February 26, 2013

Study: Income Strongest Determinant of Literacy Rates in Developing African Nations

Highlights

  • Study finds income has a stronger influence on improving literacy in developing African countries than does international trade or civil and political institutions
  • The authors examined the relationships between civil institutions, trade, income and human development as measured by literacy
  • The study, conducted by researchers from the University of North Florida and RTI International, was published in the Journal of African Economies

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Ethiopian girl in classroom
Ethiopian girl in classroom

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Income has a stronger influence on improving literacy in developing African countries than does international trade or civil and political institutions, according to a study by Professor Mina Baliamoune-Lutz from the University of North Florida and Sylvain Boko, Ph.D., from RTI International.

Using 26 years’ worth of panel data from a sample of 39 African countries, the authors examined the relationships between civil institutions, trade, income and human development as measured by literacy. 

The results were published in the Journal of African Economies

The authors found that between the years of 1975 and 2001, a given country’s openness to international trade and existing civil institutions—including political rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law—had little influence on literacy rates. Instead, the study found that as incomes rise, people tend to live longer and invest in education, making income a key determinant of improved literacy.

“It is traditionally believed that when countries exchange openly with the rest of the world, they reap benefits in terms of improved human development, measured by life expectancy and literacy,” said Boko, a senior research public finance analyst at RTI International and co-author of the study. “However, we found that increased international trade does not, on its own, improve these measures.” 

The study also examined the effects of literacy, income and trade on the quality of civil institutions. The results suggest that income contributes positively to institutional quality: as people get richer, they tend to demand better quality institutions. Openness to international trade was found to have a positive effect on political rights, but not on civil liberties or rule of law. 

Adult literacy, however, was found to have a negative effect on civil institutions, especially political rights. According to the authors, this finding, while initially surprising, reflects the inequalities and disparities that characterize the education system in many developing African nations.

“In most African countries today, the distribution of education resources favors urban areas over rural ones,” Boko said. “The result is often the formation of a class of elites who are well trained, but do not show interest in institutional reforms, which might take resources and power away from them.”

The findings, the authors said, emphasize the need to not only increase investment in education, but also to improve access to higher quality education for rural areas and deprived communities in Africa’s developing nations.