Turning the page towards universal literacy

May 01, 2017Shubha Jayaram

This post originally appeared on the R4D Insights Blog

As a girl, I was enthralled by imaginative books like Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant and The Witches. Today, I can’t put down The Story of the Lost Child, the last book in the Neapolitan Novels, and mourn that I have come to the end of the 4-part series.

My love of reading helped make me who I am, and it energizes my work today seeking to improve literacy for children around the world. From 2015 to 2016, I helped lead a team at Results for Development (R4D), working with donors, multilateral organizations and other stakeholders, to tackle a key barrier to children’s literacy: namely that books, particularly in mother tongue languages and at the right level, are not easily assessable to children in many countries.

Numerous studies show that books are one of the most cost-effective inputs for improving learning outcomes. For example, a recent study in Kenya notes that “providing books that have a structured approach to literacy acquisition […] at a 1:1 ratio is paramount in improving pupils’ literacy and numeracy skills.” But such a ratio remains out-of-reach for millions, with many children in low- and middle- income countries sharing one book among many—with almost 14 students sharing a book in countries such as Cameroon. Importantly, a holistic view that addresses other constraints to learning—such as adequately trained teachers—is also important. Indeed, a synthesis report of the findings of rigorous evaluations by IIIE concludes that materials are a necessary but not sufficient condition for children’s learning.

International education development global book alliance literacy reading learningOur work over the last two years was not only an in-depth examination of this challenge, but also an effort to put forward a bold new solution—The Global Book Alliance. Our initial analysis, conducted with International Education Partners (IE Partners), examined why reading books are in short supply in many developing country classrooms and assessed the feasibility for a Global Book Alliance (GBA) to transform book development, procurement, distribution and use. We found that a combination of factors account for the scarcity of reading books, including lack of funding (and efficiency in spending), unstable and inefficient procurement, supply chain bottle necks, lack of awareness about the value of reading books in supporting literacy, and ineffective usage (or absent usage, when books are locked away in cupboards). Our findings can be found here and a blog showcasing highlights from our research is here.

More recently, we examined options for the organizational design and architecture of a Global Book Alliance. We conducted a series of consultations with experts in the fields of books, education and fund architecture, as well as representatives of aid agencies and foundations. Based on these consultations and its own analysis, R4D’s recommendations helped inform a path forward for the Alliance.

Now, the alliance is becoming a reality. A steering committee was formed, a chair selected and some technical work is being piloted through working groups and through partners. As this new initiative attempts to gain traction and get off the ground, there are some key considerations and recommendations we should not lose sight of:

1. Demonstrating proof of concept is critical.

International education development global book alliance literacy reading learning

The funders we consulted (including bilateral funders, foundations, and multilaterals) concurred that focused technical assistance in the book sector (from supporting national action plans to guiding procurement efficiencies) has the potential to “supercharge” their other investments in reading and education. But ensuring that the Alliance  moves from its current nascent phase to a global umbrella organization requires several steps. We recommend that a pilot phase to test the full range of GBA functions and institutional arrangements and serve as a proof of concept to mobilize funding and support for the full-scale GBA is essential.

Fortunately, this is already happening. Many of the GBA partners along with the World Bank’s REACH for Reading Trust Fund, supported by USAID, DfID, Norad, and GIZ, will help demonstrate and quantify the potential of GBA activities at the country-level and the support needed to improve cost-effectiveness and efficiencies along the book’s value chain.

2. It must be inclusive and able withstand political challenges.

For the GBA to thrive in the long-term, it needs bring donors, multilateral organizations, governments, the private sector, and civil society and local communities together to work on this issue. Ensuring broad participation will help make the GBA a truly global and local effort, and it will help mitigate fluctuations in both political and market influences and improve its chances for extended reach and impact.

Promisingly, the initiative already has a broad array of committed partners who make up its steering committee, including United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), The World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, (GPE), UNICEF, Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), Save the Children, and All Children Reading - Grand Challenge for Development partners Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and World Vision.

3. The needs of the focus countries should be prioritized.

The GBA has already begun engaging at the country level, for example through a partnership with ADEA, grant funding through the REACH for Reading Trust Fund, and outgoing programming by donor Missions.

International education development global book alliance literacy reading learningOur consultations indicate that in order to differentiate the GBA from past efforts to build capacity, the GBA’s approach should support nationally owned and implemented capacity development programs, to alleviate both technical and political-economy constraints in the book sector. To assure scale-up and sustainability, the GBA should strive also to help countries develop capacity and policies integrating digital learning materials into their education programs, as well as for integrating ICT into the book chain to ensure greater efficiency, sustainability and donor engagement.

It’s heartening to see the steps being taken by the Alliance in recent months, and updates were recently presented panel events at CIES, the London Book Fair, and the ADEA 2017 Triennale in Senegal. Ian Attfield, Senior Education Adviser at DFID notes, “DFID has supported many large-scale distribution of books, for example in South Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, and is well aware of the large potential learning gains if done well. The GBA is an excellent initiative to help tackle systemic problems around book content, procurement, distribution, and usage by teachers and children worldwide.”

As the GBA becomes operational with USAID as the interim Secretariat, and partners launching new technical activities, more opportunities for the civil society and private sector involvement will be forthcoming.  For more information and opportunities to become involved:

  • Visit the Global Book Alliance website to follow the progress of the initiative and ongoing opportunities to get involved (including the recent “REACH for Reading” call for proposals).
  • Reach out here to learn more if you are a donor keen to contribute to the Global Book Alliance, a policymaker interested in learning about how to partner with the Global Book Alliance in your country, or an NGO, researcher, or other stakeholder eager to lend your expertise to advancing the Global Book Alliance’s mission.

I am immensely proud of what the Global Book Alliance has already accomplished. Our motivation going forward should be to ensure that those 250 million children who are still unable to read and write—often despite attending school—drops down to zero. Meeting our commitments to each and every child will be difficult, but in the words of Roald Dahl, and “here comes the big ‘but’—not impossible.”


Shubha Jayaram is a senior program officer at Results for Development (R4D) where she leads various projects within education. Her areas of focus include secondary education, workforce development, youth employability, and education financing. Shubha leads R4D’s ongoing work in the skills for employment space. She has recently co-authored a study analyzing the skills required for work and identifying innovative models of skills delivery in the Latin America and Caribbean region.

Photo Credits: Morgana Wingard, USAIDGraham Crouch, World Bank ; Khasar Sandag, World Bank.

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