barka regions had only 28 and 60 schools, respectively, currently there are nearly 300 and over 400 schools in these respective regions.

Meanwhile, in the Southern Red Sea region, the total number of schools – preschools, elementary, middle, and high schools – has dramatically increased from 101 at independence to just shy of 500 today.

Additionally, there has been a firm commitment to equality and social justice. Basic education is compulsory for both girls and boys, and it is offered in the various languages used across the country, thus helping to ensure equitable access to all ethnolinguistic groups.

Furthermore, the country has adopted a policy of universal free education from pre-primary to higher education, ensuring that every child, irrespective of background, distinction, or status, has the opportunity to enroll in education, become literate, and maximize their potential. Countless roads have also been established, alongside substantial expansions in public transport services, thus improving ease of travel and accessibility to education for all.

Largely as a result of these steps, Eritrea’s primary enrolment rates are now approximately 90%, while total student enrolments have grown tremendously. For example, in 1961 there were 50,286 total students enrolled in Eritrea, a figure that would grow to 247,567 by 1992/3. Over the past several years, 700 – 800,000 students have been enrolled annually.

ILD helps to remind us of the significance of literacy for individuals and societies. Literacy is critical to the development and a fundamental component of human rights. Since independence, Eritrea has made tremendous progress in improving youth and adult literacy, largely through prioritizing and devoting great attention to education and literacy.

Long may this continue!

Sanitation: Basic Need, Matter of Dignity, and Fundamental Human Right

The human right to water and sanitation.


Earlier this week, a two-day conference on sanitation, jointly organized by Eritrea’s Ministry of Health and UNICEF, the world’s leading organization for the rights of children and young people, was conducted at the Asmara Palace Hotel.

The conference featured a number of different events, including a pair of important addresses delivered by Ms. Amina Nurhussein, Eritrea’s Minister of Health, and Dr. Pierre Ngom, UNICEF’s Country Representative in Eritrea.

Eritrea, like many countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), is working to improve access to basic and safe sanitation. This article presents a general overview of sanitation and provides a brief discussion about sanitation in Eritrea.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sanitation refers to “the provision of facilities and services for the safe management of human excreta from the toilet to containment and storage and treatment onsite or conveyance, treatment and eventual safe end use or disposal” (WHO 2018).

Sanitation is a basic need, a matter of dignity, and a fundamental human right. In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution (A/RES/64/292) which explicitly recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

Sanitation was also explicitly recognized as a distinct right in a UNGA resolution adopted by member states with consensus on 17 December 2015. However, according to the United Nations (UN), at present, billions of people worldwide – mostly residing in Asia and SSA – are confronted by significant challenges to safe and basic sanitation. For example, about 60 percent of people around the world lack access to safely managed sanitation facilities, at least 892 million people continue to practice open defecation, and approximately 4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation services, such as toilets or latrines.

Unsafe sanitation is a massive global problem that is becoming more urgent as the world’s population increases and trends like water scarcity and urbanization intensify.  Importantly, lacking access to sanitation is associated with a number of significant health risks and other issues. For instance, preventable water and sanitation-related diarrheal diseases kill more than 2 million people every year. Most of those are children under the age of 5. In fact, the number of children under the age of 5 annually dying from water and sanitation-related diseases is greater than the number dying from AIDS, measles, and tuberculosis combined (WHO 2016). Sanitation is also a gender equality issue; women and girls suffer disproportionately from lack of privacy and the health and personal safety risks associated with not having access to household sanitation.

Increasingly, access to safe and basic sanitation has become a priority for governments and the international development community. There is a considerable amount of research illustrating how illnesses and diseases arising from a lack of water and sanitation lead to considerable losses in productivity, burden individuals, families, communities, and healthcare systems with massive costs, and ultimately stunt national economies. According to several estimates, the lack of proper sanitation costs the world an estimated $US 223 billion every year.


Additionally, worldwide, it is estimated that every dollar spent on sanitation on average provides at least five dollars in economic return (UN n.d.). Through addressing sanitation, countries can promote development and growth. For example, health gains from sanitation reduce individual health care costs and lost earnings related to poor health, as well as enhance attendance and achievement in schools. Moreover, sanitation can reduce the two main causes of death for children, acute respiratory infections and diarrhea, while sanitation within schools increases and sustains enrolment, of adolescent girls in particular (Hunt 2006).

As a part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the international community aimed to halve the proportion of those unserved by improved sanitation by 2015. Despite some progress, however, the sanitation target was missed by one of the widest margins of all the 18 targets under the MDGs. Subsequently, access to basic and safe sanitation has become an important part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically, goal 6.2 calls for ending open defecation and providing adequate, equitable, and safely managed sanitation for all people by the year 2030.

Eritrea, a low-income, developing country located in the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s youngest countries. It achieved independence in 1991, after waging a 30-year war for liberation. Over a relatively short period of time, it has made considerable progress in relation to sanitation.  For example, at independence, basic public services, such as sanitation, “were almost non-existent,” while utilities, such as clean and safe water, “were in short supply.” In fact, only approximately 15% of the national population had access to clean and safe water (Kidane 2016).

However, the proportion of households without flush toilets or ventilated improved pit latrines declined from 87.2% (figures for the period 1993 to 2005) to 68% in 2015. Moreover, in recent years, access to clean drinking water in rural and urban communities has risen to 85%, dramatically higher than the meager figure at the onset of independence.


Notably, community-led total sanitation (CLTS) was adopted by the Government of Eritrea in late 2007. CLTS is an innovative, low-cost approach to rural sanitation where communities are facilitated to assess their own sanitation situation, analyze and take action to stop open defecation and build their own latrines without any subsidy and using locally available materials. The adoption of the CLTS approach helped create a significant shift in hygiene and sanitation promotion in many parts of the country. Over the years, numerous villages and areas of Eritrea have been declared “open defecation free.”

Despite these notable improvements, a substantial amount of work still needs to be done. For example, in many parts of the country, rural and urban, young and old people lack access to basic sanitation facilities and many practice open defecation. As with many countries in SSA and Asia, Eritrea’s poorest citizens have the least access to improved sanitation and they suffer the greatest burdens. Moreover, although there are some public toilets, these are few and inadequate to serve the numbers who use them, generally inaccessible for the elderly and infirm, and often have limited access, particularly at night when they are frequently locked.

Safe sanitation is a basic need, a matter of dignity, and a fundamental human right. Moreover, it is essential to a healthy and sustainable future for developing economies. Although sanitation is often taken for granted by many within the developed world, billions of people living in developing countries, such as Eritrea, still face significant challenges. Moving forward, it is imperative that sanitation remains a priority issue for the country’s policymakers and public authorities. Ultimately, through enabling widespread use of safely managed and sustainable sanitation services, Eritrea can help protect the fundamental rights and dignity of its people – particularly the most marginalized and disadvantaged – and contribute to positive health, economic, and gender equality outcomes across the country.