Sometimes a path through a seemingly intractable societal problem is right in front of us – with the most straightforward tools at our disposal making all the difference.
Consider the problem of the persistent illiteracy plaguing children in emerging nations – a slow- moving tragedy that is forcing millions of people to the margins of global society, for want of adequate education.
Yet, every developing nation now has an opportunity to make a profound dent in its illiteracy problem – because of one person’s insight about the untapped potential of one of the world’s most accessible technologies.
Here’s the issue: Globally, 250 million children are not learning to read and write – even though 130 million of them have spent at least four years in school. Research shows, in fact, that the developing world is about 100 years behind developed countries in terms of kids’ education levels.
These children are literally a lost generation, with emerging yet still needy regional/national economies and societies unable to tap their desperately needed participation – a loss to the beneficial development of global society as well.
Multiple forces are impeding the development of strong educational systems in developing nations – but a particularly big factor is simply lack of access to good learning materials.
In 2010, Rebecca McDonald observed that reality first-hand – and her observation sparked an emerging global solution. In that year, Ms. McDonald, an Australia-based property and construction industry professional, and her husband moved to Haiti to help in the effort to rebuild following that nation’s devastating earthquake. There, she discovered schools with fewer than 30 books for hundreds of students, books considered so precious that they were kept under lock and key, rarely viewed and never taken home.
Ms. McDonald dove into the problem – and realized that mobile information technology could help fill the information void holding back so many kids. Thus was born New York City-based Library For All (LFA), which is now successfully offering a truly innovative, highly elegant solution to the global illiteracy problem – leveraging the fact that of the world’s 6 billion mobile phone users, 5 billion live in the developing world.
With no low-cost, flexible approach available to address the lack of access to books, Ms. McDonald’s inspiration was to develop a customizable digital library – globally scalable yet readily tailored to local realities – that takes advantage of online technology’s reach to deliver carefully selected learning materials to students and educators on mobile devices they already use, such as phones and tablets, virtually anywhere in the world.
Today LFA, with Ms. McDonald as CEO, serves thousands of students in Haiti, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cambodia and Mongolia – and offers the potential for nearly limitless growth in the years ahead. In fact, LFA wants to reach 5 million users globally by next year.
LFA is now looking to enlist more on-the-ground partner organizations to help bring its resources to their nations, with a strong commitment to leveraging its global platform in literally any country that wants it – and fast tracking toward its goal of educationally empowering many more millions of kids in the developing world.
Theodore Roosevelt famously counseled his fellow citizens to “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” It’s all too easy to despair of addressing a big problem for the perceived lack of a correspondingly big solution. Yet, a big lesson of Library For All is how much incremental progress against a problem we might achieve just by taking a fresh look at some of the tools we already have – and thinking about how to put them to work in a new way.
If all students in low income countries had basic reading skills by the time they finished primary school, 171 million people worldwide could be lifted out of poverty. For more and more of those students – thanks to Library For All – the way upward begins with just a few taps on a screen.
– Jim Marren, President
Photo Credit: Library for All