On the frontline of combating global illiteracy is the award-winning organisation Room to Read, founded in 2000 by former Microsoft executive, John Wood, Erin Ganju and Dinesh Shrestha
Text Hastings Forman
Photos Room to Read
It is difficult to imagine where we would be without basic literacy. As a foundational skill, it improves our reasoning, creativity, and allows for further education and career opportunities. For many of us, it is perhaps too easy to become complacent about the ability to read and write. And yet, according to UNESCO’s statistics on literacy, nearly 17 percent of the world’s adult population, some 775 million people, are illiterate, and a further 122 million youth cannot read or write, with as many as two-thirds of them being women or girls. Without this basic education, denied to them by the accident of their birth, most illiterate people are doomed by default to remain in poverty, unable to better themselves, their families and their local communities.
Room to Read
In 1998, while trekking in Nepal, John Wood visited a primary school of around 450 children. The absence of children’s books struck Wood profoundly, particularly after the explanation from the school’s headmaster, who said: “In Nepal we are too poor to afford education, but until we have education we will always be poor.” It was a cruel catch-22: an inescapable cycle of poverty that echoed what Wood had seen in other underdeveloped countries.
This experience prompted the beginnings of Room to Read. A year later, Wood returned to the school with 3,000 books on the back of six rented donkeys, much to the delight of the children and headmaster. He would later give up his job at Microsoft and commit full time to the cause of fighting global illiteracy. Recalling this in an interview, he said, “Too much of philanthropy is done through hobbies… the business person in me thought, if I’m going to scale this and make a difference, ten or a hundred libraries won’t be enough.” Bringing in a focus and efficiency acquired through his background in business, Wood and his other co-founders rapidly expanded Room to Read in size and reach. Since that first library was opened in Nepal, the organisation has helped establish 18,700 across Asia and Africa.
Describing the aim of the organisation, Wood said, “At its heart, what we are all about is making sure that kids everywhere, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, are given an opportunity to gain the lifelong gift of education.” To this ambitious end, the organisation has two core focuses. The first is to develop literacy skills among primary school children, enabling them to progress into further education, and to nurture their habit of reading, which instils a desire to learn and to pursue a brighter future. This is done through the implementation of the Literacy Programme which includes training local teachers, the provision of quality reading materials for children in their own languages, and the establishment of child-friendly classrooms and libraries within government schools.
The second objective is to educate girls, thereby improving gender equality. Considering that two-thirds of children out of school are girls, Wood identified this as an issue to be specifically confronted: “Education allows a woman to grow in self-confidence, to earn an income, to take care of her family, and as we know, educated women have healthier families and take a role in society as leaders.” With their Girls’ Education Programme, girls are supported to complete secondary school, they are introduced to women mentors who guide and inspire them, and they are taught to develop themselves in life-skills workshops.
According to Wood, “It’s a part of our founding DNA to make sure we are empowering the local people and communities as much as possible. An organisation that arrives in an area for a few months, tells everyone what to do and then leaves is not going to make long-term and sustainable change.” Room to Read works with local families, schools, communities, and governments. They prioritise the employment of locals (88 percent of their employees worldwide are local nationals) who know their area and community. Room to Read teaches them the skills to become leaders and empowers them in their responsibility to design and implement projects. They also get the entire community involved, as people give up their time to work on projects, such as painting the walls of a library. These kind of activities may seem comparatively minor within the bigger scheme of the organisation’s agenda, but each one has a significant effect in that the communities have a sense of ownership of their school or library. This kind of engagement ensures that the literacy and gender equality programmes are sustainable in the long run. Room to Read requires the host governments to support their projects, and so they actively work with education ministries to promote widespread policy and curriculum changes which allow the organisation to effectively address illiteracy and gender inequality on a national scale.
Having achieved its initial aim of supporting the education of 10 million children, the next goal is to reach 15 million by 2020. Wood affirms that Room to Read has to keep up its strong mission focus and financial efficiency (83 percent of all its proceeds go into new or existing projects): “The main thing we’ve got to do is not be complacent – we want to keep growing our impact both quantitatively and qualitatively.” As of the beginning of 2017, Room to Read is growing rapidly in Indonesia, and is also being launched in Jordan and Rwanda through a technical assistance arm called Room to Read Accelerator. Nevertheless, there is much work still to be done, and it is this understanding that continues to drive Room to Read to improve and expand.
On a parting note, Wood says: “You don’t have to be a millionaire like Bill Gates to change the world.” Whether it is the people on the ground improving literacy in their communities or the generous individuals around the world investing in a child’s education through donating time or money to Room to Read, this organisation is “a classic case of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 124, 2017