Toni Neubauer reflects on 20 years of READ Global

Founded by Myths and Mountains’ president, Dr. Antonia Neubauer, READ Global is a non-profit organization committed to providing individuals in rural areas with access to knowledge, resources, and opportunities to create better futures for themselves and their families. To date, READ Global has established 57 Community Library and Resource Centers in Nepal, India, and Bhutan, reaching more than 1.8 million rural villagers.

The idea for the organization was born when Toni asked her guide on a trek in Nepal what he most desired for his village. His answer? A library. This year marks the 20th anniversary of READ Global’s first library. Here, Toni talks about the success of READ and how travel philanthropy can make a difference.

What does giving back mean to you?

I’m really an iconoclast when it comes to voluntourism. There’s a difference between pity and compassion. There are certain types of voluntourism that I really value, such as Doctors without Borders. I really do not like the kind of voluntourism where people are going in and deciding what’s needed. A great many of the projects that people from the West do are liabilities ultimately for the people for whom we’ve done them. They’re the ones who have to pay teachers or doctors, buy medications, and so on.

For me, the goal is to create independence, not dependence. America likes quick fixes. When you’re trying to change society, to create a village, there’s no quick fix. It takes time to really work with the villages. There are no cookie-cutter solutions. Each country is different. We work with each government differently. We contract directly with the villagers. Each libarary is its own nongovernmental organization. In addition, all of our READ program staff are from in-country.

Why libraries?

I had started a lot of other things before READ, but they were like Bandaids on the problem. The challenge is to leverage scarce funds and reach as many as possible. It’s not just about education, but also aboutoutmigration. Many of the villages we work with lacked education, medical care, roads, and water. In the back of my mind was the question:How do you make a village a viable place so that people live, thrive, and propser? How do you find an economic business that will truly sustain a farming village in the middle of nowhere with no resources?

To me, a library is a catalyst for development. If you build a school, it’s only for the students. A medical center is only used by the sick. Alibrary is for the whole village. Our aim is always to create a real livelihood. There’s the education piece, and the economic piece. In addition, the libraries all have meeting rooms. Our libraries connect these communities with various organizations to bring in all the pieces that make a village.

One of the things I’m most proud of is the Nepal Community Library Association, which grew out of our READ Community Library and Resource Centers. This is an organization that has the capacity to do really great things, and the potential to be quite a powerful player.

How does READ work?

Every READ village has to write a proposal, donate the land, and put in minimum of 15 to 20 percent of the funds. They come to us, we do not go to them. It’s extraordinarily participatory. It involves all aspects of the village.

In Nepal, during the Maoist revolt, all of the stakeholders in village had to sign an agreement to support the library. During the violence, schools were destroyed because they were run by the government, but nobody touched the libraries because they belonged to the villages.

Another key was not just to create a library, but to create an economic support system that would keep it operating and generate income for someof the villagers. One good example is the village of Tukche in Nepal, where we seeded a furniture factory. With income from the factory the village has built schools, dormitories, Red Cross facilities, and much more. They have $35,000 in savings in the bank from factory income.