Book donation programmes revisited

Book donation programmes revisited

Book donation programmes revisited

“Book Donation Programmes for Africa: Time for a Reappraisal? Two Perspectives” is a two-part study in English and in French published in African Research & Documentation. Journal of SCOLMA - the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa, no. 127 (2015) [Published November 2016]: 3-137 (part I), 139-215 (part II). This is a summary of the study, with extracts from its conclusions, and as well as offering some further thoughts on the topic.

Pre-print online versions of the full study are freely accessible at, at the links indicated below.

The Editor of African Research & Documentation, Terry Barringer (, is inviting responses and debate about the study, and feedback from receiving libraries in Africa will be particularly welcome. African Books Collective will also welcome feedback from African publishers, and others, for publication on its new pages. 

Summary of the study

Part I: Book Donation Programmes in English-speaking Africa, by Hans M. Zell

Book aid is complex, problematic, and sometimes controversial, but the literature and research on book donation programmes for Africa is still surprisingly scant.

This wide-ranging, extensively documented investigation attempts to shed more light on current book donation practices, and provides an overview and profiles of the work of the principal book aid organizations active in the English-speaking parts of sub-Saharan Africa; describing how they differ in their approach and strategies, donation philosophy, selection policies, their methods of shipping and local distribution, the quantities of books they are shipping annually, as well as their processes of monitoring and evaluation. A total of 12 of the leading book donation organizations – in the UK, the Netherlands, the USA, and in South Africa – are individually profiled. (Organizations in Belgium and in France, operating in the francophone countries of Africa, are analysed in part II of the study.)

A number of small-scale book donation and library support projects are reviewed separately, as are digital donations in the form of e-reading devices preloaded with e-books.

The article aims to provide a balanced account, presenting a variety of viewpoints about both the benefits and the potential adverse effects of book aid. In particular, the study sought to find out how many African-published books are included in current donation schemes.

As part of a review of the recent literature on the topic, it examines the ongoing debate between the proponents of book donation schemes, and those who disapprove of the programmes; who maintain that they are not meeting the needs of the recipients and the target countries for the most part, and have an adverse impact on the local publishing industries and the book trade.

The article also questions why large scale book donation programmes should continue to be necessary today, after millions of books have been shipped and donated to African libraries, schools and other recipients every year over the last three decades or more. It examines the status and role of chronically under-resourced African libraries and, in the absence of adequate government support, their continuing dependence on book donation programmes and other external assistance.

Extracts from the Conclusions

The study recognizes that many book donation organizations are constantly working towards a clearer identification of need, more careful selection of material donated, and enhancing monitoring and evaluation processes of their programmes to ensure that books donated are relevant and well used. However, it is essential that evaluations or impact studies are carried out more rigorously and more systematically, and that they ought to be transparent and publicly accessible.

These negative consequences also relate to the weakening of the viability and prosperity of African publishers through limiting their reach into their own markets for which they are publishing. Supplies of donated books from overseas can significantly suppress demand for locally published books because many governments rely on overseas donation programmes to fill book shelves in schools and libraries. Proponents of book donation and subsidised schemes usually argue that they help to stimulate literacy and book reading in the countries involved, increasing the potential market for a local industry. Yet many high quality, culturally relevant books published locally may remain stacked in African publishers’ warehouses while huge quantities of externally donated books are distributed to libraries because they are free.

Judging by statements on various book donation organizations’ website, it would also appear that many book charities in the countries of the North are poorly informed about the state of the book industries in Africa, and the rich diversity of books currently available from numerous indigenous African publishers. The myth of an almost total absence of indigenous publishing – “there are few or no publishers in the countries we work” – has been perpetuated by many book donation organizations for years.

Part II: Le don de livre, mais à quel prix, et en échange de quoi? Un regard sur le don de livre en Afrique francophone [Book donations, but at what price, and in exchange for what? An overview of book donation practice in francophone Africa] by Raphaël Thierry

(In French, with an abstract in English)

Part II of the study examines the relationship between book donations and the publishing markets in francophone Africa, and is part of an attempt to analyse the evolution of North/South relations through its book markets, which has always been intrinsically linked to an institutional history of cooperative relations between African countries and international agencies since the dawn of independence. Book donations imported through a variety of agencies and organizations occupies a historic place in francophone Africa, and has contributed to an omnipresence of the products by Northern publishers. Meanwhile African publishers’ output is usually limited to perhaps 10% of the books stocked and available for sale in local bookshops. And it is the same picture for school textbooks, heavily dominated and monopolized by, and over 80% the products of foreign publishers, mostly French. The African publishing houses that were initially set up in the francophone regions of Africa were primarily designed to facilitate the importation of foreign books from publishers in France, through both commercial and philanthropic organizations. However, this flow of books was only able to grow through the development of bilateral and multilateral cooperation dedicated to promoting a culture of reading. Moreover, book donations reached a new stage with the rise of book surplus monitoring, particularly through the ‘désherbage en bibliothèque’ (library collection weeding policies) in France in the 1980s. It is a little bit ironic that better resource management in France has, albeit indirectly, led in turn to book donation excess, and consequently to a different faced deregulation of the ‘book chain’ in francophone Africa.

In France NGOs are nowadays becoming increasingly central in the book donation field (especially in digital formats), motivated by a logic which until then principally belonged to the field of foreign cooperation. However, the study questions whether this is not in fact a new form of substitution, and points out that the success of such substitution will depend of the level of dialogue and collaboration the NGOs will be able to establish with the book professions in Africa.

How to bring about change

There will continue to be many occasions when appropriate book donations to recipients in Africa – to improve or replenish existing libraries, or build new libraries – will meet a genuine demand. Equally, there will probably remain a need to support underfunded and book-starved small community and school libraries in Africa in the foreseeable future, as they simply haven’t got the funds to purchase books. So there will continue to be a place for a variety of book donation schemes, provided such schemes are recipient-request led and meet either specific collection or other special needs.

Meantime, in order to bring about a genuine change in book donation practises, I believe there are a number of essential requirements:

Well-intentioned though they might be, large-scale donation programmes may not always be the most effective solution to meet book needs in Africa. Individually tailored and recipient request-led schemes, specially curated shelf-ready library collections, or other forms of support, such as financial support for shipping costs, or assisting libraries and schools with the purchase of books by local authors and publishers to the greatest extent possible, may well be more appropriate. A number of such schemes, past and present, are described in the study.

Some of these smaller projects and initiatives have demonstrated a rather more enlightened approach to the whole area of ‘book giving’ than the big book aid players, who rarely seem to be overly concerned about the state of the African book industries, much less supporting them. One of these smaller organizations is Lubuto Library Partners that works in partnership with other NGOs and community-based organizations to build libraries and library networks in Zambia. Supporting African publishers is part of their mission, and this is what they had to say in a recent newsletter

Libraries thrive when publishers thrive. Whether they produce paper books or e-books, a robust publishing industry is necessary for the educational and intellectual life of a society. The progress of African publishers and booksellers has been impeded in recent years by well–meaning external book donation programs from wealthy areas. Lubuto is committed to strengthening Zambian and regional publishers.

Lubuto also rightly stresses the importance of librarians evaluating donated materials by the same criteria as materials being purchased for library collections, and that a strengthened local publishing industry supports literary expression and consumption

A good and effective library always pays close attention to developing a balanced and appropriate collection; it can't be “given" to them from an external source. Beyond the library perspective, the development of local publishing inspires local people to become authors and illustrators and greatly increases access to affordable books among children and youth.