Nepal Organization Receives International Award for Development of Rural Community Library System Providing Free Access to Information Technology
SEOUL -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today presented its 2006 Access to Learning Award of US $1 million to Nepal’s Rural Education and Development (READ), a nongovernmental organization based in Kathmandu, for its pioneering approach to providing free public access to computers and the Internet to residents, and its commitment to promoting information and literacy.
In Nepal, among the least developed and poorest countries in the world, nine out of 10 people live in rural areas and one in three lives below the poverty line. Only 50 percent of adult Nepalis can read or write. To address the country’s educational, economic, and social inequities, READ works with local communities to establish rural community libraries throughout the country that serve as centers for information and learning. The libraries offer Nepali books and publications, educational materials, computers, and Internet access, and provide a community hub to coordinate and offer other forms of assistance to villages including classes and information on literacy, health, women’s rights and children’s issues, agricultural development, and other community interests.
“The success and local support of our program shows the crucial need for greater access to information and technology in the developing world,” said Sharad Babu Shrestha, country director of READ. “Even in the poorest communities we serve, families that can only contribute a handful of rice to sell in support of the library construction are strongly committed to developing new resources that will help their families and communities prosper and grow.”
Since 1991, READ has established 39 self-supporting community libraries throughout Nepal impacting the lives of more than half a million people. The organization provides seed funding to design, build, furnish, and stock libraries, train librarians, and launch an income-generating enterprise in each community to help pay for the library over the long-term. Host communities are involved in all stages of planning and implementation and are responsible for contributing at least 20 percent of the start-up costs.
“READ is a model program for countries throughout the developing world because it provides strategies for communities to develop and maintain access to information over the long-term,” said Martha Choe, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries Program. “READ’s approach reinforces our belief that public libraries serve a vital function in communities and that by providing access to information and learning, libraries can enable people to improve their lives and those of generations to come.”
The community-run, income-generating projects are paramount to READ’s success. These community businesses have included a furniture factory, a printing press, a stationery store, a grain mill, a fishpond, as well as ambulance, rickshaw, storefront rental, telephone, and x-ray services. Often the projects have raised considerably more than library operations require and have funded additional community development projects, such as childcare centers, health clinics, literacy centers, and a bridge so that children no longer have to walk two hours each way along a river to get to school. In other cases, alliances formed at the libraries have transformed into additional revenue-producing projects. In some communities, women’s groups have started savings and credit programs for local families that further stabilize the local economy.
Today, many of the libraries are cooperating to develop new local content such as newsletters and online bulletins that are used to share information across villages on cultural, agricultural, and community issues. The libraries are also providing rural Nepali communities with a safe place to access and share information despite a climate of political and economic instability.
The Access to Learning Award will help support READ’s library development projects and will specifically expand its capacity to provide information technology to communities throughout the country. The funds will help increase the number of computers available in libraries, support the development of a community Internet network that can reach remote areas not yet served by the existing communications infrastructure, and bring new interactive educational and medical resources to the libraries.
READ is currently funded through private donations from the United States and internationally and operates with the guidance of both a Nepal and U.S. advisory committee, and a U.S. board of directors. Although it manages to keep operational costs low, utilizing volunteers and community partnerships as much as possible, the program must continually seek outside funding to cover its costs and the increasing demand for the program.
Now in its seventh year, the annual Access to Learning Award recognizes the innovative efforts of libraries, non-governmental organizations or library agencies outside the United States in providing free public access to technology. Last year’s award was granted to Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a Bangladesh organization providing access to computers and the Internet via boats in the most remote areas of the country. Past recipients include the China Evergreen Rural Library Service Center, Aarhus Public Libraries in Denmark, Smart Cape Access Project of Cape Town, South Africa, BibloRed library network of Bogotá, Colombia, Proyecto Bibliotecas Guatemala (Probigua), Biblioteca del Congreso de la Nación Argentina, and the Helsinki City Library of Finland.
The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has administered the Access to Learning Award since 2002. In 2007, The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) will begin administering the award. An international advisory committee of librarians and information technology experts evaluated applicants’ efforts to make technology accessible to the public at no cost, train the public in using technology, educate staff on technology applications, and reach out to underserved communities.
The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is an independent, nonprofit organization that works to expand access to information, however recorded and preserved, as a public good. In partnership with other organizations, CLIR helps create services that expand the concept of “library,” and supports the providers and preservers of information. Through projects, programs and publications, CLIR works to maintain and improve access to information for generations to come both in the United States and around the world.
The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) will begin administering the Access to Learning Award in 2007. INASP is a UK registered educational charity. Its vision is that all people are able to access and contribute the information, ideas, and knowledge necessary to drive sustainable and equitable development; and a mission to enable worldwide access to information and knowledge with particular emphasis on the needs of developing and transitional countries. To implement this, INASP works with partners around the world to encourage the creation and production of information, to promote sustainable and equitable access to information, to foster collaboration and networking, and to strengthen local capacities to manage and use information and knowledge.