Leapfrog to Literacy – Part 2 of 2
Our discussion is on Room to Read, the nonprofit organization that former Microsoft executive John Wood founded to combat global illiteracy by building schools and libraries in the developing countries most in need. There’s more on Room to Read’s founding principles in Part 1 of this post.
To assuage potential concerns about Western religious or political motivations, Room to Read emphasizes its nondenominational and nongovernmental status. In addition,
Room to Read staffers maintain a close connection to the children, parents and teachers the program reaches out to. Rather than imposing its ideas from afar, the organization develops its ideas “on the ground,” framing them within the cultural context of the communities it’s reaching out to.
As an example, Wood and his staff recognized that for economic and cultural reasons, girls are often held back from school, whereas boys—or at least older boys—can attend. Yet an educated girl can often deliver a higher return on investment, in that she is more likely to stay in the community and teach others.
“The agriculture sectors in most countries have become nearly entirely feminized because the men tend to migrate either to big cities or abroad in search of better opportunities,” says Nadereh Chamlou, Senior Advisor in the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region. “Entire communities have to depend on the decision-making, knowledge and ingenuity of the women. The welfare of the households depends directly on the level of education of the women who head them.”
Happily, the cost for an average annual scholarship for a girl is quite affordable by American standards. For $250, a donor can pay for tuition, books and even a uniform. In return, a young girl who may someday be teaching her own children to read can become an educated woman.
Another example: while Web-connected computers can indeed offer great gains, so can old-fashioned printed books, which at present are easier to scale. In Cambodia, for example, Room to Read libraries combine computers in labs with books in laps.
The unprecedented volume of new books published in English is an opportunity for driving costs down and availability up. The Scholastic corporation has been a particularly generous supporter of Room to Read, donating hundreds of thousands of books. Of even greater importance, though, is that students learn from books in their native languages, so Room to Read has developed a local language publishing program. In less than six years, the program has published 2 million books.
The business of giving wisely
John Wood and Room to Read demonstrate what can be done, both quickly and effectively, to improve global literacy. Its success has required an understanding of history, including the proven power of enabling change versus just providing cash. It has also taken an understanding of sound business principles, and more specifically, of entrepreneurial techniques.
Recent business books such as Chris Zook’s Profit from the Core and Jim Collins’s Good to Great demonstrate that focus on a relatively narrow set of competencies leads to long-term success. Room to Read follows this wisdom by being clear about what it does—and does not do.
For example, Room to Read does not help coordinate volunteering in local countries; rather, its website suggests a few organizations that specialize in that worthy work. Nor does Room to Read handle book donations, despite Wood’s first experience doing just that. Instead it defers to Better World Books, which specializes in the logistics of collecting and transporting used books around the planet.
The magnitude of global illiteracy is daunting, and even Room to Read’s impressive accomplishments are still small. Yet its success shows how quickly improvements can be made when well-educated, highly motivated people get to work.
I’ll be reporting on other promising forces aiding global literacy and would like to hear from you. What do you see?