When disaster strikes—as it did when two earthquakes hit Nepal in April and May—we tend to focus on in-the-moment relief efforts like donations of food, shelter, and medical supplies. But less obviously urgent kinds of damage can linger for years. In Nepal’s most devastated districts, 90 percent of schools were destroyed in the quakes. And the situation was dire to begin with, according to a statement from UNICEF:
“1.2 million Nepali children between the ages of five and 16 have either never attended school or have dropped out. UNICEF’s experience shows that children who are out of school for extended periods, including during emergencies, become less and less likely to ever return to the classroom.”
“The reality is that literacy and education [in crises] become sort of like this slow burn,” says Steve Cox, associate marketing director for Room to Read, a nonprofit NGO working in 10 countries across Asia and Africa. According to Cox, it’s important to prioritize education efforts alongside other humanitarian aid in emergencies.
“There are a number of problems [that need to be addressed when] lifting communities out of poverty,” Cox says. “Clean drinking water, malaria prevention, teen pregnancy, disease... But what we see is when a child is educated, it impacts all those numbers.”
According to the United Nations, education “ends generational cycles of poverty and disease” and provides a stronger foundation for lasting development.
Even in a crisis, Room to Read—hailed as one of the world’s most innovative educational NGOs—is focused on deep, systemic change in low-income countries, working to foster lifelong reading habits among primary school children. “Once reading becomes something that you do of your own accord,” says Cox, “you have the ability to seek out information on whatever you want—you can form your own opinions, you can make your own informed decisions."
Key to Room to Read’s Literacy Program is the establishment of safe, child-friendly learning environments—free from hazards, crowding, and distractions. The organization has found that this learning environment, combined with a school library, books in the children’s local language, and teachers and librarians trained in best practices of reading and writing instruction, allows children to develop both the skill and habit of reading during their primary school experience. Throughout Asia and Africa, communities have co-invested with Room to Read in over 17,000 government schools. In Nepal, structures previously constructed by Room to Read were built to earthquake resistant-standards and initial assessments show that in the most damaged districts, these structures fared better than other buildings.
Yet many educational spaces in Nepal remain in crisis mode. Students and teachers in the most impacted districts are learning to improvise, holding classes under tarps or in tents. In collaboration with the nation’s District Education Offices, which have set up Temporary Learning Centers, Room to Read is providing support during the post-emergency period by donating children’s books in the local language, as well as holding counseling and storytelling sessions to help children deal with trauma. Room to Read is focusing now on long-term plans to return children to a permanent school environment.
Room to Read has long made it a priority to partner with school staff, Nepal’s government, and the Ministry of Education, and will ultimately hand its projects over to local Nepali institutions, which “are more effective at mobilizing the local community,” says Udaya Manandhar, Room to Read’s Nepal country director. “They know the people, they know the context, and they know how to work with them,” says Manandhar. “We’re not there forever. Four to five years [after we start a project], we’ll be phasing out.”
That phase-out is possible because of Room to Read’s strategy to give new learners, teachers, librarians, and communities across the globe the tools they’ll need to take charge of their own education. The organization finds this approach to be effective in ensuring sustainability in all countries of operation, including Nepal. In addition to creating proper learning spaces (inclusive of public libraries), Room to Read trains librarians and teachers, and provides students with fun, engaging books by local authors.
The organization seeks out Nepalese writers by holding children’s book-writing workshops, publishing the best results in the authors’ native language, then distributing the books to school libraries across the country—and, these days, also to temporary learning centers. (Tips for appealing to young readers? Lots of color, short, to-the-point sentences, age-appropriate vocabulary, and a clear beginning, middle, and end, with an element of problem-solving.)
“When we started publishing in 2002 and 2003, children's books were kind of unheard of in Nepal,” says Alisha Berger, Room to Read’s literacy associate director. “They weren't stories that were culturally relevant to the children and they weren't in the language that [the kids] were primarily speaking.”
What Have I Learned Today? is one of Room to Read’s award-winning “age 7 and below” books published in Nepali. “Today I learned how to count from one to 10, how to walk up the stairs, how to dress myself, how to wash my hands, and even how to recite a poem,” the story goes. “What new things did you learn to do?”
Ask Room to Read that question, and they’d be able to say they’ve learned how to tackle illiteracy in Nepal—even in a crisis—spurring early education and publishing the country’s first books for children along the way.
If you’d like to support Room to Read’s efforts in Nepal, learn more about their Nepal Education Fund.