How to undermine reading while claiming the opposite

“I always wondered why most donations to Kenyan libraries were books that are not even suited for our environment or education. It always seems 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.”
–Mwende Kyalo, @mwende_kyalo_

by Sasha Alyson

[About a 10-minute read. An abridged, 3-minute version of this story is at: How the Aid Industry Undermines Reading.]

Everyone reading this surely believes reading is a good thing. And for many reasons.

  • It’s a way to acquire information, everything from recipes to health facts to insights about how the world works.
  • It helps us envision other, different, better worlds, inspires us to work toward such goals, and provides role models for doing so.
  • Whatever problems we face, we can read about people who have faced the same, and then we don’t feel so alone or different, and perhaps gain confidence that we can handle this, too.
  • We can also learn about people entirely different from ourselves, and develop an appreciation for those differences.
  • And let’s not forget: Reading is enjoyable.

The list goes on, almost forever.

But to get these benefits, we need more than just the ability to decipher letters that appear on paper or a screen. That’s work. We’ll do it to fill out a government form, or to get something we badly want. But to get all the benefits listed above, we need more.

We need strong reading skills, so that the mechanics of reading are effortless, so that the idea of reading a big book isn’t frightening, it’s exciting. That develops over time, with practice. In most cases, it won’t appear without encouragement and a suitable environment.

And finally, to get its full range of benefits, we need to acquire the habit of reading.

If you accept all that – and not everyone does – I’ve got bad news. Through a wide assortment of programs in developing regions, Western governments, corporations, and aid agencies undermine reading.

They never say “Don’t Read!” They often say the opposite. But actions are what count.

The soft drink industry offers a model of this. Coca-Cola never says, “Stop drinking milk and water.” Instead, it ensures that high-profit, low-nutrition drinks are widely available, using techniques that go far beyond normal advertising to get people hooked. Food technicians fine-tune sugar levels to hit the magic spot, sweet enough to create sugar addicts, not so sweet that you gag. It funds fraudulent “research” that claims a lack of exercise is the real culprit.(1) In fact, they’ll do their best to suggest that Coke is healthy: You’ll never see more vibrant young people, or whiter teeth, than in a Coke commercial. They don’t need to campaign against milk, water, and carrots. By the time you’ve polished off a super-sized Coke, you’ll be full.

Reading faces a similar onslaught. Western interests, ranging from U.N. agencies and NGOs to governments and big tech, say all the right things, even as they undermine the foundations of meaningful literacy in the developing regions where they wield control. Skeptical? Let’s move to some examples. (Some of these I’ve already explored in more depth in other stories; links are below. Here, I want to show what a powerful package they are, when working together.)

UNESCO. UNESCO conducted a mobile phone study, then published a report claiming that mobile phones promote literacy in developing countries. It was fake news. The report did not find evidence of what UNESCO claimed. It did not even examine the question of what increased literacy. The study merely found that people who had installed a book-reading app on their phone were now reading two-and-a-half minutes a day. Not two-and-a-half minutes more than before; two-and-a-half minutes total. UNESCO called this a “revolution in reading,” a catchy phrase that even the Guardian picked up, without looking further.(2)

The study did not look at the impact of mobile phone use on children… but UNESCO put a child on the cover. The photo was taken by an Apple executive.

Anyone with real-world experience knows that if you give a mobile phone to a child, that child is far more likely to watch cartoons or play video games than read a book. What little research I can find suggests that children who spend more time on a mobile phone are less likely to develop reading skills.(3)

That’s in the West. I can find no studies at all about the rapidly growing use of mobile phones by children in developing regions. How many hours a day do six-year-olds in Nigeria spend looking at a phone? And for what activities? I’d guess “A lot” and “games and cartoons.” But that’s a guess. If UNESCO truly wanted to understand the impact of mobile phones, these questions needed investigation. UNESCO ignored them.

How did UNESCO come to publish such a warped study? Nokia, the cellphone company, funded it. UNESCO obligingly looked only at the questions Nokia wanted it to address, then sent out a report with a headline that embraced big tech. Who pays the piper, calls the tune.

UNESCO also publishes a 41-page “Policy guidelines for mobile learning,” encouraging and advising schools on greater use of mobile phones in schools. This, too, was funded by Nokia.

THE GATES FOUNDATION. Bill Gates proudly displays a wide assortment of books that have influenced his thinking each year, and the Gates Foundation has funded a two-decade Global Libraries project. Surely, doesn’t Bill Gates want citizens of developing countries to get all the benefits that books can offer?

Let’s look again. The Gates Global Libraries are internet centers. Five pictures on the Gates “Global Libraries” web page show library users in Kenya, Chile, and elsewhere. (One of those pictures appears at the top of this page.) Every eyeball is focused on a screen, except for a few that look at the camera.(4)

The internet is a valuable tool. Without it, I couldn’t communicate with you right now. But walk through the campus of any university or college, including those in developing countries. Technology is not what’s missing. What’s missing are the skills, and perhaps the self-control, to use technology well.(5)

By labeling its internet centers as “Global Libraries,” the Gates Foundation implied it was promoting reading and literacy. The foundation lists a whole cornucopia of benefits that can be brought with greater internet access. People in poorer communities could “search for employment, find markets for their crops and products, access government programs, learn new skills, research important health issues, and engage in social interactions with distant family members and friends.”

Yes, they could do all that, and more. What do they actually do with it? We don’t know. It appears that nobody knows. Bill Gates often says he believes in data-driven, evidence-based development. But in twenty years of Gates Global Libraries, I can find no report on how these computers were actually used, much less any effort to assess the overall impact of the technology centers. Did they just create a lot of video game addicts? Facebook junkies? When it ended the Global Libraries program in 2018, the Foundation indirectly admitted how little it had tried to learn, stating that “What’s missing are the facts and data about how libraries directly improve people’s lives…. Leaders in the field must now commit to making outcome evaluation an integral part of library operations….”(4)

The Gates foundation was not promoting knowledge, jobs, or better health; it was merely promoting internet usage. (And, not incidentally, Microsoft software.) That could lead to reading and literacy, information and new skills… or it could lead users to become just passive recipients of entertainment. Which was the case? This was paid for with dollars that escaped taxation on the grounds the money was being used for the public benefit. But nobody seems to have studied the actual impact.

We do have one report from a Gates I.T. project: In 2004, Microsoft set up computer centers “to alleviate the problems of global poverty” in India. Kentaro Toyama, who worked on the project, was excited about the potential. But in reality, he found, “when a village has ready access to a PC…. the dominant use is by young men playing games, watching movies, or consuming adult content.”(6)

In Nigeria, an effort to study mobile phone use at Ilorin University confirmed what two earlier reports had also found: That students “play away their times” on games, music, pornography and Facebook.(7)

What we see here is the willful blindness that runs through the aid industry: Bill Gates and his followers can believe that their technology brings job offers, health benefits, and better agriculture to poor communities – but they can believe it only as long as they don’t fund a study to find out for sure. So they don’t.

And was the Gates Foundation really even trying to set up good programs? The foundation gave $16.5 million to develop internet programs in existing public libraries in Indonesia. This might have been beneficial; or it might have been a distraction for librarians who were soon helping perplexed users figure out computer errors, rather than reading or educational activities. Much would depend on who was overseeing it all.

Who was that? Well, suppose you were investing $16.5 million to provide internet services in Indonesian libraries. Who would you give the money to?
a. A library association
b. An education association
c. The Coca-Cola Foundation of Indonesia.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation chose “c.” The Coca-Cola Foundation of Indonesia.(8)

THE UNITED STATES MILITARY. Here is the U.S. Navy, doing its share to promote literacy and goodwill, as sailors pass out books to Nigerian students. Sounds good. Unless you enlarge the photo. These books were leftover Florida test preparation manuals that nobody wanted. This wasn’t about reading; it was a feel-good photo op for the U.S. Navy. Most likely, the U.S. publisher got a tax write-off. What was the impact on students? Well, can you think of a better way to convince students to never again open a book, than to give them a leftover Florida test preparation manual?

This isn’t an isolated case. Libraries in developing countries are filled with books dumped by the West, books that nobody wanted and thought, “I’ll give it to that agency that sends books to Africa.” If you’re a business, you can even get a tax deduction. Here are 20 copies of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. It is, deservedly, an American classic. But children in a U.S. school weren’t interested, so that library shipped them to Room to Read, an American NGO which shipped them off to a developing country where most children can’t even read a book this long in their own language, much less in English. But this library looks full — of books, if not of children. 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? The librarian probably has never seen what a well-stocked, vibrant library could be, and assumes this to be the norm. Whether from the U.S. Navy or Western NGOs, more unwanted books keep arriving. Ideally, the librarian would refuse them. A library with just 10 books that people wanted to read would be better than a library with those ten plus a thousand duds, amongst which nobody will find the good ones. But in the real world, the librarian is likely to accept the junk. The boss will be happier if the shelves look full. And the NGO may offer cash or other incentives to play along. What is sold to the West as literacy promotion, actually achieves the opposite.

THE UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT GOALS. As the sole Education goal in its Millennium Development Goals, the U.N. measured only one thing: Enrollment numbers. Educators, government officials, even the World Bank, pointed out that learning, not attendance, was what mattered. Parents complained that their children finished grade 5 unable to read their own name.The U.N. ignored them all. In its final MDG report, the U.N. declared success on the education goal, because more children than ever were enrolled in school.

The first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge it. The U.N. refused to do so until after launching the new Sustainable Development Goals, which do call for “quality” education. But in reality, the U.N. continues to focus on enrollment, not learning. Twenty years of habit are hard to change; it has conditioned donors to believe that school enrollment is the key to development. Besides, it has no idea how to improve education quality.

SAVE THE CHILDREN. Save the Children, which bills itself as “the world’s leading expert on childhood,” is proud of its reading program. It states that “Literacy Boost has helped nearly 4 million children in more than 30 countries improve their reading skills.”(9)

Save the Children is doing what NGOs routinely do: assuming that any child in a school that got its program was therefore “helped.” That’s not true, and Save the Children knows it. Several internal evaluations of Literacy Boost have been made available to me by someone in the organization. In no case did the program make a big difference. Some evaluations found slight benefits, but far too small to justify the high cost. Often, it did no good at all. The evaluation for Pakistan states, in boldface: “[T]here were no significant differences in the gain or endline scores of Literacy Boost and comparison students.” In Bangladesh: “No statistically significant differences exist between Literacy Boost and comparison groups either at baseline or at end line.”

But when the leading “experts” arrive with “proven” solutions to your school’s problems, and take up the time and attention of those on the ground, then leave without making any difference, this is not harmless meddling. It actively distracts governments, teachers, and parents from thinking, talking, comparing notes, experimenting, and figuring out what works in their circumstances.

The junk-food industry does not try to make children drink less milk; it simply does what is most profitable, and the result is more obesity and worse health. None of the people and organizations above set out to reduce reading and literacy; largely, they claimed (and perhaps believed) they were doing the opposite. But each was primarily focused on their own objectives: Money, status, influence, and public image. Were they actually helping children read more? They were happy to believe their own press releases, and not look too closely.

The best things in life are free

Let’s briefly go off on a tangent. The best things in life are free, says the song. No, not always. But surprisingly often the free or nearly-free choice is downright pleasant — unless we’ve become dependent on something else — and also healthier for us and for society:

  • Walking three blocks instead of using a motor vehicle.
  • An evening at home with friends or family, rather than a night on the town.
  • Eating healthy food; consuming more water and fewer sugary drinks.(10)
  • Reading a library book.

There’s just one catch: Corporations don’t make a cent from such choices, and the relentless logic of capitalism is that however much they make, corporations always want more. Domestic growth isn’t enough. In fact, soft drink consumption in the U.S. has declined since 2000; that has led to aggressive marketing campaigns in developing regions.

And that’s what colonies are for – even if they’re no longer called that. Being a colony means you’re there to serve the interests — particularly the financial interests — of the colonizer. In every case above, the developing country was being weakened, its educational base was being eroded, as it served the interests of the colonizer. Which, after all, wasn’t interested in 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.

Each case comes with a different nuance. UNESCO is helping big tech sell its product, and also to get a strong foothold in the global South before local competition can develop, before these countries have a chance to ask: Do we really want our four-year-olds to develop a phone addiction? Save the Children provides the veneer of good karma, so that Westerners can believe that if Pakistani children can’t read, its their own fault. (Bill Gates has endorsed Save the Children. Did he ever look for evidence of whether they’re achieving anything?)

And today, as in the era of traditional colonialism, it’s the colony that pays the price. In this case, the price is paid by children who are not developing skills and habits that could serve them, and their communities, for a lifetime.

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 shelves were stocked with undesirable literature and textbooks mainly for Masters students etc. I interviewed the administrator in charge and he 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. Africa has become a dumping site for trashed goods.

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, saw 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.
[Sasha: 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.”]

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.

Tom Makau, @tommakau: A school my mother used to teach in in the ’90s once received a 40 ft container full of books that were all in Dutch. Kenya is English speaking.

King Theseus, @Katlego_265: The Colonialists are at it again, we do not need their assistance, they do not come in peace

Notes and Sources

Top photo: From Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website page about their Global Libraries, illustrates the foundation’s use of the word “library” to promote tech-only approaches.

1. See, for example, “A Defense of Sugary Soda That Fizzled for Coke,New York Times Editorial, 4 Dec. 2015.

2. UNESCO didn’t reveal that the total reading time was only two-and-a-half minutes; that can be calculated from numbers on different pages of the report.

3. There are many additional downsides. For example: “Available evidence suggests that screen time is deleteriously associated with numerous health indicators in child and youth populations, including adiposity [obesity], aerobic fitness, quality of life, self-esteem, pro-social behaviour, academic achievement, depression and anxiety.” (Screen Time and Health Indicators Among Children and Youth: Current Evidence, Limitations and Future Directions.)

4. Gates Global Libraries page, accessed 11 Dec. 2016 and again on 3 Sept. 2020, pictures were unchanged. The statement calling for others to do evaluations is on the same page, in December 2021.

5. Something else is often missing too: An economy in which a young person could reap genuine benefits by using the technology to develop stronger skills. Local corruption and foreign domination often mean that whatever their skills, they may feel they face a dead-end future. A recent Guardian story found that “American venture capital and private equity is dominating Africa, but it’s mostly funding other white foreign founders as black entrepreneurs struggle to raise financing.” If you feel hard work won’t pay off, then amusing yourself with a video game may be a logical choice.

6. From the very thoughtful story “Can Technology End Poverty?” by Kentaro Toyama, Boston Review, Nov.-Dec. 2010.

7. “A Survey of University of Ilorin Students’ Use of Mobile Phone in Lecture rooms and its Implications in Education for Nigeria Development,” by Ismaila.Onche.O. Amali, B. Bello Muhinat, and Ibrahim Hassan, Journal of Education and Practice, 2012.

8. I’ve written more about these grants in a story that also looks at broader issues: The Gates Foundation vows transparency. So why does it offer a dysfunctional search engine?

Published under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. You may reprint this, without further permission. Please credit the author. A link to the site is welcome, but not required.

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