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To give or give not
01.01.70 | Anna Richardson
When Doris Lessing accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in December, she spoke movingly about the work she had done with an organisation taking books into villages in Zimbabwe. She talked of how a box of books, one of which could cost more than the average Zimbabwean’s yearly salary, arrived in a village to be greeted with tears, and of how an astonishing “hunger for books . . . can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope”.
Lessing’s passionate support for a country on its knees is clearly beyond reproach. Yet book donation to countries in the developing world in general is not always unproblematic.
The schemes do invaluable work in bringing reading to book-famished countries, but talk to anyone involved in educational programmes in the developing world, and you will hear stories about wildly inappropriate donations: a remote library in Uganda where shelves are burdened with multi-volume sets of the lives of US presidents, for example, or an agricultural college in Cambodia full of philosophy titles from France.
Increased awareness of poverty in the emerging world plus publishers’ more robust corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes have led to a rise in book donation. It is difficult to fully determine exactly how many books are being sent abroad, with both large and small-scale programmes run by hundreds of charities throughout western Europe and North America. Yet one international development officer reckons the number is “at least five, maybe as many as 10 million” books a year.
The majority come from the US, where publishers are encouraged by tax advantages to donate. One organisation alone, the US-based International Book Bank, shipped 1.6 million textbooks in 2007, worth just over $53m (£26.7m). UK publishers give away perhaps as many as one million books a year.
Well-run charities say the key to running a successful programme is knowing the needs of the target country. London-based Book Aid International, which sends 500,000 books each year from the UK to sub-Saharan Africa and Palestine, works closely with its recipient countries. “We would never send anything without working with partners in the country to find out what their needs are,” says Beth Murphy, deputy head of operations. “It’s not just that it’s a waste of effort to send the wrong books, but it can cost money at the other end to dispose of them.”
Book Aid sorts and recycles any books that are irrelevant or too old to be useful. The number of books it has to recycle varies from “month to month, from donation to donation”, but it has gone down significantly since the charity started sourcing most of its books direct from publishers rather than the general public. However, many donations made by publishers are overstocks or remainders, Murphy says.
The charity BookPower works on a different model, providing low-priced, English-language, tertiary-level textbooks to poorer countries by subsiding publishers’ production costs. Publisher partners include Kogan Page, Cengage Learning, Palgrave Macmillan and Hodder & Stoughton. Retail prices are generally between a fifth and a third of what UK customers pay. The scheme, which operates in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean, has made more than 550,000 copies of 44 titles available since 2002.
Executive director Valerie Teague says titles chosen for the programme have to be well-established textbooks already, approved by BookPower’s panel of academic advisors and in demand from the countries involved. Publishers have to accept lower returns on titles included in BookPower’s scheme, yet are able to get into markets where they would otherwise not sell because their prices are too high.
But some in the book trade think it’s time to re-examine donation schemes because many charities do not take into account the receiving countries’ needs. Chris Paterson, former chairman of Macmillan Education, says: “There are a very few operators who succeed well—the Beit Trust and Book Aid are examples—but there are an enormous number of donations to Africa and other emerging countries, and there is a difference between useful and appropriate donations, and inappropriate ones.”
He adds: “[Book donation is] a quick win for somebody wanting to appear to do good things—it’s pretty easy to pick overstocks and present them to people. But it’s only really useful if there is input from the recipient.”
One well-placed industry figure, who is uncomfortable with the “colonial nature” of the schemes, says the focus needs to shift away from donation: “In the long term, we need to encourage and train indigenous publishers so they can publish local authors with books local people can buy. We need to go out there in partnership with the local industry organisation and say: ‘What do you need? This is what we can offer,’ and have a programme to benefit the country in the long run.”
Some publishers in the developing world also have criticisms. Tainie Nundondo, executive director of the Ghana-based African Publishers’ Network (Apnet), says: “The donor who is giving the book should buy it from local publishers. The only area where books from the UK and Europe are good is at the tertiary level, where some of the universities follow an international curriculum. Few of the African publishers publish at that level as student numbers are low and it is not cost-effective.”
Local publishers concentrate on the secondary level, and with curriculum often country-specific, they can better cater to students’ needs. “Books from Europe are culturally not suitable,” Nundondo adds. “There is a need for local content and culture; books that are culturally relevant, morally relevant.”
Ian Randle of Ian Randle Publishing in Kingston, Jamaica, disapproves of the programmes. He says: “All the so-called book donation schemes at the end of the day help to support UK publishers and reinforce cultural influences that are alien to the recipient countries. If the organisers of these schemes really wanted to help the developing countries, they would ensure that the books are published in the countries to which they are sending donations, or selections from regional or even other developing-world publishers.
“It is not unknown for perfectly acceptable books published locally to remain stacked in warehouses while donated books are distributed to libraries because they are ‘free’.”
Randle also criticises the Educational Low-Priced Book Scheme (ELBS), a government-subsidised scheme for distributing low-cost titles to developing countries that was wound up in the 1990s: “In the case of Ian Randle Publishers, we would probably not have survived as a tertiary/academic publisher if schemes like ELBS had remained in existence,” he says.
Proponents of book donation and subsidised schemes, however, say they help to stimulate literacy and book reading in the countries involved, increasing the potential market for a local industry. Nick Perren, who was m.d. of John Murray when as an independent it had a large education publishing programme, says: “It’s all about relevance—you can’t just [dump] Key Stage Two books in Ethiopia. But does it damage local publishers [when relevant book donations are made]? I don’t think so. It creates a book-reading culture, and shouldn’t that help a bit?”
Book Aid’s Murphy says the charity has chosen the 12 sub-Saharan countries in which it works by looking at the relative weakness of the local publishing sector. “We would never work in South Africa, because it has an established publishing industry. We work in countries where the industry is fledgling, and wherever we send books we try to support local publishing too.”
The charity recently made a £10,000 grant to Kenya and Tanzania for the national library service to buy locally produced books.
Valerie Teague says BookPower helps local booksellers by giving them books at prices they can sell in their market, and it has never have been in competition with local publishers because the higher education markets are too small to support the development of publishers for that level.
BookPower is also keen to develop partnerships with local publishers, she says, “not to subsidise them because their books are already priced to market, but because our logo is a guarantee that the titles are of a standard and our main aim is to get affordable, international-level textbooks to as many students as possible”.
Yet Teague admits that UK publishers are less keen on local publishers being included: “They see it as competition. We hope to convince our British publishers, as we can’t see it would be a problem.”
Some believe the book trade could and should do better in the way it approaches its charitable book programmes. One senior industry figure says: “In the long term, there needs to be healthy local publishing. In the short term, we need to do what we’re doing, but cut back on book donation and refocus on offering [publishing] training programmes. We shouldn’t just dump unwanted stock, then tick our CSR box and say we’ve done our part.”
For others, the practical realities on the ground mean that donation is still an immensely valuable charitable activity for countries with no real capacity for local production and a great need for books.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t exist at all and we wouldn’t need to send UK books to Africa,” Murphy says. “But other than in school textbooks, strong local publishing is such a long, long way away, with factors such as a lack of basic infrastructure making distribution so much more expensive.”