Three quarters of a billion people can’t read this sentence in any language, and perhaps one billion more are being held back through lack of access to books and low levels of literacy. September 8th is International Literacy Day and there is a lot to celebrate. But the reality is that these statistics have remained stubbornly stable over the past fifty years. We can’t keep doing the same thing with the same resources and expect anything to change.
The good news is that even as we see momentum slowing, there are two key opportunities that can help us break through and make real progress towards universal literacy.
Digital technology: The extraordinary adoption of the mobile phone. Technology helps get people reading in several important ways, from lowering the distribution costs of books to near-zero to making it easier for people to find content directly relevant to their lives, often from local publishers. But perhaps even more importantly, it causes people to look at reading in a new way, and its very convenience increases people’s likelihood to read. Kenyan teacher Daniel Ochieng learned this when Worldreader launched a project at Magoso Primary School that delivered Kindles packed with books from our digital collection to his students:
Every morning children flock into this office asking for e-readers. And every time they come they want to spend the whole day with them just reading. If the e-readers are busy in a classroom, you’ll find the children in the library looking for books—they want to read. If I’d be allowed to rate the difference since we received the e-readers, I’d say we’ve seen about a 50% increase in library attendance.
If we can use digital reading to foster cultures of reading like this, we can help entire generations become lifelong readers.
For-profit/nonprofit partnerships: Less obvious but just as important is the increased value placed on for-profit/nonprofit partnerships by customers and employees. Numerous surveys suggest that roughly half of prospective employees say that they only want to work for companies that display a strong social commitment. And companies with innovative business models are collaborating with nonprofits in ways that burnish their brand image and help nonprofits achieve their goals. The for-profit economy dwarfs the nonprofit economy. So it stands to reason that if we want to get billions of people reading, joining forces in innovative ways could create a force large enough to make a real difference.
In the seven years since Colin McElwee and I founded Worldreader, the organization has helped more than 6 million people read thanks to focusing on technology and partnerships. Tech companies like Amazon and Opera have helped us bring access to far-flung corners of the world via e-readers and mobile apps, publishers like Penguin RandomHouse and Ghana’s SmartLine Publishing have helped us build a library of 40,000 free digital books in 43 languages, and educational institutions like the Kenya National Library Service and Camfed have helped us bring digital reading to schools and libraries in more than a dozen countries. Our Read to Kids program, co-founded with Project Literacy and Pearson, reached 200,000 families with access to children’s books in its pilot in India and is now expanding to Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan.
And there’s more: nobody needs to guess or wonder about the impact. Digital technology produces data in real-time. We have seen our programs double student reading and increase word recognition six-fold. We have seen them turn South African romance novels into a worldwide phenomenon among our readers. We have seen them spark habits of reading with their children in parents in India who doubted their own reading skills beforehand.
As a donor to many organizations myself, I’ve come to recognize that the organizations I most want to support are those that are innovating in ways that produce large-scale change. The smart use of technology and partnership with for-profit companies need to be a part of the social-change landscape —I just can’t see improving the lives of billions of people in any other way.
This year, the theme of International Literacy Day is Literacy in a Digital World. If we’re not careful, literacy in a digital world could still be a privilege that many cannot access; but with a collaborative effort, digital reading can disrupt the status quo. So for the sake of the three-quarters of a billion people who can’t read this post, I’m calling for all hands on deck to create a world where everyone can be a reader.
David Risher is a former executive of Amazon and Microsoft and the President and Co-Founder of Worldreader.
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