Ari Vitikainen/UNESCO

Basic numeracy skills have stagnated among Africa’s poorest for decades

Numeracy is important. Knowing how to use numbers and proportions is crucial for many activities in production, trade and agriculture, and even in everyday household activities. Overall, evidence shows that a population’s numerical abilities have a positive impact on economic growth, and also on the economic success of migrants in major destination countries. Numeracy was also the most consistent predictor of decreased susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19.

Yet, despite its importance, we know a lot less about numeracy than literacy, not least because of data scarcity. This is especially true for sub-Saharan Africa and for disadvantaged populations. This blog looks at new analysis carried out in the 2021/2 GEM Report’s monitoring of target 4.6 on literacy and numeracy, which traced the numeracy of cohorts born between the 1960s and the 1980s for 42 sub-Saharan African countries. A background paper can be accessed here.

We know about African children’s numeracy skills thanks to learning assessments such as the Programme d’analyse des systèmes éducatifs de la CONFEMEN (PASEC), although our knowledge is somewhat limited by changes in countries participating and measurement methodology over the years. Most recently, the UNICEF Multiple indicators Cluster Survey (MICS) programme has included questions on children’s foundational numeracy, and work is progressing on the People’s Action for Learning Network’s International Common Assessment of Numeracy, a citizen-led assessment. However, these initiatives do not provide information on adult numeracy and trends over past decades. Unlike for literacy, there has been no tradition of including numeracy information in censuses.

Research for the 2021/2 GEM Report extracted indirect estimates of numeracy from existing surveys and censuses by measuring ‘age heaping’, a term used to describe the case whereby less numerate survey respondents round their age, typically to multiples of five. This approach has been shown to be an effective way of measuring numeracy, with findings correlating consistently with other measures of education and learning across cultures, periods and regions, including for developing countries after 1950, and even going back to the Romans or the Incas before European contact. The analysis took this approach to determine numeracy skills across 42 sub-Saharan African countries for cohorts born between the 1950s and the 1980s using MICS and population census data.

Indirect measures of numeracy based on age heaping are highly correlated at sub-national level with results from school-based numeracy assessments. This confirms the persistence of numeracy deficits and the validity of working from proxy measures taken from age heaping. Across all PASEC countries in western and central Africa, the correlation is as high as 0.8, reaching 0.95 in Niger. The high degree of persistence has also been observed in Europe and Latin America.

Sizeable socioeconomic differences in numeracy emerge in Cameroon, the Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sudan and Sierra Leone. The difference is as large as 19 percentage points in Nigeria among 50- to 59-year-olds, with 44% numeracy among the poorest compared with 63% among the richest.

While gender gaps are marginal, urban-rural and wealth gaps are significant. In Sudan, even this rudimentary measure of numeracy is more than 10 points lower in rural areas for all age groups. For the age cohort now between 40 and 50, urban-rural differences are particularly large in the Gambia, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Even bigger, unsurprisingly, is the difference in numeracy between those who benefited from any schooling and the unschooled, reaching 22 percentage points in Senegal and 24 in Cameroon. In Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Senegal, improvements in numeracy have been modest at best, both among the unschooled and those with some schooling.

The overall increase in numeracy was due almost entirely to rising school participation, mirroring findings for literacy. Notably high levels of numeracy are observed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, exceeding 95% in the 1960s birth cohorts, even among the poorest. Elite numeracy was already very high in the 16th century in the Ba-Kongo and Kuba kingdoms, among others.

Numeracy is a multifaceted set of skills that goes well beyond school-type arithmetic problems. The five domains of numeracy – civic, digital, financial and commercial, health and workplace – highlight connections with SDG targets 4.4, 4.7 and beyond. As with literacy, numeracy in these everyday domains is also a social practice. For example, adults with low numeracy skills may struggle to count pills to adhere to treatment protocols. The fact that these skills are not universal is a problem.

COVID-19 has challenged adult numeracy programmes, while it increased demand for numeracy skills at the same time. Numeracy was also a prerequisite for making sense of much public debate during COVID-19 times, for instance to understand rather sophisticated notions such as conditional rates and rolling averages.  At the same time, adult literacy and numeracy programmes were hit hard by COVID-19. Such programmes were mostly absent from countries’ initial education response plans. In addition, providers faced serious obstacles.

Knowing what we know, this area of education needs more attention. The limited data show that programme delivery is not sufficient for adult needs. This is even more important knowing that school closures and their implications on dropout as a result of COVID-19 will likely increase demand for second-chance programmes in the years to come.


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