With nearly 800 million people on the planet unable to read, illiteracy is a global problem.
“The costs are enormous,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in a message on International Literacy Day. “Illiteracy exacerbates cycles of poverty, ill-health and deprivation. It weakens communities and undermines democratic processes through marginalization and exclusion. These and other impacts can combine to destabilize societies.”
Despite some progress, two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population are women, along with nearly 140 million children and adolescents. Numbers that, according to Ban, need to start moving in the other direction before the global community can start working together.
“Literacy unlocks the capacity of individuals to imagine and create a more fulfilling future,” said Ban. “It opens the way to greater justice, equality and progress. Literacy can help societies heal, advance political processes and contribute to the common good.”
Here are four men and women that are leading the charge, along with ways you join them in the fight against illiteracy.
1. TOM WARTH, Books for Africa
Born in the U.K., Tom Warth founded his St. Paul, Minnesota-based Books for Africa in 1988 after a somewhat impromptu visit to Uganda.
“I’d met a Ugandan lady when she was visiting her children in the U.S.,” said Warth. “I asked if I could come visit her, and she agreed, though I’m not sure she believed I’d really show up. I like adventure, and the best places to find it are remote spots with no tourists, but where you know someone.”
Dismayed by the lack of books and resources after visiting a Ugandan library, Warth was inspired to create a system for collecting discarded books from American schools, libraries and publishers to send to Africa. To date, his Books for Africa has sent over 22 million books to 45 African nations and is the largest shipper of donated books to the African continent.
2. DR. BRIJ KOTHARI, Planet Read
A native of Pondicherry, Kothari is a graduate of Cornell University and the President of PlanetRead, a nonprofit involved in bringing literacy to mass audiences in India.
How does Kothari do this? By pioneering the use of “Same Language Subtitling” for Bollywood film songs on TV, making reading instantly accessible for millions of Indians.
“SLS gently, almost surreptitiously, releases reading into people’s insatiable appetite for film songs, thus turning millions into lifelong readers,” said Kothari.
Today India has a literacy rate of 74 percent, a jump of 9.2 points from 2001 and 22 percentage points from 1991. Currently, 15 of its states have achieved a literacy level of 80 percent or above, achieving one of the UN’s millennium development goals of 2015.
3. JOHN WOOD, Room to Read
John Wood launched Room to Read after vacationing in Nepal. During his trek across the Annapurnas, he was consistently amazed both by the enthusiasm of the students and their shocking lack of resources.
“We got to the school’s library, and it was an empty room,” said Wood. “It was a room where, theoretically, a library could’ve existed, but they had no desks, no shelving, and—most importantly—no books.”
Spurred into action, John quit his senior executive position at Microsoft and set up a global team to work with rural villages to build sustainable solutions to their educational challenges. Ten years later, Room to Read has sent 9.4 million books to 12,074 libraries across Asia and Africa and built over 800 schools, helping 5.1 million children in the process.
4. BISILA BOKOKO, Africa Literacy Project
An African raised in Spain, Bisila Bokoko founded the Bisila Bokoko African Literacy Project after being inspired by the story of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian inventor who as a teenager learned how to build windmills out of spare parts after studying books in the local library.
“I believe there are more young men and women like William Kamkwamba in Ghana, and I would like to supply them with books that can inspire them in similar ways,” said Bokoko.
Still a relatively new organization, the Literacy Project has plans underway to build a well-equipped, modern and sustainable library in Kokofu, Ghana, where Bokoko was granted land by Chief Okogyeasuo II.