How free books can hurt literacy

Willa Cather’s 19th century My Antonia is a true classic, but children at an American school didn’t want to read it, so the library gave them to an NGO which shipped them to a library in a country where few children speak English and none, it would appear, want to read My Antonia. Fingerprints in the the dust were left by the photographer.

by Sasha Alyson

Do you have unwanted books you’d like to give to a good cause? You can get a tax deduction, and an NGO can make itself look thrifty, if you send them your unwanted books, which they’ll then ship to a poor country.

You feel good, the NGO looks good, the atmosphere ends up with a bit more carbon by the time these books are shipped to the NGO warehouse, then across an ocean, then by land to their final destination. Once there, it’s highly unlikely that the books which 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.

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 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 books as “The Babysitters’ Club” series. 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 a Cambodian education worker.(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.) After sending off “Literacy One,” they urged 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.

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.

Fighting a “book famine” with unwanted books from America

As for another continent, Books For Africa announces its goal: “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 send surplus books from America. In both cases, their free goods undermine the ability of African countries to produce things for themselves.

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

Books for Africa announces: “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 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, surely donors would sell them, not send them to Books for Africa. Rich countries have an excess of used books. Take some 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.(4)

Furthermore, whether BFA spends 50 cents or 90 cents for each book shipped to Africa, the donor also pays to send the books to the BFA warehouse. Add it all up, and shipping costs are substantially higher than the genuine 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. In fact, a publisher could actually increase profits by deliberately printing extra copies of a book which has a low production cost.

With the money spent on shipping surplus books, if these NGOs truly wanted to help build a local economy, instead of competing against local publishers, they could buy books from those publishers, thus helping vital, locally-based businesses get established. But what if that worked? The NGO would become irrelevant.(5)

Notes and Sources

1. From the Room to Read press release.

2. This remark was from someone involved in education work in Cambodia, 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; a woman from the U.S. Embassy, as she described them, rolled here eyes so far back in her head I was concerned they might get stuck. Room to Read had seven years experience at the time, enough that it should have developed better judgment. The good news is that it seems to be setting up more helpful programs in recent years; that cannot be said of most large INGOs, which simply find a formula that pulls in donations, and change it only if something else will pull in more.

3. From the home page of Books for Africa. That page also mentions three times that the INGO has received a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator, which said it “shows great ability to efficiently manage and grow organizational finances.” But these ratings are widely criticized for looking only at superficial, easily-obtained numbers which reveal nothing about a program’s impact.

4. It’s not only book giveaways that undermine the societies where they are sent, while providing benefits for the charities that get involved. See: World Vision passes out losing-team t-shirts.

5. Here, I’m writing about international charities. When books are donated for use within the same country, there’s a possibility of feedback from the recipients. These donations are sometimes useful.

Top photo: Trashed books by Ian L

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in literacy and education work in Southeast Asia since 2006. He writes about how development projects frequently undermine the countries they claim to help.