READ Global Removes ‘Foreign’ from Aid

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The organization READ Global has turned the concept of ‘foreign’ aid on its head. What once began as a rural library outreach program in Nepal has grown into a massive network of educational centers spanning three countries and reaching 2 million rural villagers.

Founded by Dr. Antonia Neubauer in 1991, the Rural Education and Development (READ) organization creates self-sustaining library and resource centers in rural areas owned and operated by the communities they serve.

Foreign aid programs are commonly criticized for being invasive and generally ineffective in the long run. Some of the problems originate from U.S. foreign aid regulations, which stipulate that at least 80% of funds destined for foreign countries must originate from U.S. sources.

A recent example of this restriction occurred after Hurricane Haiyan, when U.S. aid organizers were forced to ship American rice to the Philippines instead of buying it from neighboring countries like Thailand, an arguably cheaper and faster option.

Such actions flood local markets with foreign goods, making it extremely difficult for merchants to rebuild their businesses and creating a cycle of dependence on foreign aid.

The READ Global program aims to change that. Operating out of Nepal, Bhutan and India, the organization has established community centers in rural areas that establish both standard library services as well as life-changing educational classes.

“They provide the literacy classes, they provide the livelihood trainings, like mushroom farming, organic farming [and] we provide basic health training,” states READ Global’s website. “The opportunities are not only for women but children, [the] elderly population.”

The organization focuses on four main areas: education, economic empowerment, technology and women’s empowerment. It selects regions with particularly high rates of illiteracy and poverty and then creates for-profit enterprises that sustain the centers and educate villagers on financial self-sufficiency.

“All of our centers are owned and managed by the local communities,” said Shrestha.  “For example one of the centers…has raised 70,000 USD and that money will go to the sustaining enterprise of that center.”

Since its inception in 1991, READ Global has established 69 centers in the three countries where it operates and hopes to open 30 more in the next five years. Their enterprises include tractor rental businesses, community radio stations and agricultural cooperatives.

“We envision a world where individual family and societies have equitable access to knowledge, information and resources,” Sanjana Shrestha, the READ Nepal Country Director. “We work in Asia to create the vibrant place where community can live and thrive.”

– Emily Bajet

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, READ Global, NPR

Photo: New Global Citizen