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The Story Behind the Numbers: A Look at Education in Somalia

Photo credit: Ibrahim Yusuf

When exploring UNESCO’s World Inequality Database on Education in Somalia the data is shocking and frankly, unbelievable. The report shows that the number of urban children out-of-school is 100% (World Inequality Database, 2020). However, school is still taking place in certain urban locations such as the one shown above. Therefore, the data is not an accurate representation of students in school, however, the numbers are accurate in a sense because access to education in Somalia is incredibly difficult and unstable. Can these numbers actually be as appalling as the report shows. The short answer is yes! And here’s why:

1-The History of Education in Somalia. 

When exploring the educational reports of a country, it is crucial to first look at the history of education. In Somalia the dictator, Siad Barre, was in control of the country throughout the 1970s and 1980s. During this time he developed a literacy campaign which took educated people from the capital of Mogadishu and sent them out into the bush of the country (Hoben, 1988). This literacy campaign aimed to increase the literacy rate of the Somali people with the new Somali alphabet; Somalia did not have a written alphabet until the 1970s. However, during this time the presence of the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, rose and at the start of the country’s civil war most education stopped. By the time the civil war had begun, Somalia had only reached around 60% literacy and were still outside the third quartile of literacy levels. The history of education in the country has without a doubt influenced where the country is today in terms of literacy and education. In addition to the history of education it is also important to consider access to education. 

2-Access to Education 

Education in and of itself is a very sensitive and complicated topic because it is multifaceted in terms of gender, age and wealth. Additionally, the Somali culture is very nomadic and it is not uncommon for many families to move from place to place. As a result, many people live around the country and not in one formal location. Because of this nomadic lifestyle, often education is unstable and makes it much more difficult to build schools that are sustainable. Gender also plays a great role in who has access to education in Somalia. Oftentimes, and especially in Al-Shabaab controlled areas, women are not permitted to attend school. Lastly, in the past wealth was the most important aspect in regards to education and only the wealthy families in Mogadishu had access to education. Due to the complexity of the nomadic lifestyle, gender, and wealth, access to education is one of the greatest concerns in the country. Along with the history and access of education in Somalia, humanitarian aid also plays an important role. 

3- Lack of Humanitarian Aid 

Somalia is an inhabitable environment for the Somali people. The country’s weak infrastructure, absence of health care, lack of education and insufficient water resources along with the continuous abuse of human rights creates a country without hope. Furthermore, international organizations, such as the UN, foreign governments and NGOs are unable to work effectively in the areas of Central and Southern Somalia. Many organizations that do have operations on the ground have to operate through access networks, especially in the south where the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, is more present. The UN will not allow workers to work directly in Southern Somalia and instead requires them to work remotely. Al-Shabaab targets humanitarian aid workers and makes it difficult for aid organizations to distribute without having to pay a bribe to Al-Shabaab (Kiley, 2018). The fact of the matter is that even the little UN logo on the t-shirts of humanitarian aid workers makes them an incredibly high risk target, especially in the south where Al-Shabaab still controls large swaths of land. “Marginalization, forced evictions, discrimination against different vulnerable groups and minorities, pervasive gender-based violence (GBV), and insecurity and armed violence continue to exacerbate vulnerabilities and to drive needs” (UNDP, 2020). Due to this, Somalis lack basic services and facilities resulting in a major increase of Somali refugees around the world and there is no doubt that the aforementioned facts are reflected in the data shown for Somalia on the World Inequality Database. 


Decades-long civil war and conflict, a failed state, weak government, lack of social support, poverty, harsh climate and poor security continue to make Somalia one of the poorest and most tragic countries in the world (Gettleman, 2009). The need for humanitarian aid is crucial in Somalia, but seems to be somewhat impossible. Warlords, militias, and terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab continue to operate in large parts of the country, resulting in both physical and psychological damage to civilians (UNDP in Somalia, 2020). “Somalia is a state governed only by anarchy. A graveyard of foreign-policy failures, it has known just six months of peace in the past two decades. Now, as the country’s endless chaos threatens to engulf an entire region, the world again simply watches it burn” (Gettleman, 2009).


About Somalia. UNDP in Somalia, 2020. https://www.so.undp.org/content/somalia/en/home/countryinfo/

Gettleman, J. (2009) The Most Dangerous Place in the World. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/09/30/the-most-dangerous-place-in-the-world/

Hoben, S. (1988). Literacy campaigns in Ethiopia and Somalia: A comparison. Northeast African Studies, 111-125.

Kiley, S. (2018). Funding al-Shabaab: how aid money ends up in terrorists’ hands. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/12/africa/somalia-al-shabaab-foreign-aid-intl/ index.html?no-st=1571451092

Somalia. (2001, May 27). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 8, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somalia#Education 

World Inequality Database on Education in Somalia, 2020. https://www.education-inequalities.org/countries/somalia#?dimension=all&group=all&year=latest 

Photo credit: Ibrahim Yusuf

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