How the aid industry undermines reading

by Sasha Alyson

[This story has been abridged. The full version, about a 10-minute read plus notes and sources, is at: How to undermine reading while claiming the opposite.]

There are many reasons to value reading. It can provide information… and wisdom (often different things). It helps us understand how others think. And it’s enjoyable. But to get these benefits, we need strong reading skills, so that the act of reading is effortless. That develops over time, with practice. In most cases, it needs nurturing.

And now, I’ve got bad news. The West actively – even if not consciously — undermines reading in the global South.

Skeptical? Take the photo above. The U.S. Navy, claiming to promote literacy and goodwill, gives books to Nigerian students. Sounds good. Unless you enlarge the photo. These books were leftover Florida test preparation manuals that nobody wanted. This was just a feel-good photo op for the U.S. Navy and probably a tax write-off for the publisher. What was the impact on students? Well, would you ever want to open a book again, if the last book you opened was a leftover Florida test preparation manual?

Libraries in developing countries are filled with books dumped by the West. The photo at the top of the page shows 20 copies of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Children in the U.S. didn’t read it, so that library shipped them to an American NGO which shipped them to a developing country where, among other issues, it’s in the wrong language. The dust smudges were made by the photographer.

Gresham’s Law states that “Bad money drives out good.” Likewise, these bad books drive out good – or discourage good books from even being published, by undermining the market. The library is full, nobody’s reading those books, why buy more?

Here are more examples:

THE UNITED NATIONS. UNESCO published a report claiming that mobile phones promote literacy in developing countries. It was fake news. The report did not even examine the question of what increased literacy. It did not look at the impact of mobile phone use on children… but UNESCO put a child on the cover anyway. The photo was taken by an Apple executive. The whole thing was funded by Nokia, the cellphone company.

THE GATES FOUNDATION. The Gates Foundation funded a two-decade Global Libraries project. But… the Global Libraries are actually internet centers. Five pictures on the Gates “Global Libraries” web page show these libraries in Kenya, Chile, and elsewhere. Every eyeball is focused on a screen, except for a few that look at the camera.

The internet is a valuable tool. Without it, I couldn’t be communicating with you right now. But walk around a university in any developing country. Technology is not what’s missing. What’s missing are the skills, and perhaps the self-control, to use technology well.

The Gates foundation claimed it was promoting knowledge, jobs, and better health; it was actually just promoting internet usage and Microsoft software. That might lead to knowledge, etc., etc.,… or it might create a generation with few skills except to passively look at a screen. Which is the case? Bill Gates says he is data-driven. But I can find no evidence that in twenty years, the Gates Foundation ever studied the actual impact of these “Global Libraries.”

SAVE THE CHILDREN. Save the Children, which bills itself as “the world’s leading expert on childhood,” proudly states that its Literacy Boost program “has helped nearly 4 million children in more than 30 countries improve their reading skills.” But I’ve seen the organization’s internal evaluations of Literacy Boost. In no case did the program make much difference. Some evaluations found slight benefits, but far too small to justify the high cost. Often, it did no good at all. In both Pakistan and Bangladesh, for example, the program produced “no significant differences” between those who got it, and those who did not.

But when the leading “experts” arrive with “proven” solutions to your school’s problems, take up everybody’s time, then leave without making any difference, this is not harmless meddling. It actively distracts governments, teachers, and parents from coming up with effective, locally-based solutions.

* * *

There’s no conspiracy in all this (so far as I know). Everybody’s just acting in their own self-interest.

When you read a book, you get a lot of benefits. But big tech doesn’t make a cent from that. In fact, Facebook loses an opportunity to sell somebody an ad. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Google have increasingly saturated their own territory; now they need to expand into new markets. UNESCO helps big tech get a strong foothold in the colonies – oops, I mean, in developing regions — before anyone has a chance to ask: Do we really want our six-year-olds addicted to their phone?

Being a colony – even if you’re no longer called that — means you’re there to help the colonizer win bigger profits and more power. The colonizers do not wish to create a generation of young people who know too much, ask awkward questions, and dispute whether “answers” provided by the West are really best for them.

Notes and Sources

Further notes and sources are given in the unabridged version of this story: How to undermine reading while claiming the opposite.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments:

James Kwaku Boamah, @JamesKwakuBoam1: Over a fortnight ago, I personally visited a nearby so-called children’s library in my area and to my dismay, the cupboards and shelves were stocked with undesirable literature and textbooks mainly for Masters students etc So, I interviewed the administrator in charge and he emphatically told me the so-called children’s library has become an undesirable dumping site for foreign books from the UN and the Western NGO’s which literally displeases these children from the library. Africa has invariably become a dumping site for trashed goods.

saidmuhammed, @saidmuhammed: Ok the west is responsible for a lot, but this isn’t something I’m co-signing on. We aren’t reading because we aren’t writing our own books. The implication here is if the west doesn’t send us books we won’t read. Really? We aren’t investing in literature that’s the real travesty.
[The author replies: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Most problems have multiple causes. It’s hard to create a reading culture: You need suitable books before people will read, you need readers before you can support publishing those books. As a USA taxpayer, I’m objecting to my country (and others in the West) making this process harder in developing regions. When the libraries are filled with dumped, unread books, it leads many to conclude, “People here don’t read, there’s no point in publishing books, or getting them into the library.”]

Edward, @eddie_mukwa: This is true. In 2019, I was working at a school in the rural south of Zambia. There’s a library there set up by an int’l NGO called Room To Read. This library is filled with undesirable books that were donated by World Vision. The kids don’t even use them, just decorations.

Mama, @mama_bomboy: I have visited 3 children’s libraries in 3 African nations with my children. There was barely anything on the shelves for them as all the books were for adults. Africans also stopped writing (cause we stopped reading).There are no “Eze goes to school”, “Chike and the river” anymore

Christine Phillips, @cscviews: Yep, say piles of similar garbage sent to African continent when I was there in 1998; libraries spent their meagre budgets having to deal with the garbage; while family, friends donated the needed resources.

Mwende, @mwende_kyalo_: I always wondered why most donations to Kenyan libraries were books that are not even suited for our environment or education. It always seem like they just dump the editions they no longer use or books they last used in 1960 knowing too well those theories no longer apply.

Edith Vampirrosa, @SandraC54741755: I am sure people in my country deeply appreciate your donations, though they’re in English, there’s a growing number of bilingual people here.
[Writer replies: There surely will be times when some people benefit from these books. We need to look at the overall impact, because the shipping costs are high, this distracts from other literacy projects, and creates a sense that “people here don’t read” when the real problem is, “it’s the wrong books.” It’s hard to evaluate the full impact, however. Good data, — e.g., how many of the books get checked out? — would help, but the INGOs don’t collect that. The dust, however, offers a clue.

Barnabas Atwiine, @BarnabasAtwiin1: While at University in Uganda, a politician used lots of money to deliver a container full of old medical journal articles to the university. They got dumped on the floor of the library. Had to be burned.

[Arabic script], @AasimYaqoob: This is absolutely true. In Pakistan, we are obsessed with smartphones without knowing whether we need them or not. The quality of education is declining day by day. School children don’t know, they just run for good grades. The child’s brain remains empty.

[Add your own comments at the bottom of this page.]

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3 thoughts on “How the aid industry undermines reading

  1. Yes these initiatives sometimes they leave you scratching your head. I remember a few years ago when the Bill Gates foundation was helping ‘build’ libraries in Botswana. I (I was representing our village group that works on small projects to improve education in our remote and less developed village. We fund our projects from our very empty pockets) contacted the office that was running the project to check if there was a possibility of them assisting my home village. We had a project proposal and unfortunately we were told that there should be a village library structure in existence with electricity in our village in order for them to consider us. We did not qualify as we did not have any library structure nor electricity in our village. I felt let down because in my mind I had thought that the mandate of Global Libraries was to help build and resource library structures working with local communities to provide them with relevant materials for their needs.

  2. Thank you for the illuminating story. Another example of the aid and development industry claiming one thing — “we want to build libraries!” — while really having other motives. In this case, I imagine Bill Gates genuinely does believe technology will fix just about everything; he also remains a big Microsoft shareholder and is eager to spread its product.

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