Black Affairs, Africa and Development

Books have the power to transform African lives

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In David Shariatmadari’s review of William MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better (Review, 22 August), he quotes the author as saying that books do not advance education in Africa. That is a paradox to say the least. There is plenty of data to indicate that books do indeed advance student achievement. In fact, a World Bank report in May 2015 emphasises the urgent need to get textbooks into the hands of every student in sub-Saharan Africa: “No other input is likely to be more cost-effective than making high-quality learning materials available to all students…”.

In addition, the World Bank undertook two large-scale studies (1987, 2002) involving over 89 education projects across Africa. The findings confirmed the cost-effectiveness and importance of books, with the 2002 report indicating that in Africa, next to a good teacher, “a good textbook is the most effective medium of instruction”.

Sebastian Fehrler, Katharina Michaelowa and Anke Weber confirmed these findings in a 2007 study of 22 sub-Saharan African countries. This analysis concluded that textbooks, teacher guides and wallcharts were low-cost inputs with high returns in terms of student achievement. A year before, Michaelowa and Wechtler found that by providing one textbook to every student in a classroom, literacy scores increased by 5%-20%. It was also found that due to the “peer effect,” providing books to the peers of students increased the educational skills of the students themselves, even without books.

A Books For Africa study of the impacts of books in central Tanzania in 2007 found a significant increase in student comprehension and fluency due to donated books. Most of the 33m books shipped to Africa by Books For Africa, the US-based non-profit to which MacAskill referred, have been financed or organised by Africans themselves. Clearly, Africans believe that books increase educational capacity. Clearly, MacAskill believes that books increase knowledge, or he would not have written his book. Are things really so different in Cambridge and Africa? Do books work in Cambridge but not Africa?
Patrick Plonski
Executive director, Books For Africa

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