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Children at an American school library didn't want to read Willa Cather's 19th century classic My Antonia, so an NGO shipped these, and much else, to a library in a country where few children speak English and none, it would appear, want to read My Antonia.

How free books often hurt literacy

If you don't have 100,000 t-shirts to give away (as the NFL and World Vision did), perhaps you've got unwanted books. You can get a tax deduction, and an INGO can make itself look thrifty, if you send your unwanted books to the INGO, then they can ship them to a poor country.

You wouldn't read either, if faced with such the sad selection of books that are donated from overseas.

You feel good, the INGO looks good, the atmosphere ends up with a bit more carbon by the time these books are shipped to the INGO warehouse, then across an ocean, then by land to their final destination. Once there, it's highly unlikely that the books you didn't want, written in English for a Western audience, will find an eager audience in a different country, with a different culture, and often a different language. That doesn't matter. They get dumped into libraries and schools anyway. Go into any of these countries, and you'll hear the lament that "People here don't read." You wouldn't either, if faced with such an unappealing selection.

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On 29 November, 2007, flight "Literacy One" took off from Everett, Washington, carrying 400,000 books to Room to Read libraries in Asia. Many partners came together for what the Room to Read referred to as a "historic flight". The crowd included representatives from Boeing, Cathay Pacific Airways, and Room to Read, as well as Scholastic Inc.'s mascot, Clifford the Big Red Dog.(1) The book shipment included great quantities of such series as "The Babysitters' Club." To a girl in Cambodia, the concept of charging money to care for younger children would have been as strange as walking on water. Fortunately, these girls didn't have to endure such tripe, they couldn't read English anyway. "We use them to start fires," said an education worker in one third-world country of the books.(2)

Room to Read has apparently reduced or stopped shipments of these series (their website is remarkably unspecific; "World Change Starts with Educated Children" and that should be enough for you). Now they urge supporters to go to a shop, carefully select a new book, wrap it and mail it to them. In terms of cost-effectiveness, it's hard to imagine a worse idea.

"You can help a needy child — by shopping!"

But it has donor appeal: You can help a needy child — by shopping! Undoubtedly there's a spreadsheet which weighs the cost of unwrapping, processing, and shipping that book when it arrives in the warehouse, against the possibility that the donor who wanted to help by shopping, might just donate cash next time. The conversion rate into cash donations must be good one, because there's no other reason to have such a program. Unwanted books may be getting in the way of third world education, but they reflect marketing genius. And, as we'll explain, financial aptitude.

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Fighting a "book famine" by sending surplus books from America.

As for another continent, Books For Africa announces that its goal is: "to end the book famine in Africa."(3) It intends to do this in what we consider precisely the wrong way. Just as USAID claims to fight famine by sending surplus food from American farmers, Books for Africa will fight the "book famine" by sending surplus books from America. In both cases, their free goods undermine the ability of African countries to produce things for themselves.

As usual, the way to understand it best is to follow the money.

Books for Africa announced in 2015: "Over the past 12 months we have shipped 2.6 million books, valued at $35 million to 27 African countries." That's quite a high valuation (about $13 each) for used books! They say they raised $2.3 million in 2014 for shipping expenses. (About 90 cents per book, though elsewhere on the site they say that shipping costs 50 cents per book.) There's a reason for the generous valuation: Shipping costs now seem like a small fraction of the value of what's being sent.

But they are not. If these books really had a value of $13 each, we're guessing that many donors would be selling them, not sending them to Books for Africa. (The value and the shipping are tax-deductible for the donor.) Rich countries have an excess of used books. Take some typical unwanted books off your shelf and see what you can get for them at a used bookshop; it won't be $13. Better World Books, which sells used books and makes charitable contributions to Books for Africa, has an enormous selection of books for less than $1 each. Many of them fit nicely into the BFA guidelines for book donations.

Furthermore, whether BFA spends 50 cents or 90 cents for each book shipped to Africa, the donor is paying a larger amount to ship the books to the BFA warehouse. It would appear that shipping costs are substantially higher than the value of what is being sent.

Books for Africa also informs publishers of IRS rule 170(e)(3) under which "gifts can usually be deducted at cost plus one-half the difference between the cost (basis) and the fair market value (FMV)." Under this arrangement, publishers can profitably get rid of excess inventory. It some cases, it would appear that a publisher could actually increase profits by deliberately printing extra copies of a book with a low production cost.

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With the money spent on shipping surplus books, if these INGOs (and there are others) truly wanted to help build a local economy, instead of competing against local publishers, they could buy books from those publishers, thus helping important, locally-based businesses get established. But what if that worked? The INGO would one day become irrelevant.

Notes and Sources

1. From the Room to Read press release. (back)

2. This remark was from someone involved in education work, whose organization received free books from Room to Read, but who did not give permission to be quoted by name. Others have made similar comments about the inappropriateness of the books. Room to Read had seven years experience at the time, enough that it should have developed better judgment. (back)

3. From the home page of Books for Africa which also mentions three times that the INGO has received a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator, which "shows great ability to efficiently manage and grow organizational finances." (back)