The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted one million dollars to the group "Rural Education and Development" or “READ,” a non-government organization that establishes village libraries in rural areas around the world that are managed and funded by local communities. For producer Brent Hurd, VOA's Jim Bertel reports these library community centers often provide a central location for educational and economic development.
High in the Himalayan Mountains, scores of small community libraries are cropping up in some of the most remote villages in Nepal.
However, these libraries provide more than just books; they also play a vital role in their communities. Basudev Dhungana is chairman of the Jhuwani Community Library, located in South central Nepal.
"This is not just an educational organization; it is also a center of development activities,” he says. “The library helps us clarify our vision and implement programs efficiently. It is the demands of the people that direct the kind of community development we implement."
More than 30 libraries like the one in Jhuwani provide the space and resources for social services including health awareness seminars, savings and credit programs, women’s group meetings and a public area for discussions of village projects.
In the early 1990s, Rural Education and Development, or READ, began to build such libraries with what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation calls a pioneering approach to international aid. Toni Neubauer is the chairperson of READ.
"READ is a rural community empowerment program that uses libraries as a nexus for educational development through books and literacy training, for economic development, because each READ library has a sustaining project that supports not only the library but generates extra community funds, and as a social development program."
Host communities are involved in all stages of planning and implementing the libraries and they contribute at least 20 percent of the start-up costs. Then READ helps launch an income-generating enterprise in each community to help pay for the libraries.
Located in North Central Nepal's mountain district of Mustang, the library of Tukuche village is supported by a local sawmill that READ built.
Profits from the mill have enabled villagers, not only to sustain and improve the library, but also to build a childcare center and offer scholarships to poor children. Community businesses in other villages include an ambulance service, a printing press and storefront rentals.
Dina Bangdel, a READ board member, says these libraries reach people who have the least opportunity for education. “READ brings in a new idea, a new culture and that is the culture of reading, especially in a country like Nepal where education is still not in the mainstream,” she says. “[The] illiteracy rate is very high.”
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded READ one million dollars to expand the community library to rural areas of other countries including: India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other locations.