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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Dr. Neubauer: Leading Library Movement in Nepal

Nepal Monitor's KRISHNA SHARMA interviews DR. ANTONIA NEUBAUER, the person behind Nepal's library movement.

Dr. Antonia Neubauer is Founder and President of Myths and Mountains, Inc., and READ (Rural Education and Development)- Global. The goals of both the non-profit INGOs are to introduce participants in unfamiliar cultures and immerse them in such cultures in a manner that encourages understanding and appreciation of their global neighbors, and improves rural education and infrastructure throughout the developing world. Dr. Antonia started READ- Global project from Nepal where the organization has so far built 47 rural libraries. READ-Nepal was honored with the $1,000,000 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2006 Access to Learning Award and it also received a $3,000,000 replication grant in 2007.

The recipient of Global Citizen Award, Dr. Antonia perhaps comes after legendary Tony Hagen when it comes to taking Nepal to the rest of the world, traveling and contributing to Nepal’s development endeavors. Born in New York, Dr. Antonia can converse in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Nepali. She is also a featured speaker at various universities including Yale, Georgetown, Washington and Lee, to name a few.
In a recent interview given to Nepal Monitor’s Krishna Sharma, Dr. Antonia talks exclusively about how small efforts could make big differences. Excerpts:

What inspired you to start READ Global project, and why from Nepal?
When we began our travel company, Myths and Mountains, we wanted to give something back to the people in the countries we visited who were helping us. In the early days, we gave scholarships to students (the first Nepali to graduate from an American medical school was someone we funded), provided benches and desks to schools, and helped to put doctors in an Amazon village. These, however, were band aids on bleeding arteries.

Additionally, I had trekked extensively in Nepal, and seen feasibility studies for dams that earned money for foreign consultants, but never were built; seen schools and hospitals erected by well-meaning foreigners, that either had to be supported by the donors for the rest of their lives or fell to ruin; and seen village people turned into beggars by well-meaning travelers, who thought they were helping by giving pencils, candy or money to children.

Finally, even though cities had many problems, they still had some infrastructure. Villages, however, really had little or no infrastructure. Schools were falling apart, they had no books, there was little medical care, roads, or irrigation, and villagers were migrating to the city to earn money and create opportunity for their family. Yet these villages were so beautiful and the air was so fresh. My question became, “How do you make a village a viable place for people to live?”

At the end of a trek in 1988, people started to tip me, and I asked our Sirdar, Ang Domi Lama Sherpa, from Junbesi, “If you could do anything in your village, what would you do?”

He answered, “I would like to build a library”. For me, this was an epiphany. If you built a library in a village with a secondary school and a hub of elementary schools, you could create a vibrant community center that would serve a large area and many people. Yet, my goal was to make this sustainable. The upshot was a three-pronged program – a model of creative capitalism:

1. Educational development through the construction of a library/community center with a large meeting room
2. Economic development by seeding a business, whose profits would fully sustain and support the library community center and provide jobs for villagers
3. Social development, by linking this library community center with other I/NGOs that would provide other services – microcredit, literacy classes, health and HIV workshops, agricultural and livestock workshops, etc.

How did you feel when Access to Learning Award-2007 was presented to you by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the contributions that you made in Nepal?
It is important to understand that the ATLA award was presented not to me, but to READ Nepal. That said, I was enormously proud of the recognition that this program had finally achieved. To have the READ model recognized by a foundation as prestigious as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave it credibility in the eyes of the world and opened the doors to the possibility of expanding this highly successful model to other countries. Needless to say, I was enormously proud of all that everyone associated with READ had done and felt that all of our hard work – and sacrifice, for there was sacrifice on the part of many who worked to build READ – had really paid off. Yes, I was crying!

What highlight experiences did you have while establishing the 47 self-sustaining village libraries in Nepal?
Goodness, there were so many highlights, it is hard to separate one from another. Each time you dedicate a library, it is a highlight. When you see a woman earning $3/day, because she attended a workshop on mushroom farming at a library, it is a highlight. When you see a dalit child from a poor family, who scored the highest on her exams and won a scholarship to college because she walked 2 miles every day to study at the library, it is a highlight. When, all of a sudden, people who laughed at the idea of building libraries back in 1991 now want to build their own libraries, it is a highlight!

How experiences gained in other countries in connection with READ Global project are similar or different to Nepal?
People always want to succeed in every country, in every town, in every village. If you can help by unlocking a door, they will always try and go through. For programs such as READ, though, there are no cookie cutter models that translate to every country or every village, nor is village empowerment a “quick fix”. If one wants to institutionalize change, s/he has to be willing to spend time to make the change succeed.

Certainly, just as every village is different, every country is different. Each has its own political configurations and regulations for INGOs, its own reporting peculiarities, its own customs, languages, etc. One has to recognize these differences and adapt the program to suit them. On the other hand, the basic strategies for working with villages and villagers is the same. The training components are basically the same, the components of a READ library are the same, as is the pairing of the library with a business. It is like teaching – what you teach is prescribed, but how you teach depends on the students and the environment in which you are working. With READ, what the model consists of is prescribed, but how you implement it needs to be adapted to the particular circumstances and countries in which you are working.

What challenges did you encounter while working with the ups and downs of the Nepalese political bureaucracy and the Maoist's so called peoples' war?
The only challenges READ really faced were the logistical ones of getting out to different areas because of fighting or strikes. Otherwise, READ had very few problems with any of the political entities in Nepal. First of all, READ is non-governmental, non-religious, and a-political. Each library was a Zone of Peace and treated as such.

Secondly, READ did not work through any governmental or political entity. READ contracted directly with villagers. Villagers came to READ, READ did not go to them. Villagers also put their own money and labor into these library/community centers and businesses, so they were theirs, not the government’s and not READ’s. Before READ would start to build a library, all of the stakeholders in a village – political parties, NGOs, etc., had to sign the contract and understood their role. Thus, where one political group might destroy a building that belonged to another, no one destroyed a library, because it belonged to the village.

Additionally, READ was doing what all of the political parties and the government said they wanted to do – providing education, jobs, and building communities for all people in Nepal of all classes.

Lastly, READ really tried to use its money to help the people, not pay high salaries or drive fancy cars. As such, it was respected by all in the country.

In essence, the fighting really did not affect READ in any major way at all. We have been garlanded by people of all persuasions, which is as it should be!

You have said that the lack of education is the primary cause of poverty and political instability in any country. How much do you think your 17 years of READ-Nepal experience has influenced educational and political scenario in Nepal?
The educational scenario has certainly changed and “libraries” are certainly on everyone’s lips in Nepal these days. It would be a mistake to attribute the increase in literacy in Nepal to READ alone, although it certainly has helped. The government has built many new schools, improved others, and there is a proliferation of private schools. Additionally, now far more children attend school. Back in 1988, the scenario was very different.
On the other hand, READ has certainly helped to create a climate for learning in Nepal and a momentum behind the Nepali library movement. READ Nepal coordinates the National Reading Day and runs the National Writing Contest. READ Nepal has been behind the creation of the Nepal Rural Library Association, bringing together rural librarians from all over Nepal. READ has made it possible for villagers of all classes and gender throughout Nepal to have access to newspapers and information and has provided computers to people without prior access. Equally important, READ’s success has inspired others to create libraries, such as the Kathmandu Valley Library or the libraries associated with Room to Read. One must always remember that READ was (and is today) the lending library pioneer in Nepal!

How have the libraries sustained and created jobs in the villages where they are established?
On average, READ creates 5 jobs in each READ community. The READ model both provides for sustainability and job creation in villages in two ways. The most innovative aspect of the READ model is the seeding of a local business or businesses that belong(s) to the village. Villagers work together to select the business or businesses they want. For example, one village commented, “Why are we talking about building a library, when we cannot even get our people to a hospital?!” READ worked with villagers to select an ambulance as a sustaining business for the library. In that way, the people not only could get medical assistance, they had a library. There were jobs in the library and jobs driving the ambulance. The income from the ambulance went to sustain the library and help with other community activities.

Another village chose a furniture factory. The profits from the furniture factory have not only supported the library, but helped to build an addition to the boarding school and a bridge over the Kali Gandhaki to shorten the route for students to school. The factory has also provided employment in the village. Other sustaining projects include mills, rickshaw service, fish ponds, etc. All these provide income and jobs for villagers, as well as support the library.

Secondly, the libraries conduct workshops that help villagers generate jobs and income. There are microfunding and micro-credit classes and opportunities. For example, an illiterate woman in Jhuwani took a class on mushroom farming, and now earns $3/day growing mushrooms in her home. Other men and women have received micro-loans for businesses.

Many people say that Nepal is not a reading culture. It is an oral culture. What is your take?
Sadly, until the Shah Dynasty, only the children of royalty and elites could get an education in the country. As such, Nepal is not a reading culture in the sense that some other countries are. Good reading habits are formed at an early age, and only now is Nepal beginning to have pre-schools and early learning centers for younger children. These pre-school activities will go a long way towards creating a future reading culture.

At the same time, with the increase in the number of schools and the recognition that education is vital for a job and future in today’s world, there is more and more interest in reading, if only to pass the exams. We do see in our libraries that there is a great interest in novels to read for amusement, so reading, when books are available, is very meaningful to Nepalis. It is READ’s hope that as more and more people have access to books, publishers will translate more and more books into Nepali, writers will write more books for the public, and the culture will truly become one of reading and books.

At the same time, one does not want to lose the oral tradition and culture. It is critical to record the stories and lives of older people, and keep this history alive for future generations. The libraries serve as wonderful repositories for this oral heritage.

What other plans do you have for Nepal? How much more do you plan to spend in Nepal's villages while you have similar projects in other countries?
It is important to separate what is “me” and what is READ Global. For READ Global, Nepal is and will always be very important as a pilot site and as a model for the world. We want very much to see READ Nepal continue to expand its library/community centers and businesses throughout all the corners of the country. Secondly, we sincerely hope that the internet and broadband connections in Nepal will expand and link the country together through our READ libraries. Finally, it is our hope that READ Nepal will, like the villages, become self-sustaining, with businesses that benefit the country, in the same way that the village businesses help the community. READ Global is based on the conviction that people can take care of themselves, if given a chance, and that assistance from outside should only be a hands up, not fostering a climate of dependence.

As for me, Nepal is a second home to me, and I have many friends and people who are like family. I hope over the years, to continue to return to this place I love.

You have visited Tibet extensively. Do you have any plans to launch any programs there?
Tibet is not on our list of countries at present. We are, however, exploring the possibilities in Bhutan, Bangladesh, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, among other countries.

What suggestions would you like to give to Nepal government which is currently undergoing a critical socio-political phase?
Ours is not to meddle in politics or advise governments. We can only hope that this government, and any government that Nepal may have in the future, will give priorities to education as the door to the future, and expansion and development of the country’s broadband and internet connections, so that Nepal can tap into the incredible wealth of knowledge that is available to so many in our world today.

As far as READ is concerned, the reality is that it does what all of the Nepali governments have said they want to do –help to improve the educational, economic and social development of the people, and empower people to take care of themselves. We would certainly hope that the Government of Nepal, READ Nepal and READ Global continue to work closely together and that perhaps READ can benefit from future government financial support for its poverty alleviation activities.


Posted by Editor on July 27, 2008 2:09 PM