Hans Zell has been author, editor, and publisher on African topics for over four decades, and has written extensively on many aspects of publishing and book development in Africa.

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

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

  • Numerous studies over the past three decades or more have found that African library services are severely and chronically under-resourced, and have failed to attract adequate government support. Government officials and policy makers in Africa would appear to view book donations from abroad as the most effective and most economical method of providing books to their libraries, at no cost to them. For public libraries they do not seem to see a need to provide them with book acquisitions budgets, because their national library services are happy to receive substantial, ongoing donations from book aid organizations in the countries of the North. This in turn has created a culture of dependency on overseas book donation programmes, as well as other external assistance. Despite a range of advocacy activities in support of African libraries – to ensure that books and libraries are recognized, elevated to a higher profile, and adequately funded – nothing much has changed over the last decade or more. On the contrary, the level of donor dependency and external assistance seems to be on the increase. 
  • Book aid organizations continue to emphasise the desperate need for books to be donated to African libraries, schools, rural communities, and other recipients, but what is missing from their websites are statements of any kind to indicate that there is not only an acute need for books, but that it is equally important for African governments to provide much more positive support for their libraries, and make them less dependent on book donations from abroad.
  • Donation guidelines are occasionally very precise, but often are also far too broad or ambiguous, and some donations may reinforce cultural influences that are alien to the recipient countries.
  • Many book aid organizations argue, albeit not always convincingly, that they are taking into consideration the expressed needs and interests of those who will be using the books donated. 
  • The investigation found that only a small number of organizations offer access to publicly available impact studies, evaluations of their book donation programmes, or case studies that evaluate specific projects in terms of a set of identified needs. Significantly, there is also an acute lack of hard data and feedback from the recipients: the African librarians and other recipients who have benefitted from, and have been involved in processing and distributing book donations; or impartial accounts how recipient librarians react to and employ book donation programmes. 

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.

  • There have been several initiatives in recent years to encourage greater effectiveness in donated book programmes, so that there is a better match between the information needs of African libraries and schools and the books provided. This is a welcome development. However, it would not appear that many of the recommendations for good practice, and ‘correct donating’, have been adopted by the majority of the leading book charities. Or their organizational structure, their funding, or other practical constraints don’t allow them to do so.
  • Most book donation schemes are well-intentioned, but even the most well-intentioned programmes may sometimes have unintended, potentially negative consequences. The study sought to investigate whether the activities of overseas book donation organizations have an adverse effect on the local ‘book chain’ in Africa. As the figures of annual book donations from overseas dramatically demonstrate, African publishers have legitimate cause for concern that their main potential markets are flooded with millions of free books every year – a large proportion of them publishers’ overstocks or remainders – which could jeopardize the sales prospects of their own locally produced books, not to mention the damaging effect on the retail book trade. 

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.

  • The investigation found that, at this time, the inclusion of African-published books in current book donation schemes makes up a miniscule proportion of the millions of books that are shipped to Africa by donation organizations each year. 

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.

  • Well-conceived, recipient-request led book donation programmes that fill a genuine need can be highly beneficial to their intended recipients, but each programme should include a component designed to support indigenous publishing and the local ‘book chain’.

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:

  • Book donors: There will have to be a fairly fundamental shift in attitudes by the main book donation organizations in the countries of the North; as well as recognition by them that it is vital that more African-published books are included as a strong component in any donation programmes, including locally-published material in African languages. This will require a more holistic approach in their donation philosophy, and it will probably also necessitate a measure of reconfiguration of their fundraising strategies and activities. 
  • Book donation organizations tend to shift responsibility from the African government ministries that should support book purchases, but do not, to the donation programmes. It would not be unreasonable to expect that book donation organizations should take a more pro-active stance vis-à-vis governments in the African countries it operates, and where they are a major provider of books to libraries, schools as well as to higher education institutions, for example by requesting matching budgetary contributions.
  • A more enlightened approach to book giving

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 http://www.lubuto.org/ 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 http://www.lubuto.org/october-2016.

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.

  • African publishers: African publishers are rightly concerned about the potential negative effects of book donation programmes, and the magnitude of the millions of free books that enter their countries and their markets every year through external book donation programmes, but they will have to become more vocal about this threat to their livelihoods, either individually or collectively.
  • African recipient libraries: There will have to be more feedback (publicly accessible) from recipient libraries in Africa who have benefitted from, or have been involved in processing and distributing book donations. If recipient libraries do in fact wish to see a substantial increase in African-published books in donation programmes, they should make this clear in their relations with book aid organizations.
  • Dialogue: It is essential that there is a dialogue and a frank exchange of views between the leading book donation organizations, African publishers, and African recipient libraries, which might eventually lead to discussions about methods and approaches how systematic incorporation of African-published books could be successfully implemented over a period of time.
  • African governments: The plethora of book donation schemes – many often poorly planned, not recipient-request led, and inadequately monitored and evaluated – and the millions of free books that are shipped to recipients in Africa each year, have created a huge culture of dependency, which presents a sometime quite shocking picture of almost total reliance on overseas book aid organizations. The principal reason why book donation organizations exist, and are still needed, is the persistent failure by African governments, over three decades or more, to adequately support their public libraries. Unless they finally take positive action to remedy the situation, to ensure that books, libraries and reading are recognized, prioritized, and adequately funded, the picture will not change, and dependency on external assistance will continue.


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