It is often argued that illiteracy is the biggest problem in South Asia and also that illiteracy is the reason for poverty. What is the evidence for such assertions?
Let us start with a couple of concrete examples:
Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of the population living under extreme poverty in Pakistan has risen from 13 to 33 percent but illiteracy has declined during this period. Therefore, the explanation for the increase in poverty in Pakistan cannot be attributed to illiteracy.
India has a considerably higher literacy rate than Pakistan but the incidence of poverty in India was comparable to that in Pakistan for many years. The recent trend in poverty reduction in India cannot be attributed to a sudden increase in literacy.
This is not to argue that illiteracy does not matter. Clearly a literate work force can be much more productive than an illiterate one everything else remaining the same. And literacy can contribute positively to the quality of life of an individual for which reason it is considered a basic human right. But the fact remains that there is not sufficient evidence to establish that illiteracy is the most basic reason for poverty.
Similarly, there is also no obvious link between poverty and the lack of democracy and human rights. The most dramatic reductions in poverty have been in East Asian countries under non-democratic governments much criticized for their human rights records. By comparison, poverty reduction in democratic India has been much slower. Once again, this is not an argument for authoritarian governance; there are many other unrelated benefits of democracy. The point is that there seems no direct link between the lack of democracy and the incidence of poverty.
A closer look at the evidence might suggest that the causes of poverty have less to do with literacy or democracy and much more to do with economic and political policies.
The evidence of the impact of economic policies on poverty reduction is quite impressive. East Asia is a well documented example where the number of people living on less than one dollar a day has fallen almost two-thirds, from 720 million in 1975 to 210 million in 2002 almost entirely because of the rapidity of economic growth. India has also begun moving in the right direction after key economic reforms have relaxed the stifling grip of the ‘license Raj.’
On the other side are countries like Pakistan where ruling groups allocate the bulk of national resources to defense, foreign policy adventures, fomenting domestic strife to manipulate political power or in stifling business to protect vested interests. It is not surprising that foreign and domestic investors are reluctant to invest in such countries. Without investment, there is little job growth; and without job growth little prospect of reduction in poverty.
The political and economic choices of such ruling groups are not directly influenced or constrained by the illiteracy of their populations. Policies, good or bad, are all decided by people who are quite literate. What we need to explain is why some literate ruling groups make consistently bad political and economic decisions. One such decision is not investing in raising the literacy levels of their populations. Why did Sri Lanka and China invest in raising their literacy levels to over 90 percent while Pakistan and Bangladesh remain at around 40 percent? Why is the rural education program in India so weak compared to its urban program?
What we really need to explain is the persistence of illiteracy in some countries or parts of some countries. And this has to do with the interests, choices and decisions of the literate sections of these countries.
When analysts begin to explain the political economy of continued impoverishment, when people understand the real causes of their poverty, and when political parties mobilize them on the basis of this understanding, perhaps then there will be hope for change in countries that have shortchanged their citizens by keeping them poor and illiterate.