Libraries + Literacy Fuel Inspiration, Open Doors to Opportunity in South Asia

Subhadra Devi Timilsena can barely write her name, but she has given her entire community the opportunity to become literate, obtain livelihood skills, access the Internet, and connect with others in a safe community space. Subhadra and her children donated their only possession—a piece of land, left to them by her deceased husband, worth 20 Nepali Lakhs (or $25,300)—to build a READ Community Library and Resource Center for her village.

The inspiration for READ Global, started in 1991 and headquartered in San Francisco, stemmed from a simple wish from a Nepalese trekking guide: to have a library for his village. His travelling companion, Dr. Antonia “Toni” Neubauer, a former language teacher and education researcher, now a travel guide, understood the incredible value access to books and information could offer a community. Embracing the opportunity to give back to a part of the world that had filled her with so much joy during three decades of travel in rural Asia, Toni founded Rural Education and Development (READ) in 1991 in Nepal.

After only six months in operation, the Center in Nuwakot provides much-needed educational resources and economic opportunities for more than 13,000 rural villagers in Nuwakot and surrounding villages. The Nuwakot READ Center offers these villagers access to educational resources even during the rainy season, when a river overflows and blocks the road to local schools and neighboring communities. Winning the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Access to Learning Award in 2006 and subsequent funding allowed READ Global to expand into Bhutan and India. Today, there are 67 READ Centers across Bhutan, India, and Nepal.

Although many organizations address literacy and community development, READ is unique in its holistic and community-driven approach—long-term sustainability drives the model from the start.  Earlier this year, READ Global won the prestigious Barry and Marie Lipman Family Prize, administered by the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania.  The prize selection committee championed the way the READ model cuts across multiple sectors rather than addressing only one community need.  The READ team calls this “The READ Effect,” the transformation that individuals and sometimes whole communities experience when they have access to these new resources and services.  READ Centers act as a catalyst, unleashing the potential already present in many rural communities.

Tina Sciabica, the Executive Director of READ Global, has always been passionate about changing global disparity. “When I started traveling in the developing world more than a decade ago, I was struck by the incredible disparity between what we in the developed world take for granted—access to education, clean water, Internet, electricity—that many people in the world do not have. I’ve been with READ as executive director more than three years now.  Every time I visit our partner communities in Asia and experience the “READ Effect” in person, I come home even more committed to scaling our work and sharing our approach.”

What makes the READ model different is its focus on community co-investment and community ownership and management of each Center. READ believes each community is in the best position to assess its own needs and strengths, so READ only works with communities that extend an invitation. In anticipation of a potential partnership, READ country staff educates communities about the READ model, the level of participation required, and the long-term goals of a READ Center. When a community is ready, it forms a Library Management Committee and presents READ with a proposal for a new Center. Once a plan is agreed upon, the real work begins.

READ ensures its Centers’ sustainability in two ways. In addition to READ’s investment, each community contributes a minimum of 10-15% of the total cost of building a READ Center, and plays an active role in establishing and running the associated for-profit sustaining enterprise. The community’s contribution can happen through a donation of land, a building for renovation, or through their own fundraising efforts. In many villages, almost every member of the community makes some level of contribution—no matter how small. Co-investment helps ensure success. With a clear stake in their READ Center, each community embraces ownership and management.

READ also works with each community to develop a local enterprise capable of sustainably funding the ongoing operating expenses of the READ Center, without donor support. The READ model only works if a community is able to self-sufficiently maintain its READ Center. The Nuwakot sustaining enterprise is an agricultural cooperative selling fertilizer and seeds locally, with 190 members only 6 months after the Center opened. The profits from the cooperative ensure the Nuwakot READ Center will serve the community for many years to come.

As READ expands operations beyond South Asia, existing sustaining enterprise models that can be replicated across multiple communities will become increasingly important. READ is keen to launch sustaining enterprises for READ’s country offices that can be linked with the community-level enterprises. This summer and fall, an MBA from MBAs Without Borders (MWB) will conduct market research and feasibility studies to develop a business plan that enables READ to approach the creation of sustaining enterprises in a more efficient and scalable way. Tina is excited for what the MWB Advisor will bring: “We know we will benefit enormously from the expertise of a seasoned MBA who can help us incorporate even more business thinking and entrepreneurship into READ’s work.”

(MBAs Without Borders is still accepting applications for this position.)

At the Nuwakot READ Center inauguration ceremony in November 2012, Subhadra couldn’t stop smiling. She was overcome thinking of how happy her husband would have been to see the READ Center opening in their community. Subhardra gave away her most valuable possession because she believes future generations in Nuwakot deserve to be educated. She hopes that, someday, her entire community will be able to read and write. Shortly after the opening, Subhadra, in spite of her age, signed up for literacy classes with another woman in her community. In doing so, she captured READ’s essence: it is never too late to learn to read.

Click here to view more photos of READ Global’s work.

Alicia Bonner Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness (@AliciaBNess) is the editor of the The New Global Citizen, where she seeks to showcase the impact of beneficiaries and implementers alike, empowering all those engaged in furthering social good to learn from one another. She is also the Communications Manager at PYXERA Global.

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