Insights from India

For some time, we have been intrigued by the claims of Pratham, a large NGO in India, that children’s reading ability can be accelerated within a short period of time.  Pratham has also spearheaded ‘Read India’, a reading campaign reaching children in over 350 000 villages.  We are interested in testing the ‘Pratham model’ in South Africa.  For that reason, Marianne MacRobert (Trustee), Phillip Methula (Portfolio Manager, Education to be able to read and Write) and I recently spent four days in India, visiting Pratham and Akshara literacy initiatives in Mumbai, Aurangabad and Bangalore.  While in Bangalore, we were also fortunate to visit ‘Babajob’, which links blue-collar work-seekers to jobs.  We were struck by the similarities between India and South Africa, in terms of income inequality and poor educational outcomes.  A major difference is of course population size – with India having 24 times more people than South Africa.

We came away persuaded that children’s reading can be significantly improved by intensive and focused reading activity, and that the gains can be sustained. It was fantastic to see a school-library system operating in over 1 200 schools in Bangalore, implemented by Akshara at very low cost.  They are able to track the reading habits of over 215 000 library users. A major facilitator of reading in India is the affordability of books, which cost less than a quarter of the price of books in South Africa!

Another major facilitator is the low-cost of communication: cell phone costs are about 15c per minute!  This has allowed mobile technology to be widely used to improve access to information for poor people.  Babajob connects 1 000 work seekers to potential employment every day.  We must confront the facts that the cost of books and communication in South Africa are major impediments to education and employment.

We will be writing a learning brief based on our experience, but you can look at a brief presentation of our study visit here (note that this is a large document and might take a minute or two to load).

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