Although I work from my home office in Atlanta, Georgia, the nature of my role as Chief Impact Officer at a global education nonprofit means that I am deeply connected to the state of education in districts located thousands of kilometers away. This was true before a global pandemic disrupted learning around the world.
As students at home and abroad seek to recoup a year of lost learning, now is not the time to take their foot off the pedal. This is why the levels of funding proposed by Congress for the US government’s bilateral basic education programs are deeply discouraging.
Recently, the Senate published its FY22 State and External Operations (SFOPS) Budget Bill which includes $682,448,000 for basic education. If passed, this would represent a 34% decrease from FY21 levels and well below the House of Representatives’ proposal to $950 million. At a time when our country is poised to recover from an unprecedented pandemic, there is an argument that such high levels of funding for overseas education is unwise – an argument that has surely influenced the decision of the senators. I would say that a lack of education will cost us much more.
Like it or not, we live in a global society and what happens abroad has an impact on our communities. According to UNICEF, an estimated 168 million children worldwide have missed nearly all classroom instruction since the start of the pandemic. It might take longer five years to catch up with these students on what they missed. We cannot make an already precarious situation worse by hiring students at this critical time.
We face critical challenges in global health and climate change. How can we hope to train the next great climatologist when we live in a world where 773 million young people in the world can neither read nor write?
Some might say that the rapid acceleration of technology means we don’t have to invest so much in global education. Of course, I’m very excited about the important role that technology can play in our society. My organization, world reader, uses technology as a vehicle to bring reading resources to communities where they are scarce and improve their digital literacy. But if I’ve learned one thing in my 20 years in this job, it’s that you can’t throw technology into communities and leave kids, parents and teachers to fend for themselves.
Despite the growth in mobile Internet connectivity, Global Systems for Mobile Communications (GSMA) believes that 3.4 billion people do not use mobile internet partly due to a lack of digital literacy. If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that technology integration must be accompanied by a long-term commitment to lowering these barriers to adoption. My organization works with mobile network operators to support reading ecosystems, providing offline use and digital literacy training.
I have seen firsthand how funding for basic education can make a difference in how children learn in underdeveloped communities. In 2012, Worldreader has received support from USAID which has given villages in Ghana a foundation for reading and learning. We have developed a district-wide digital reading system and provided world-class educators to help schools adopt these systems to develop a culture of reading. This funding not only paid for technology, it supported training so educators, parents, and children could learn how to use these tools. It was inspiring to watch these children, many of whom had never even held a book before, let alone a tablet, see reading as a fun and rewarding activity. In some cases, we’ve seen them join book clubs that exposed them to new ideas and challenged some of the gender stereotypes that exist in their country.
The same obstacles that hinder a reading culture in the Global South exist in our own backyards. One of the things we’ve learned globally is that education doesn’t stop in the classroom – it needs to be reinforced at home. Parents working two or three jobs just to make ends meet don’t have the luxury of taking their kids to the library. They may not be able to afford high-speed Internet access, much less a computer. What they have in most cases are smartphones. According to Research bench, 71% of adults earning less than $30,000 a year in the United States own a smartphone. With the right funding, organizations like Worldreader can partner with local nonprofits to distribute reading programs to families on phones they already own — and know how to use.
The intervention has proven results in increasing the reading ability of disadvantaged children, which in turn increases their chances of success later in life. USAID-supported Worldreader’s initial work in Ghana enabled the organization to engage in other USG projects in Kenya and Zambia, which positively impacted reading scores in vulnerable students. GirlsRead! Zambia Project, in particular, was a huge success. Girls who engaged in digital reading in the classroom significantly improved their reading skills (23.3% vs. 14.4% control) and developed more gender-equitable beliefs (27.4% vs. 10 .9%).
We no longer live in a disconnected world. Every choice we make as a society has a long-term impact. If we don’t fund overseas education now, we’re setting up the next generation to fail. Funding for basic educational needs like reading, writing and digital skills is now an investment for future stability on a global scale. Let’s not waste this opportunity.
Rebecca Chandler Leege is Head of Impact at world readera global non-profit organization that uses technology to promote reading where books are scarce.