Cambodia’s Literacy Rate


School prize giving – Cambodia. A new generation and a higher degree of adult literacy.

The measurement of literacy rates is extremely problematic in poorer nations so it doesn’t surprise me that the UNESCO figures have wandered around – in fact they went down somewhat from 2008 to 2009 – a blip I’d put down to methodology rather than some demographic or education system ‘event.’

The figures show a largely upward trend over the previous decade and given the fast population growth the literacy rate, if you measure it in sheer numbers represents a gain of close to 700,000 adults 15+ between 1998 and 2008. This still leaves at least half a million adults deemed illiterate.

In world terms this is still not a great figure. UNESCO ranks Cambodia and 108th in the world, rubbing shoulders with Uganda, the Solomon Islands, Guatemala and Iraq.

The Cambodian government, which defines literacy as:

A person is literate who can, with understanding in both reading and writing, make a short simple statement on his/her everyday life.

has set goals for improving the literacy rates and certainly the school system is where it starts. In Cambodia, according to 2008 Census figures 88% of adults 15-24 are literate, (89% of males, 86% of females) whereas the figure drops with each age group and the gap between females and males gets wider: (48% literacy amongst 65+ with  74% of males and 31% of females.)


Room to Read – a good education initiative.


We know what a difference our own library makes, thanks to two American supporters. So today let’s recognise an organisation that has built 1200 libraries in Cambodia.


Literacy rates are climbing in Cambodia but they still have a long way to go with 39% of students not making it past primary school level and children of poor families at risk of missing out of the joy – and power – of books. The library at Savong’s School functions as a hub for reading among the children of Bakong. This was funded by private US donors and made a huge difference to our school It gives access to books and it literally gives room to read.

Which is the well-crafted name of a good charitable organisation in Cambodia: Room to Read which is dedicated to building libraries (1400 so far) and stocking these with suitable books.

Room to Read was founded in 1998 by a Microsoft Executive who visited Nepal on a holiday. John Wood was immediately touched by the need of local students to have access to books and he soon quit his job and parlayed his great connections to start this organisation. See John’s own book: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World

The organisation has a huge global scoop of support – for example operating out of offices in many centres such as San Francisco, London, Tokyo and Sydney, and for that it can thank sponsors such as the Swiss banking giant CreditSuisse. But Room to Read is also a model of grassroots organisation in terms of transparency and operation. With local Directors in each nation it operates providing insight and knowledge and getting Room to Read around the common problem faced by overseas-run NGOs: that of missing the local voices. The Cambodian operation was established in 2002.

Room to Read isn’t just about bricks, mortar and books. There is a special focus on literacy amongst girls as well as the development of local content – including suitable picture books – in Khmer. Room to Read has published more than 120 Khmer titles.

See more about our own library at Savong School. And the donors who made it happen.