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Tanyella Evans headshot

Sounding the Alarm on Global Learning Poverty

The world is facing a literacy crisis: A staggering 70 percent of 10-year-olds do not understand a simple written text. This nonprofit is out to build literacy globally by publishing multilingual books on a free digital app and empowering creators to write books in their languages.
By Tanyella Evans
Masoro Learning Center builds literacy in Kigali Rwanda

NABU Reading Ambassadors read with children at the Masoro Learning Center in Kigali, Rwanda. In 2022, NABU and HP established the NABU HP Creative Lab in Kigali to empower local writers and illustrators to create culturally relevant, native tongue children’s books while learning new digital skills. 

As the executive director and co-creator of NABU, a New York-based nonprofit publisher of multilingual books on a free digital app, I am proud to be part of the global community dedicated to tackling the global literacy crisis. Now, more than ever, we must reverse the disturbing trends accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons are not just humanitarian; they are economic as well.

According to a June report published by the World Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, the U.K. government's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), USAID, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a whopping 70 percent of 10-year-olds do not understand a simple written text. Even before the pandemic, the global learning poverty rate was 57 percent.

The economic impact is staggering, with $21 trillion lost in potential lifetime earnings by these students in present value, which is 17 percent of today’s global GDP. This is up from the $17 trillion estimated in 2021.

The alarm has been sounded, loud and clear. To confront escalating global learning poverty in a meaningful way, there must be widespread commitment, from the highest  levels down to ordinary members of society. Coalitions of families, educators, civil society, nonprofits and businesses are crucial, and all work must have concrete implementation plans.

International Literacy Day: Transforming literacy learning spaces

The theme of this year’s UNESCO International Literacy Day (observed on Sept. 8) was “transforming literacy learning spaces,” defined as “the physical environment, learning materials, and activities required to facilitate the creation of the space, while the socio-cultural environment, political environment, partnerships, and the assessment of literacy activities is crucial for the sustenance of these spaces.”

Literacy learning, in other words, is not limited to classrooms and schools. Significant learning can take place in workplaces, communities, families and libraries — and it can be digital, as the pandemic demonstrated so clearly.

UNESCO emphasizes the “imperative need for countries in conflict, host countries receiving refugees from conflict regions, for countries facing the devastating impact of climate change, for countries accelerating the post-COVID-19 recovery … to leverage from the existing innovations among the countries, adapt to the ever-evolving learner needs of the youth and adults, and transform their literacy learning spaces.”

Impact of COVID-19 on mother language education

At NABU, we are firmly committed to mother language education. We disrupt the cycle of poverty by leveraging technology to publish children’s books for free on digital platforms in mother tongue languages.

Research shows mother tongue books increase a child’s motivation to read, result in stronger parental engagement in children’s education, and provide an essential bridge to reading in English and other national languages. 
UNESCO has long advocated for education in the mother tongue, citing research that shows this is key to improving learning outcomes and academic performance. Learners are engaged and empowered to take part in society, and heritages tied to languages that could easily disappear are preserved. As part of its commitment, UNESCO sponsors International Mother Language Day each year.

During the pandemic, learning tools tended to be offered in dominant national or international languages. One notable exception is the work we did to provide children’s books in Pashto and Dari for recently displaced Afghan children globally. We worked with our office in Rwanda to translate and publish on our app 40 original titles from Kinyarwanda into Pashto and Dari for these children, as well as to create print books for distribution with the mEducation Alliance and HP Inc. While immediately addressing the need for mother tongue educational materials for those refuges, the impact will scale to benefit the larger global community of 60 million people worldwide who speak these languages. 

A window of opportunity

The pandemic, as earth-shattering and catastrophic as it has been, could actually provide a unique chance to invest in education to reverse the disturbing increases in education poverty. Global inequalities in childhood education have been revealed, and they are shocking.

We see this massive challenge as a tremendous opportunity and are collaborating with strategic partners to accelerate our impact. For example, NABU is partnering with HP to create and print culturally relevant books in native languages, including the titles Go Stella Go! and I Love Being Me!. Together, we’ve established the NABU HP Creative Labs to train hundreds of creators to write and illustrate children’s books in mother-tongue languages using the latest HP computing technology. The first NABU HP Creative Lab opened in Kigali, Rwanda, in May, with two additional labs opening in the U.S. and the Philippines this year. Through partnerships like this, we’ve been able to grow the NABU app from 100,000 readers to 1.1 million readers in just one year, as we support HP’s goal to accelerate digital equity for 150 million people by 2030. 

A World Economic Forum study makes clear the huge potential economic benefits of investing in childhood education: an additional year of education results in up to 15 percent higher lifetime earnings for a person. Further, investment in critical skills such as collaborative problem-solving could bring an additional $2.54 trillion in increased productivity to the global economy.

Investing in solving the global literacy crisis is not only essential for the betterment of humanity, it also is vital to economic progress. Children who have access to these resources NABU provides are given the opportunity read and rise to their full potential. 

This article series is sponsored by HP and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image courtesy of NABU

Tanyella Evans headshot

Tanyella Evans is the CEO and co-creator of NABU. From its inception in 2013 as a Kickstarter-funded success story, she has grown the organization into a leading publisher of multilingual children’s books, using technology to accelerate children’s literacy. Prior to NABU, Tanyella served as executive director of Artists for Peace and Justice, where she established a school for 3,000 students in one of the poorest communities in Haiti. In 2010 she helped to launch the social enterprise Giveacar in the U.K., generating new revenue streams for local charities. She started her career at the Campaign for Female Education. Tanyella is the recipient of the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, an International Literacy Association Honoree, an Echoing Green Fellow, and one of Forbes 30 Under 30.  Tanyella is a graduate of the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

Read more stories by Tanyella Evans