The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Literacy advocate wins Rubenstein prize, but teaching the world to read remains a challenge

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With nearly a billion illiterate adults and children across the globe, teaching the world to read is a big challenge.

Fortunately, there are people who don’t shy away from challenges.

Erin K. Ganju is one of those people. Nearly twenty years ago, she left her job with Goldman Sachs for a new life in Vietnam, a country that was just opening up to Western investment. After stints with Unilever and a few start ups, she changed course in 2001, and co-founded an organization with a mission to give all children a chance to get an education. In 2009, she became CEO of that organization.

On Wednesday, she accepted the Library of Congress’s prestigious David M. Rubenstein Prize on behalf of Room to Read for its “outstanding and measurable contributions” in reducing illiteracy around the world. Along with the prize, she accepted a $150,000 award.

With its slogan “World Change Starts with Educated Children,” Room to Read is clearly an ambitious organization. It seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in the developing world by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. It began as Books for Nepal under the direction of John Wood, a former Microsoft executive, and Dinesh Shrestha, and it now operates as Room to Read in seven countries in Asia and three countries in Africa.

Room to Read’s main goal is to teach the world’s 126 million illiterate children how to read.

That’s a daunting task.

But, as Ganju explained to me over the phone while taking time out from her preparation to receive the Rubenstein Prize, Room to Read isn’t trying to change the world all at once.

It’s working to change the world one book, one library, one school at a time.

It does this through its ‘scalable model’ that can be replicated relatively easily across countries, meaning that they don’t require huge infrastructure investments or big changes in how the schools operate.

“We work with local governments and schools to create a strong sense of ownership in the program. We want government officials, teachers, students and parents to have a sense of pride in the program,” she explained.

“Our goal is to be a catalyst for change and to create a sustainable program that’s integrated into the community.”

“We don’t follow a cookie cutter approach in our reading programs,” she added. “Some places might want just a corner where kids can read, while other schools might want a full library.”

The group has had many successes. It has established 16,000 libraries, built 1,800 schools, distributed 15 million books, and benefited almost 9 million children over the past decade and a half. It hopes to reach another million children by the end of next year.

Room to Read isn’t only about literacy. Getting girls educated is one of Room to Read’s major goals, and it now has more than 28,000 girls participating in its Girls’ Education program. Unlike the literacy programs, however, this program does more than teach girls how to read. It teaches girls how to live.

That’s really important because there are millions of girls around the world who aren’t getting an education, whether because they have to stay home to take care of their families, because they’ve gotten married and have children of their own to raise, or worse, because it’s too dangerous for them to go to school.

On the “danger” score, the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls by the terrorist group Boko Haram from a Nigerian school last April that came to the world’s attention largely through the Twitter campaign #BringBackOur Girls shows one of the dangers that many girls face just trying to get an education. (As popular as the campaign was, it didn’t lead to much action. Only one girl has been released so far.)

The threat of kidnapping isn’t the only reason why girls must fight to get an education. In addition to the 15 countries where girls’ education is under attack, girls struggle in ten countries to get a decent education, according to education experts Rebecca Winthrop and Eileen McGivney of the Brookings Institution. These “hotspots” have high rates of child marriage, low rates of school attendance for girls relative to boys, and high incidences of rape, torture, murder and other violent acts against girls.

These barriers to girls’ education make programs like Room to Read’s Girls’ Education more vital than ever before.

Room to Read’s program works closely with girls to help them develop the communication, interpersonal, decision-making and creative thinking skills needed to live a successful life, whether it’s helping take care of her family or moving up the career ladder. One young Vietnamese girl’s success story is profiled here.

Ganju explained that developing girls’ self-confidence and fighting stereotypes about what girls can do is one of her biggest challenges.

“Many families think that girls shouldn’t go to school because they are needed at home to help the family and to raise their siblings,” she explained. “Because girls work in the informal economy, their parents think that girls aren’t as valuable as boys are. They figure that from an opportunity cost point of view, it’s better to put the girls to work sooner than the boys.”

“Room to Read is pushing to change those stereotypes. We want to show not just the families but also the community that when girls are empowered and educated, then everyone benefits.”

Ganju has the stats to back up her claim that leaving millions of the world’s girls uneducated is harming the global economy. Each additional year a girl attends secondary school increases her earnings by 20 percent, according to statistics from UNESCO. Other data from UNESCO show that GDP increases by 3 percent for every 10 percent increase in girls going to school, infant mortality falls by 5 to 10 percent for every extra year of girls’ education, and girls who stay in school for at least seven years get married four years later and have two fewer children.

Room to Read, of course, isn’t working alone. As USAID’s Chief Strategy Officer Carla Koppell wrote on its website, “Education is a silver bullet for empowering women and girls worldwide.” USAID has a program, called Let Girls Learn, and has allocated more than $230 million to education programs in Nigeria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Jordan and Guatemala. USAID has partnered with World Vision and the Australian government to create All Children Reading: Grand Challenges for Development that’s working to improve literacy of children in developing countries. Non-governmental organizations, such as Vital Voices and Women for Women International, are also working to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.

And, it’s not just children in far away lands who need help. Here in Washington, D.C., there are thousands of children who struggle daily with reading and writing. A group called One World Education is working to help students become proficient writers by promoting peer-to-peer learning. Room to Read, itself, is making the public aware of the global scale of illiteracy through videos like the clever “#DoNotReadThis” challenge that six out of seven people will fail.

In sum, when 126 million youths and 781 million adults don’t know how to read, all efforts to remedy this problem are welcome. Supported by its latest award, Room to Read is just one of those organizations that’s making great strides in teaching children how to read and make a better future for themselves.