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Public Libraries; A New Frontier for Ethiopia

By Ibrahim Rashid
Tigrai Online, Ethiopian News, June 10, 2016

Public Libraries; A New Frontier for Ethiopiaa

The role that libraries in Africa could play in reducing poverty has not been sufficiently recognized and hence the necessary policy developments and investment in the library network have not yet been made. Policy makers and donors, recognizing the link between poverty reduction and literacy, have given center stage to textbooks in policies to increase literacy and student achievement levels. Yet textbooks are the beginning of the solution, not the complete answer. Libraries sustain literacy and do so on a reuse basis providing a cost-effective means of support for a whole community of readers who seek information for tackling their own problems.

While the West manufactures and ingests a glut of information every day the vast majority of Africans subsist on very little. Media is underdeveloped, internet access is limited to a privileged few and the most basic tools of literacy and learning, in the form of books, must often be shared between six or more pupils.

Here in our country, Ethiopia, Few schools have a school library and many regional states are yet to fully grab the importance of public libraries in providing literacy and ICT programs to rural communities’ throughout Ethiopia. Because in today’s global information society, non-literate people are at a permanent disadvantage unsure of their rights, unable to fulfil their potential and unable to play a full part in society. They are disempowered. Literacy is a right and a capability that is fundamental to overcoming poverty.

Both public libraries and school libraries have a vital function in supporting learners to acquire, maintain and develop their literacy. Yet most poor communities in Africa do not have access to a library and those that do exist are almost always poorly resourced. This damages educational outcomes for many. The report on the availability of books and learning materials in Africa produced for the 2000 Education for All assessment commented that, “As the decade came to a close, school libraries were said to have the lowest of priorities in educational spending.

In sub Saharan Africa adult literacy levels are now 61% (UNDP 2005). But without regular use literacy skills can be lost within a few years. A large percentage of participants in adult literacy programs lapse into illiteracy within just a few years if they don’t have access to follow up support and appropriate reading materials. In addition Poor quality education and shortages of reading materials always condemn many children to finishing basic education with very limited literacy skills.

To create literate environments, people need to be surrounded by accessible written information, for learning, research, skills development, leisure or immediate practical purposes. Strong literate environments are underpinned by thriving local publishing, bookselling and media industries, which help to ensure people can get hold of locally relevant materials, including local languages, and local information that reflects local culture, traditions and needs. For people living in poverty, it is crucial to have access to such materials – and this is where public libraries have an important role to play, with their mandate of free and universal access, but in the absence of libraries and related institutions human progress on all fronts are stifled.

Development information, in particular, can enable people to fight poverty, deprivation and illiteracy. Rural and urban poor communities are better able to tackle problems and introduce social change if they can get information relevant to their needs and interests and hence as we usher in the new Ethiopian year of 2009, let’s all pull our resources together and invest in our future and that of our country by investing in Public libraries.

Governments, aid donors and development agencies have a responsibility to counteract information shortages and illiteracy, to empower people to act as agents of their own development: Our joint goal should be to enable all people to have the opportunity to realize their knowledge potential through gaining literacy and relevant information.

Education is the greatest equalizer in today’s global village,” said Mr. Tewolde GabreMariam, Ethiopian Airlines group CEO. And its only when all Ethiopians have access to adequate reading materials can we all hope to gain and maintain literacy skills for life.

The legacy of our late Prime Minister Mr. Meles Zenawi will always be remembered among other things, the building of the great Ethiopian Abay hydro-electric dam. Hence, in order to see the building of an Ethiopian great society that is at the forefront of science and technology it will need a great leap forward in literacy. It’s not a Utopian idea if in a couple of years Ethiopia becomes a giant and a leader in the ICT sector in Africa, as we push on to become a middle income country, but that will need a greatly informed, educated and highly skilled population.

All great leaders have contributed to humanity in one or more fields that they exceled or provided visionary ideas that were revolutionary at the time. You plan your legacy now and not later, as the English writer William Wordswoth once said “history is lived forward but is written in retrospect, we know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it is to know the beginning only.” Perhaps it will be wonderful if our current Prime Minister Mr. Hailemariam Desalign added to his already busy schedule the construction of multi-storey complex library buildings in all big and small cities of our country which in turn will add to the aesthetic beauty of our towns and cities while also providing educational access to all walks of life with ICT at the center stage of all this progress. You chose your legacy now and not latter.

It is the year 2070 and I am visiting Jijiga … Memorial library with its massive Roman architecture and columns, should I go inside and read a book of my choice or just pull out my camera and take pictures of these massive statues of lions welcoming me and other visitors to the gates of the colossal library.   My grandchildren asking “grandpa who among great Ethiopian prime ministers started building all this massive and huge libraries throughout Ethiopia” and my answer will be ‘it all started with an idea may be an article but that Prime Minister is in the hearts of all Ethiopians and loved by all, because he chose to act when the time was ripe. He is the Honorable…’.

The author Ibrahim Rashid Hassan is based in Jijiga. He is YALI 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow and works with the United Nations World Food Programme in Jijiga Area Office. Ibrahim is also the Director of Kali Ethiopian Rural Libraries Initiative, a volunteer organization that advocates for the establishment of libraries in both rural and urban centers of Ethiopia, so as to increase Youth, girls and women’s access to educational and recreational facilities.

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