Making the World More Literate

by David Risher

Last year at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting we at Worldreader made an ambitious commitment. We pledged to bring digital books to five million people in three years. But it took us only one.

That’s an enormous achievement. It means that in just one year, millions of more people around the world are now able to read the books they need to improve their lives: health books, career planning books, textbooks, books for fun.

David Risher of WorldReader.orgAnd as with all big accomplishments, nobody could have done it alone. Our partnerships with like-minded organizations such as Microsoft, Pratham Books, and in particular Opera (who put our work in front of millions of cellphone users) have been essential in achieving this level of scale and impact over such a short time.

Our world becomes more digital and connected every day, and global leaders are seeing the immense potential of the Internet and mobile phones for spreading knowledge. Until recently, libraries and access to vast archives of literature were reserved for the few. Mobile phones have allowed us to democratize this access, making these same materials available to millions more, quickly and cost-effectively.

Reading and learning is no longer confined to the walls of a classroom or library, but instead can be done anywhere, at any time. Chelsea Clinton points this out in her book It’s Your World. Get Informed, Get Inspired & Get Going (Philomel Books), in which she features our efforts and recognizes the simple advantage of spreading literacy far and wide through devices: “Kids can get books faster than it takes to build a school or a library.”

Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done to get more people on this planet reading. And so now we’re aiming even bigger. In the very long term we aim to reach the one billion people who are held back from reaching their potential through illiteracy, low literacy or simple lack of access to books.

That goal sounds a little crazy. But achieving it is entirely possible. Think of it this way: the data cost of reading a book is less than $0.10. Acquiring the rights to use digital books isn’t free, nor are the costs to designing programs to help people become more fluent readers. But if we can get those total costs to less than $0.50/person, than for $20 million we can unleash the potential of one billion people to become doctors, teachers, and informed decision-makers. That’s a check many governments and foundations would gladly write.

When discussing the topic of literacy, Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO stated, “new technologies, including mobile telephones, offer fresh opportunities for literacy for all.” I couldn’t agree more. Mobile technology is a game-changer when it comes to moving the needle on global literacy and I hope that means my generation will be the last to witness an illiterate world. ◊


David Risher is President and co-founder of Worldreader. In 2010 he founded Worldreader after visiting an orphanage’s locked-up library during a year-long, 19-country teaching and learning journey around the world. David has been driving education and large-scale technological change for over two decades. 

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