There’sno better way to build a peaceful world than by building literacy, John Wood, left, said Feb. 11 at the District’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. (John Wilwol)

There’s no better way to build a peaceful world than by building literacy, John Wood said Feb. 11 at the District’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

A former Microsoft executive, Wood was in Washington for the release of his book “Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy” (Viking, $27.95). It describes how his nonprofit group, Room to Read, has built more than 1,600 schools and almost 15,000 libraries across south Asia and Africa. He spoke with State Department official Robert O. Blake before an audience of about 200 people.

A nondenominational organization devoted to literacy and gender equality in education, Room to Read has distributed more than 12 million books worldwide since 2000. Wood noted that such programs can inspire goodwill toward the United States. “If some dark force tries to convince one of our kids that America is a force for evil, they’re going to say, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”

Wood described Room to Read as a data-driven organization, a characteristic that eventually pushed the group into the publishing business. “When we asked our kids, ‘What would make you use the library more?’ the answer was overwhelming,” he said. “They wanted more books in their mother tongue.”

The group now recruits and sponsors local authors and illustrators who create original children’s books. “We’re looking for the next Dr. Seuss of Nepal, the next J.K. Rowling of Cambodia,” Wood said. Room to Read, which was awarded the 2011
UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, has printed 850 original titles in more than 25 languages.

Wood said one of his favorite things about Room to Read is it “gets kids into the habit of reading.” For instance, the group has developed an event with the International Cricket Council called Read & Run, a game where cricket stars ask kids reading-comprehension questions before they’re allowed to advance to the next wicket.

Wood was inspired to create the nonprofit organization during a 1998 trip to the Himalayas while he was working for Microsoft. “I had heard a rumor that there was a place so high it could drown out [Microsoft chief executive] Steve Ballmer’s yelling,” he said. “I had to test the theory.”

During the trip, he met a Nepalese local who said his people were poor because they didn’t have access to education, and because they didn’t have access to education, they’d never climb out of poverty. “I thought it was the absolute worst catch-22 you could ever have,” Wood said. He built one library in the village and then another.

Wood said that his organization insists on involvement with the local community. “It’s local, local, local,” he said. “We can’t want it more than they do. We have to make sure they have skin in the game.” Ninety-eight percent of Room to Read’s libraries and schools, Wood claims, are still operating.

Room to Read raises money through school-sponsored reading drives, grants and private donations. The group’s annual budget is approximately $47 million. “Some of the most generous people I know work in banking,” Wood said. The State Department is also a strong supporter.

When the developing world’s infrastructure catches up with current technology, Wood envisions a time when online learning and e-books could play a significant role in Room to Read’s operations. “Because we’re growing so fast, we could be a key point of distribution,” he said.

But until that happens, Room to Read will remain happily low-tech. “Technology degrades over time,” Wood said. “Books don’t.”

Wilwol is a writer in Washington.