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Insights and Analysis

Beating the Odds: Distributing Books in Pakistan

November 4, 2009

By Alma Freeman, Syed Zahid Abbas

Late last month, suicide attacks hit Pakistan’s International Islamic University in relatively peaceful Islamabad, killing at least six people – another violent event that continues to pull the capital further into the fray. In even less secure areas, such as Pakistan’s Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest province, such targeted violence is well known – militants in mid-January imposed a ban on girls’ schools, claiming that they do not abide by the teachings of Islam. Since then, hundreds of boys’ and girls’ schools have been systematically shuttered or burned down and girls threatened with acid or death for violating the ban and bravely attending school anyway.

This situation, coupled with rising violence as the Pakistani government increases efforts against militant forces, has caused growing security challenges to Books for Asia’s operations in Pakistan. When the program first started back in the 1950s, security posed little risk and books were delivered on the backs of camels across rugged terrain. Now, the danger involved in traveling with a truckload of books to institutions in remote destinations is by far the program’s greatest concern.

When the Books for Asia program began operation in Pakistan in the 1950s, books were delivered by camels, as pictured here.

When the Books for Asia program began operation in Pakistan in the 1950s, books were delivered by camels, as pictured here.

Determined not to neglect any part of the country, the Books for Asia program takes books from Islamabad to a central location in far-flung provinces such as Peshawar or Quetta. The idea is to invite institutions in the area to travel short distances to pick out books from the location themselves. These “Book Fairs” help overcome security challenges by providing a centralized, secure location that allows books to reach people in more remote or insecure areas. The fairs are wildly successful and have allowed the program to distribute nearly 40,000 books so far through this model. Currently, more than 40 percent of all books donated in Pakistan go to institutions in the North-West Frontier and Baluchistan Provinces.

Representatives from different institutions select books at a Books for Asia Book Fair.

Representatives from different institutions select books at a Books for Asia Book Fair.

Another Day, Another Challenge

In a warehouse in San Leandro, California, just south of Oakland, stacks of boxes filled with books, shrink-wrapped and methodically tagged by destination – Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan – are balanced atop rows of wooden forklift pallets. It’s hard to imagine that these sparkling new books donated by major publishers – from learning ABCs to Botany 101 – can ever make the arduous journeys that lie ahead. The books are loaded onto container ships at Oakland’s port, from where they travel days, weeks, even months, to their respective destinations: primary schools and universities, libraries, and resource centers across Asia.

Despite often treacherous voyages and head-spinning transportation logistics, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program has been distributing books like these throughout Asia since 1954. Which, despite the challenges, is how more than 3 million books have reached the hands of people in Pakistan, including in some of the country’s most conflict-riddled and remote areas.

Fighting Illiteracy, One Page at a Time

Pakistan’s literacy rate, at around 50 percent, remains an acute development challenge, while the pre-existing gap between girls and boys has only worsened with the recent targeting of girls’ schools. The situation is worse along the Afghan border of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the literacy rate for girls hovers in the single digits, compared to 30 percent for boys.

The battle against illiteracy is partly due to a lack of educational institutions. However, many factors contribute to the problem, including poverty, a lack of skilled teachers, reluctance to send girls to school, fear of attending school due to security concerns, as well as insufficient commitment from the government. These challenges are more severe for children internally displaced by conflict. The past year has seen approximately 2 million people displaced from northwest Pakistan, and now more than 100,000 from South Waziristan. Hundreds of thousands have returned home to northwest Pakistan, but displacement continues, as does violence. Education has been disrupted considerably. Hundreds of thousands of children have been left with no access to schools, and tens of thousands of four- to six-year-olds live in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP).

Due to increased conflict in certain areas of Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of children have been displaced, such as these above, and are living temporarily in IDP camps.

Due to increased conflict in certain areas of Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of children have been displaced, such as these above, and are living temporarily in IDP camps.

Despite these dismal circumstances, it could be said that a silver lining is emerging for some displaced children whose schools were destroyed or who were banned from attending school in their hometown. The Pakistani government and international NGOs are now working together to build tent schools in the camps, providing a semblance of education in a relatively secure environment. In partnership with the Government of Pakistan through the National Commission for Human Development, the Ministry of Women Development, and Islamic Relief, and with local civil society groups, Books for Asia has begun donating books to IDP camps. Plans are in place to donate more books when the new container of books arrives in the coming months from the warehouse in San Leandro.

Since the IDP schools reach children, especially girls, who might otherwise not receive an education, parents living in the camps often express pleasure at the exposure to education, however limited. They also show great interest in continuing their children’s education upon return to their homes. However, challenges remain. These schools need basic supplies and equipment such as desks and chairs. With winter approaching, sitting on the bare floor will no longer be a viable option. The camps are overcrowded and demand for books is very high. Finding funds to pay delivery freight charges for the books is another reality, since host institutions normally pay freight fees and the IDP schools are in no position to take on such a cost.

Reviving the Books for Asia’s “Box Libraries Initiative” could be part of the solution. Running from 1986 to 1990, the initiative provided local-language children’s books as well as new Books for Asia-donated English-language books. These were packaged in large metal boxes for distribution to community schools and resource centers that lacked the sufficient infrastructure to support full shipments of English-language books.

English language education is mandatory in much of Pakistan. Many girls and boys, generally segregated until university, attend English-language track schools that begin English curriculum at age six, or attend regular government schools taught in the local language but which require students to take and pass English-language courses. But in the case of the IDP camps, where education for children has been disrupted, providing such tools as box libraries with local-language books alongside English books could complement the curriculum and better prepare students when – and wherever – they return home.

Syed Zahid Abbas ([email protected]) is the Manager of the Foundation’s Books for Asia Program in Pakistan, and Alma Freeman ([email protected]) works in The Asia Foundation’s Communications office. Read more about The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia Program in Pakistan.

Related locations: Pakistan
Related programs: Books for Asia


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