Chris Blattman

Libraries for Africa

As far as I can tell, not a single bookstore can be found in all Liberia. You’ll find random books in market stalls (I spotted a copy of Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics in December, right beside US Constitutional Law and Anne Rice) but there’s nowhere else to access the globe’s growing knowledge.

The university? I’m not sure there’s been a library for decades.

My department at Yale recently moved buildings. Our new structure looks like a prison: Bentham’s Panopticon, as conceived by Ikea. Oddly, the architect did not think to make much room for books. Thus Yale faculty began shedding excess volumes, and I and some research assistants scurried around scavenging the best of the spares to ship to University of Liberia. That plus some personal additions, some gifts from Princeton Press, and miscellaneous donations got us about 1000 decent volumes.

I’m ready to ship, but I fear what may happen to the books when they arrive. Can the social science department really house and share them? A hundred institutional failures, petty thefts, or (most likely) lazy borrowers could mean this small donation’s depletion in a year.

Friday morning I taught growth models to my African development class. The key to wealth, they tell us, is human capital and technology. Together they count for two thirds or more of income in the OECD. Catch-up is, in part, a function of diffusion, of which libraries seem to me to be a small but essential element: not just the knowledge itself, but a love and habit of reading fostered from a young age.

Books are just one of the developing nation’s library challenges. Institutions and sustainability the other. This I am discovering.

That is why one of my favorite charities is Michael Kevane’s Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL). Michael‘s a development economist at SCU, and one of my early models for an academic life devoted to international service.

I just learned his library NGO is up for a $20,000 donation from Better Books, to construct two new libraries in Burkina Faso. All they need are votes. Take 10 seconds, if you will, to click over to Better World Books and vote for FAVL.

Tuesday is the last chance to vote. You can also donate directly here.

6 Responses

  1. I will definitely add a vote. My business colleague and friend, Dan Ahimbisibwe runs the Kitengesa Community Library, outside of Masaka, Uganda FAVL supports this library. The library does much more than just provide books to a rural community. Thanks to the addition of solar panels, it provides the main (if not only?) source of electricity in this rural area. This means there is now a space for community meetings, a place to do homework, a place to congregate after dark, a place to charge mobile phones, better access to the outside world as a result, work opportunity for students at the secondary school (that go to their school fees and a scholarship fund)… I could go on and on. Of course the community members love it! I was amazed at the multiple levels of impact when I visited it a few years back.

    They have a very simple, paper based process of library membership with fines for overdue books. It seems to work well.

    Good luck getting the books through customs and “customs.” I do recall trying to send a large package with soccer supplies to Liberia and this was a major concern. I am very curious to hear how smooth that process is. Perhaps a follow up post is in order?

  2. A bookstore recently opened next to JFK Hospital on Monrovia’s Tubman Boulevard. I haven’t been yet, or to the one Liberian library I have heard of, but not seen. I have been to the library run by the US Embassy, and its pretty amazing – in relative terms – but the woman who runs it has never once returned a phone call by me.

    And, there are at least a handful of religious bookstores, esp on Camp Johnson road.

  3. I work in a private university library here in Ghana, and even in this environment which, compared to the situation in Liberia, could be termed reasonably resourced, there are a lot of challenges in obtaining books. And as one of the comments above mentioned even if one receives shipments from outside Ghana, there are likely to be clearance charges – whether a small parcel sent through the post, or consignments sent by sea or air. There are bookshops, but they are limited in number, and they don’t always have what you want or need. And even if you can order materials, it will take several months before they arrive.

  4. It’s kind of beside the point of the post, but can you tell me the source for this statement: “The key to wealth… is human capital and technology. Together they count for two thirds or more of income in the OECD.” This would be a useful tidbit for my work.

  5. it’s possible the books could be subject to customs — when i was in kenya some twenty years ago some items like typewriters were subject to 100% tariffs. in that case they might end up in someone government beauracrat’s office for a few years until they were burned, taken into the trash, etc., or put on some book shelf somewhere meant to impress some other beauracrat or foreign visitor. i saw some sad things like that in kenya.

Comments are closed.

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog