Education and Economic Development

Education and Economic Development, exploration of the relationship between the economic development of a country and its educational performance. The relationship between economic development and the level of education a country can afford to provide is both close and important.

In considering educational issues arising worldwide, international agencies often refer to “developed” as opposed to “developing”, including “least developed”, countries. These terms mainly relate to the stage of economic development reached by a country, measured in part by the gross national product per head of the country’s population. Other characteristics, such as the artistic, moral, or political condition of a country, fall outside the definitions of “developed” or “developing”.

Occasionally, in place of the term “developing” the phrase “Third World” is used. Again, because many of the developing countries with the most serious economic and educational problems are in the Southern hemisphere, notably in the African continent south of the Sahara Desert, the issue of economic development is seen in terms of geographical area: the comparatively prosperous north is contrasted with the substantially poorer Southern hemisphere.

For the purposes of considering the relationship between the state of development of a nation and its educational performance, UNESCO, in its 1995 World Education Report, uses the level of literacy as a key indicator. The reason for doing so is that the connection between the level of literacy a country achieves and its level of economic development has, in recent years, become increasingly important. Even routine tasks, such as operating machinery or following simple instructions, require a degree of literacy that in the past, particularly in predominantly rural societies, was unnecessary. The accompanying tables show the changes that have occurred between 1980 and 1995 and, in the final column, estimate the position reached by the year 2000.


Within the developing countries, improvement is expected throughout. In several instances, levels achieved by developed countries in 1980 were attained by some of the developing countries, notably in Eastern Asia, by the year 2000. So any gap to be closed elsewhere relates to improvements that are seen to be possible in a single generation.

The educational opportunities open to women in developing countries and the literacy levels achieved, although generally improving, remain markedly worse than those of men in the same countries. On the other hand, in certain regions, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States, and southern Asia, the absolute number of illiterate adults appears to be increasing, with women in the substantial majority.

A report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on December 8, 1998, declared that about 130 million children between the ages of 6 and 11, including 73 million girls, go without basic education. This shortfall has broad implications for those children’s welfare, and by extension, for world peace and security, UNICEF argued in its annual State of the World’s Children Report. Although the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child established the right to education as a basic human right, more than 850 million people—about a sixth of the world’s population—would enter the 21st century unable to read or write. UNICEF’s report devoted special attention to girls and women, who, according to the report, comprise two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population. Discrimination is a major impediment to educating girls and women, but the rewards of overcoming this bias are far-reaching. Educated women were found to contribute more to the economic and political life of their countries and have fewer and healthier children than uneducated women. Their children were also more likely to be educated themselves. Basic education could be achieved worldwide with an investment of US$7 billion per year, the report said.

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Illiteracy is the single most important factor in holding back economic development in developing countries; but even relatively prosperous countries, such as the United Kingdom, find their economic performance held back by a workforce lacking in vocationally orientated skills. In developed countries, the nature of functional literacy is having to be re-thought: familiarity with computer-generated, information-based technologies is increasingly necessary for successful economic performance. So it has become a major aim of educational policy in those countries, from the first years of school to higher education, to ensure that the requisite skills are acquired by an ever-increasing proportion of the population.

Contributed By:
Peter Anthony Newsam