Advancing the right to read

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2007 Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate Doris Lessing.

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech Doris Lessing used her inestimable talents to convey with eloquence and urgency, the hunger for books across Africa.

This is a hunger which Book Aid International, for whom I work has, been trying to fill for over 50 years. Last year we sent half a million quality books to Africa. We also supported libraries on the continent to purchase books from African publishers including, where they were available, books in local languages.

But as Lessing’s stories of people in Zimbabwe testify, the gap between supply and demand remains unacceptably large.

Literacy - being able to read and write - is widely regarded as a basic human right. Reading also enables people to exercise other rights; to participate in decisions which affect them, to access vital information and of course it's key to the right to education.

But without material to read, the right to literacy means nothing in practice. The consequence of this is that many people in Africa, having learnt to read in school or adult literacy classes actually lose the ability to read once they leave the classroom. Worse still the shortage of books and learning materials in African schools means that many children will actually leave primary education illiterate.

But despite the centrality of books to securing human rights they are often dismissed as frivolous luxuries. The education sector provides a good example.

With the help of aid from rich countries the number of children enrolled in school in sub-Sahran Africa has increased significantly. In recent years school enrollment has risen from 77% to 85%, that's almost 10 million more children in school.

But more children have meant larger class sizes, fewer resources and poor educational outcomes. As a result poor literacy and numeracy, high levels of grade repetition and low retention rates are common to primary schools across the continent.

A wholesale absence of reading materials in schools is a key part of this problem. Where textbooks exist they are commonly shared between up to 16 students. Other materials, like basic readers for primary school students, novels and non-fiction information books are unheard of in many schools.

Books in schools, like medicine in hospitals, need to be recognized as an essential part of a school’s infrastructure. Just as Aids activists have successfully argued that anti-HIV drugs are essential for securing the right to health of people living with HIV, we need activists to campaign for books to be regarded as essential tools in securing the right to read.

If books were seen as prerequisites for exercising basic rights a range of policies would flow. The provision of books could genuinely be regarded as a public good rather than a non-essential add on, and books could take their place along side building classrooms, training teachers and abolishing school fees in donor funded government education plans. Well stocked public libraries would be seen as essential infrastructure alongside toilets and clinics.

Creating rich literate environments which allow people in poor countries to access books and which supports their right to read is possible.

It needs sustained commitment from governments in both the developed and developing world to;

- support book publishing and selling;

- improve access to information alongside other programs that are

delivering basic services; and above all

- get books and learning materials into schools and homes.

The right to read of the world’s poorest citizens depends on it.

For more information:

Nobel Prize

Doris Lessing

Book Aid International