In the summer of 2007 the remarkable student charity READ International distributed no less than 98,000 books (plus educational equipment) to 96 schools across four regions of Tanzania. Next year eleven projects will send 275,000 books to 200 Tanzanian schools and give over 100 UK school presentations. By 2009 the network aims to have 20 university affiliates and well over 1,000 student volunteers involved.
The Director of READ International, Rob Wilson, describes how it began and the rapidity of its growth:
“It’s difficult to describe in words just how far we’ve come in the past year. What started off as a bunch of mates at Nottingham University with a vision to change the world, led to me working as a graduate, full time, from home, on my Dad’s kitchen table for a year; and now we have three full time staff, we are based in an office in central London and have a board of 8 trustees, and 250 university student volunteers.” In 2003 a group of students were inspired to assist Tanzania following a ‘Gap Year’ experience which left them determined to help. They contacted schools in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, and ‘The Tanzania Book Project’ was started to equip schools in Tanzania with books and equipment. Within the first 18 months they had collected some 40,000 books. Their work gained national acclaim when they won the ‘Students in Free Enterprise Award in 2003.’
In 2004 under the leadership of Rob Wilson a team of 25 University of Nottingham student volunteers organised the first shipment of 25,000 books, computers and sports equipment to 20 secondary schools in the Singida region of Tanzania. Wilson said: “Tanzania is one of the poorest nations in the world. In the UK nearly £6,000 is spent on every school pupil each year compared with just £70 in Tanzania. Tanzania’s syllabus is based on the UK model and all secondary school classes are taught in English. There is a critical shortage of text books while in the UK disused textbooks and reference books remain in school storerooms for years, unused, some untouched, before being thrown in the bin or pulped. Tanzania’s maths and science curriculum is based on the UK system, so these books are perfectly suited to the Tanzanian school system. READ’s operating model is simple and low-cost and makes best use of a large supply of motivated, enterprising, and enthusiastic voluntary labour.”
The charity, eventually founded under the name READ International (Realising Education Achieving Development) in 2006 by Rob Wilson, Nikki Berry and Rachel Maranto, was designed to act as an umbrella organization for the expansion of the Book Project concept to other UK universities. It was eventually launched officially as a British national charity at the House of Commons on the 31st October, 2007. It won the Charity Times Award for the ‘Best New Charity’ also in 2007.
In the UK the READ UK Schools Project helps young people to identify with their local and global communities. Their volunteers deliver school workshops to open young people’s minds to the positive impact that social enterprise, volunteering, and global citizenship can have on tackling world issues. In doing this, they encourage young people to engage in their work and create their own student-led initiatives.
READ International has now grown into a network of student volunteer- led programmes at English universities. They ‘see a world where young global citizens achieve development through the power of education’. They deliver student led initiatives to improve access to education across the world and increase youth participation in the global community.
The charity now has the full support of the Ministry of Education in Tanzania, the British Department for International Development, the British Council, the British High Commission, the Tanzanian Library Services Board and many local and international non-government organizations.
READ International was honoured in Tanzania with a national celebration event hosted by the British Council and British High Commission to congratulate it on its great work. The guest of honour was Hon Margaret Sitta, Minister for Education in Tanzania who said: “This is one of the most effective ways to alleviate poverty in Africa”
As the charity’s membership has grown so has grown their thinking. Their vision for the future is about more than books, although this remains a key vehicle for the work. Currently new projects are being prepared with many more projects on the horizon. They work primarily in Tanzania but are also active in Kenya and Uganda and have sisterprojects planned in Ecuador, Ghana, and Zambia.
Tom Levitt MP, who was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then International Development Secretary Hilary Benn hosted the event at Westminster. He said: “We know voluntary action can move mountains. In this case, young people have come together to do just that – to move mountains of books from where they are no longer needed to where they can be used to assist development. It’s a great achievement, duly recognised, but it’s only a start!”