Despite the education sector’s longstanding call of “Education For All,”children in many countries are not learning to read and cannot read to learn. The right to education is not the right to a seat in a school. The right to education is the right to learn. Yet still, in 2016, in classroom after classroom, as the recent GEM paper showed, we see children struggling to share one copy of a tattered textbook in a language they don’t understand. The “supplemental” reading materials that are essential for reading instruction and practice are completely missing. Given these conditions, we should not be surprised that early grade reading assessments implemented in more than 70 countries since 2006 often show that the majority of children cannot read a single word after one, two or even three years of schooling (see www.eddataglobal.org). This is a global crisis and a crisis for us as development professionals.
We must transform our approach to book development, procurement, financing and distribution. Several years ago, a group of government representatives; donors including DfID, USAID and Norway; NGOs; UN agencies; other development partners and private sector representatives came together to start work on The Global Book Fund. This is a collaborative, multi-partner initiative working to address issues of book scarcity. We are working together to ensure books for every child, particularly in underserved languages.
Our work has shown that book procurement is fragmented and unpredictable. Financing is both inadequate and wasted. Supply chain management is fraught with problems, from demand forecasting to distribution to replenishment. We cannot continue to use these failed approaches. Instead, we can create books in languages children understand. We can create books that support effective instruction. We can build supply chain management systems instead of ad hoc, stand-alone procurements. We can build on the successes of colleagues in other sectors that have paved the way.
Years ago, as the GEM paper shows, health sector colleagues came together to transform the way that health commodities are developed, procured and distributed. Today, there are multiple health financing approaches, such as Gavi and The Global Fund, and a variety of innovative financing and procurement mechanisms and approaches. These innovations have reduced prices, increased quality, improved distribution, and transformed access to a wide range of health sector commodities. GEM analysis shows that following this model could take US$3 off the price of each textbook, saving almost a billion dollars from the cost of textbooks in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, and tripling the number of textbooks available to children around the world. In addition to cost savings, this would yield massive benefits to learning (Fehrler et al., 2009, cited in the GEM paper).
There are, to be sure, many important differences between Gavi’s work and the book sector, including demand, cost obstacles, requirements for research and development and product standardization. With this in mind, we are looking across commodity reforms in health, agriculture and other sectors to design the most appropriate response and ensure books for every child.
At this point in our work, we are concentrating on increasing title access and availability, using ICT to support; harmonizing current funding; developing standard technical specifications to increase quality and decrease costs; moving to centralized (at the country level with publishers and international level with printers) cost negotiations and procurement; improving price transparency; developing supply chain systems; and augmenting efforts to improve demand from parents, schools and governments. A major report from Results for Development focused on procurement, markets and financing will be discussed at our next Global Book Fund meeting in Washington D.C. on February 16.
Over the past two years, we have launched open source software to make it easier for authors to develop books and version books cross-language. We have conducted a materials inventory in 11 countries in Africa, which showed extreme scarcity in all African languages and the near-absence of books in many key languages. We have launched a design study for a Global Reading Repository to facilitate the sharing of “Books Across Borders” and started to dig in to issues related to weaknesses in supply chain management. We expect new “track and trace” software to be freely available in 2016, allowing governments, development partners and others, to trace book shipment from point of origin and point of use and reduce the numbers of books that are lost along the way.
Global Book Fund country-level seed activities are projected to start in the third quarter of 2016, with a call for proposals scheduled for March 2016. These activities may include country-level materials inventories, title development and supply chain interventions such as resource mapping, demand forecasting, improved distribution through “track and trace,” among other approaches options.
We encourage everyone to join in the Global Book Fund efforts:
- Download “Bloom” software for free at bloomlibrary.org and develop reading books in the languages the children in your country need.
- Conduct book inventories for your languages and determine where the gaps are—questionnaires and software are available to help.
- Sign up to host a “track and trace” pilot to improve book distribution.
- Consider other book-related challenges in your country and design a REACH trust fund proposal to address them.
- Last, bring issues to the table either in person or virtually at future Global Book Fund meetings by getting in touch.
It’s time to solve the scarcity of books for children. There are years of experience in health, agriculture and other sectors to guide us. Every single year, students around the world are denied true access to education—access to the world of reading and learning. Let’s come together and ensure that all children learn to read so they can read to learn, succeed in school and enjoy the opportunities that education provides.