“The International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Program”: 2014 Finding Big Ideas Winning Essay

The first New Roots program started in 2009 at the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) when a group of Somali Bantu refugees were resettled in a nearby suburb.

By Jennifer Fei

This essay is one of two winning entries to the 2014 Finding Big Ideas Essay Contest. The other winner is Shrey Goel’s essay, “Rendering the Private Public: A Collective Approach to Slum Improvement.” Last year’s winners were Courtney Mullen’s essay “Belenpampa Clinic,” and Narissa Iqbal Allibhai’s “Young Artistic Leaders Rising from the Slum.”

Fei-Group 1The first New Roots program started in 2009 at the San Diego office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) when a group of Somali Bantu refugees were resettled in a nearby suburb. When caseworkers and program managers realized that this particular group of refugees was having a difficult time adjusting and thriving to their new life in the United States, they asked what they could possibly do to make the transition easier. The Somali refugees replied that they were farmers, and would prefer to be close to the land in any way that could help bring them back to a life they once knew. A small community garden was established shortly thereafter to add an experiential component to the IRC’s resettlement services. Currently, the farm offers large market production beds, designated areas for users to compost, and even a place to participate in bee and chicken coop keeping.
Like most IRC refugee resettlement programs, the New Roots program is offered nationwide. Currently, 16 of the 22 IRC offices across the United States provide gardening and agricultural opportunities to those they assist. Shared goals of the program unite offices in one unified mission statement – to provide refugees with a safe gardening and food production space in which they can integrate their homeland expertise. Implementation depends on both the reality of and needs in the geographic location of the specific office. For instance, the needs and availability of resources such as land to start gardens and farms in Phoenix, Arizona differ greatly from the availability of land around the New York Regional Office. Despite this, a broad network of program managers and directors pull and share resources from one another to constantly work towards improving the various New Roots programs across the nation.
According to Kathleen McTigue, New Roots Program Manager at the IRC’s New York Regional Office, 50% of resettled refugees have some sort of agricultural background – be it through farming, food production, vending, or marketing – and thus have grown up with a sense of close relationship to their food. This makes sense – the majority of IRC refugee clients (excluding Iraqi and Afghani Special Immigrant Visas) come from conflict-torn regions of West Africa and Southeast Asia. When the Family Education coordinator started the New York Regional Office’s New Roots program in 2011, the IRC maintained one small garden bed at Drew Gardens in the Bronx, NY. Since then, the land rights licensing agreements have expanded the IRC’s gardening sites to two large plots at separate locations. Both locations are in the Bronx to maximize land area and proximity to low-income refugees whose first apartments, upon resettlement, are typically located in this borough.

The New Roots program works well for many reasons. First, refugees are able to apply agricultural knowledge and experiences from their home countries to their new lives in the United States. This empowerment is especially crucial in an environment where refugees may feel that their previous skills and work experiences are inadequate for the highly sanitized and industrialized job market in major cities. Exposure to green gardening spaces can also be a therapeutic and healing space for refugees who are experiencing post-traumatic stress and/or a general weakened state as a result of their move to the US, especially when moving to an overwhelming, hyper-urban metropolis such as New York City. The New Roots program also facilitates community integration – by establishing a physical space for refugees to work together on a plot of land. They are able to work alongside each other, take part in group decision-making processes, and have an equal voice in this space. Kathleen McTigue mentions that this type of work environment often differs from the more socially and politically oppressive communities that refugees, especially young women, may come from. There is a strong sense of dignity established for refugees who are empowered to take a physical space of land and challenge themselves to be productive with it. An economic development component also strengthens the validity of the New Roots program: if refugees are able to successfully grow fruits and vegetables, then they are able to reduce food spending at supermarkets and grocery stores. Furthermore, in some cities, New Roots participants are looking to expand beyond small-scale production to start their own farm businesses.

Fei-Aerial View CropWithin the IRC community, the New Roots program serves to foster cross-cultural understanding. Deciding what type of seeds to sow and for what purposes initiates multicultural dialogues about culture and cuisine from around the world, bridging the cultural differences that may exist between refugees. There is also much to be said about providing fresh food to refugees in need in low-income and economically disadvantaged situations, and about improving community health. Excess produce from the week’s harvest is washed and brought to the IRC office, where refugees can come by and take however much they need for their own nutritional benefit. This also helps refugees who are not yet adjusted enough to their new homes to be able to go to the grocery store in their neighborhood to access the food they need to survive in their initial weeks in the US.

From an economic empowerment perspective, the New Roots garden provides refugees with an option to take on an experiential learning opportunity. Working at the garden helps build resumes while re-familiarizing themselves with farming practices that may seem familiar in concept but differ in practice based on new terrain, norms, and climate conditions. Even though farming practices may share common fundamental features, the New Roots program  must also account for gaps in knowledge, experiences, and expectations between the refugees and the local American farmers and practices in their new cities. IRC Employment specialists, who are focused on career development assistance for refugees, are currently working in conjunction with Kathleen McTigue, the New Roots team, and employer partners in food-related industries to create an employment pipeline program through the New Roots program. Through this pipeline program, refugees’ experiences as farmers in the New Roots space can translate to meaningful professional development experiences for those who wish to work in the food services and/or production industries in the future. As a sort of guaranteed first job, the IRC hopes to build upon the New Roots program so that it may become a source of stable employment and skill-building necessary to navigate the experience-based needs of the US labor markets and employers.

McTigue’s main role as the sole Program Manager at the New York office, beyond simply maintaining the land, gardening upkeep, and community relations with the Department, is to conceptualize the impact of the New Roots program within the broader IRC resettlement services philosophy. She hires new interns and staff and researches initiatives that align with the goal of expanding the Program’s impact across national offices, and more specifically within the NY regional office specifically. With a Bachelors’ degree in International Development and Agricultural Economics, McTigue pulls from both her academic training and her experience in agriculture and NYC community gardening initiatives since she joined the IRC in May 2013. Beyond the garden’s direct impact, she has also worked on initiating the “Food Secure Resettlement” program within the IRC’s New York Regional Office’s core initial resettlement services that currently include housing, immigration, healthcare and employment access assistance.

McTigue’s vision incorporates the New Roots program into a broader nutrition education program within “Food Secure Resettlement” initiatives. As part of the IRC’s  overnight food amenities package provided to newly arrived refugees, McTigue asserts that a more culturally sensitive array of foods should be provided to better suit the tastes of the refugees during their initial days spent in their new homes. For instance, instead of offering American grocery staples including eggs, milk and bread to all refugees regardless of culture, McTigue has begun incorporating tea and rice as comforting and healthy food options for Southeast Asian refugees who arrive and are resettled through the IRC. “Unfamiliarity with a new place breeds vulnerability,” she explained. “Within the parameters of the Overnight Food budget, small changes can go a long way for refugees who are seeking familiarity in their new lives and homes.” McTigue’s work implies that nutrition education for refugees should be regarded as just as important as other core services in the resettlement process, prioritized on the same level as finding appropriate housing, employment and healthcare. For instance, McTigue has designed grocery store orientations and planned open-air farmers’ market outings to show refugees where they can access fresh food in their area. Federally funded Food Stamp and WIC check programs are also accepted at these vendors, which help weaken the barriers to access to affordable nutrition in the United States.

Community gardening is not a new concept and can be found consistently in major cities and metropolitan zones; New York City is no exception. Municipal and state governments in Boston, Atlanta, and Idaho, have established community gardens and farm networks for refugees and new immigrants. What makes the New Roots program in particular a Big Idea is its contextualization within a broader framework of the US refugee resettlement process as conceptualized by a large international non-profit. Despite the global scale on which IRC operates, the tangible community aspect of a community garden is certainly achieved through the geographically tailored New Roots program. During a visit to the Bronx New Roots Community Garden this past July for a World Refugee Day celebration, I was able to witness the children frolicking throughout the garden space, and families gathering to enjoy the production of their dedicated collective labor. At the office, refugees regularly express their joy in receiving fresh green onions, basil, kale, and root vegetables with which to cook dinner for their family. Based on McTigue’s observations of consistent attendance, engagement with the land, and the quality of their food production output every week as seen at the office, refugees from primarily farming backgrounds exhibit enthusiasm and diligence on the job at the garden.

The IRC’s institutional reach across its 22 U.S. offices certainly facilitates its ability to expand the New Roots program to other cities and areas within the nation. The community gardening work model would need to be further evaluated for cross- cultural applicability should international expansion become a goal for the New Roots program. However, by nature of it being a program to help refugees adjust to the new terrain of the United States, it makes more sense for the New Roots program to stay and develop its reach and program features domestically. Program managers like Kathleen McTigue could then focus on strengthening the core and peripheral elements of the New Roots program, including the gardens themselves, nutrition-based education, and initial resettlement resources and employment networks that are provided to supplement the New Roots Program farmers. This comprehensive approach to newly resettled refugees’ social and economic empowerment has truly been the key to the New Roots Program’s success thus far, and will certainly serve the initiative’s positive impact well into the future.

“Rendering the Private Public”: 2014 Finding Big Ideas Winning Essay

I had so mentally prepared myself to come away jaded, to witness the messy side of development work, that when the big idea I encountered this summer hit me, it felt like a revelation.

By Shrey Goel

This essay is one of two winning entries to the 2014 Finding Big Ideas Essay Competition. The other winning essay is Jennifer Fei’s essay, “The International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Program: Uncovered Terrain in US Refugee Resettlement.” Last year’s winners were Courtney Mullen’s essay “Belenpampa Clinic,” and Narissa Iqbal Allibhai’s “Young Artistic Leaders Rising from the Slum.”

Rendering the Private Public: A Collective Approach to Slum ImprovementMy foray through the Global Poverty and Practice Minor unfolded almost exactly as I imagined it would: theory, followed by praxis, followed by reflection. And yet, in following this trajectory so precisely, my experience through the Minor was also unexpected. I had so mentally prepared myself to come away jaded, to witness the messy side of development work, that when the big idea I encountered this summer hit me, it felt like a revelation.

This summer I worked with an organization called the Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC) headquartered in Delhi, India with program sites in the cities of Indore and Agra. The organization addresses urban poverty by entering into slum communities and holding discussions with community members, proposing the idea of forming community women’s groups. These conversations aim to stimulate the women in slums to think about whether or not collective community action can help them confront the challenges they face. I was fortunate enough to have the Executive Director of the organization, Dr. Siddharth Agarwal, serve as my mentor throughout my time in India. In my conversations with Dr. Agarwal, he explained that an important aspect to this process is not pushing group formation on communities.  If community members do not express interest, the UHRC steps back until interest grows. They firmly believe that, in the absence of an organic investment by the people, the initiative will simply be unsustainable.

Once a group has formed, the first step is basic training surrounding health outreach and advocacy. Trainings cover tracking and surveying vulnerable groups (such as pregnant women) in slums as well as reaching out to government, private, and volunteer health providers to run camps in communities. At the first women’s group meeting I attended in a slum called Nagla Devjit in Agra, one of the group leaders proudly told me about how before one of their youngest members, affectionately called Baby, joined the group, she was pregnant with her first child. When she went into labor, she didn’t have enough money for the delivery.  The women pooled together whatever money they could from their personal funds. Asking neighbors to chip in, they escorted her to the hospital and offered whatever they had to the doctor. This is the kind of support the women are able to provide to their communities through their health outreach and tracking activities.

After groups are well established, they pursue higher-level activities with the support of UHRC field workers as new needs emerge. For example one need that became evident early on was financial resilience to health exigencies and other similar events – in essence, resilience to what Appadurai (2001) refers to as “’the tyranny of the emergency’…that characterizes the everyday lives of the urban poor” (p. 30). When this need emerged, the UHRC began helping women’s groups establish collective insurance funds by providing trainings on how to collect member contributions, keep records, and administer loans. These collective insurance funds are different from microfinance loans because the seed money comes entirely from group members and loans are granted for home improvement initiatives and health emergencies in addition to microenterprise. Rules[i] are established and enforced by women’s group members who decide on conditions together, rather than following the mandates of an external institution.

Another need that emerged early on in the UHRC’s operations was infrastructural improvement in communities and knowledge about applying for government programs and enacting government advocacy. To address this, the UHRC began facilitating trainings on petition writing to local municipal authorities, discussing with groups the best ways to write collective appeals and document all their communications. Groups began learning to write reminders to local officials when their requests for things like street paving and drain installation were ignored. As the capacity of groups has grown over time, they have also created workshops for learning how to conduct sit-ins at government offices when they need to submit applications for multiple community members and are facing resistance by government offices. From time to time, this collective action takes the form of advocacy rallies and protests on issues the women deem relevant, such as alcoholism and gambling. Most of these initiatives come from brainstorming sessions at women’s group meetings.

What I’ve outlined thus far is how the UHRC works in the field. But why has the UHRC elected to approach urban poverty in this fashion? India’s trajectory of urbanization has led many families from poor rural and peri-urban areas into city-centers, but they arrive faster than the planning process can incorporate them. They are relegated to informal and often illegal occupations of whatever free space they can find, where they erect impermanent housing units or occupy existing run down units. Katherine Boo (2012), in her novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers centering on a slum community in Mumbai, explores how the allure and pursuit of better economic prospects pits poor urban families in slums in competition, thus leading to fragmentation where families are unable to work in solidarity towards mutual empowerment. The city promises families a better economic future for their children through upward mobility in exchange for hard work. The reality, however, is that regardless of hard they work, many families remain relegated to resource-deficient, unsanitary living environments. All these oppressive factors result in decreased household and community-level social cohesion in slums. Therefore helping communities build stronger bonds through collective action is the goal that underlies the UHRC’s initiatives.

The modern Indian slum is riddled with health risks due to environmental conditions. Many urban households, particularly slum households, either have no access to drainage networks, or are connected to open drains clogged with stagnant and pollution ridden water (Kala & Kumar, 2013; Agarwal, 2011). The slum often acts as the processing plant for the waste of the city. Much of the informal sector is involved in recycling the solid waste produced by the city, which is frequently dumped near slum areas (Talyan, et al., 2008; Boo, 2012; Agarwal, 2011). The health risk exposure of slum residents has consistently proved to be higher than that of the average urban population. Infant mortality is much higher for the urban poor than the urban non-poor (Agarwal & Srivastava, 2009). Issues with sanitation infrastructure contribute to these disparities. Data collected in 2005-2006 revealed that under half of the urban poor could access adequate sanitation compared to about 95% of the urban non-poor (Chaplin, 2011).

One of the largest barriers to improving slum conditions is that many slums go undocumented. Because most slums are informal settlements with no tenure rights, their illegal status excludes them from official listings (Agarwal, et al., 2007). The oversight of informal or illegal urban regions leads to the exclusion of these residents from urban governments’ mandate to provide basic services like drainage, sanitation, health care, and water (Agarwal, 2011). By focusing on coalition building at the community level, the UHRC seeks to galvanize slum communities to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the government.

According to Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task influences their actual capacity to accomplish it (1994). Applying this concept to groups, Gibson has theorized that just as individuals have self-efficacy, so do groups have group efficacy (2003). In a conversation with Dr. Agarwal, he explained to me that both forms of efficacy depend upon small instances of success early on in order to build confidence for more ambitious endeavors later because each victory enhances people’s belief in their ability. This is why the UHRC begins with basic health outreach activity, which lends itself to higher success rates than petitions for infrastructural improvement that require greater persistence and higher degrees of organizing. However as groups slowly progress, they develop the confidence to interface with municipal authorities and local officials, and this confidence has led to huge improvements in many UHRC program slums, such as paved roads, covered drains, and regular street and garbage cleaning.

Going into my Minor’s “practice experience,” I knew I needed to be critical. I might have been joining an organization with paternalistic practices, like a for-profit MFI in which group loan leaders enforce institutional rules for women’s group members to follow, and participation is elicited coercively. The decision to focus on women is not unique – the rationale adopted by the UHRC is similar to many orgs, which support this choice on the basis that women and children bear the burden of poverty disproportionately. A consequence of this reasoning, however, is that these institutions end up adding to the “time burden” of already over-burdened poor women (Molyneux, 2008, p. 48). Yet, what I believe differentiates the UHRC is it’s underlying ethos. The UHRC has elected to pursue what Dr. Agarwal calls a “deprojectized” model of development. The organization has no intention of leaving the communities it operates in, and in many cases, other NGOs have come to Agra and Indore to run short-term programs, offering employment to UHRC women’s group members who are able to serve as a high-capacity work force. The women’s groups have become a platform for future development, but the UHRC doesn’t just strap women with responsibility and then leave – it stays and provides continual support through field workers and field offices.

In Ananya Roy’s 2010 book, Poverty Capital, Roy quotes Fazle Abed, founder of the Bangladesh-based BRAC: “At the heart of BRAC’s approach to development is organizing the poor” (p. 119). Roy takes this point and argues that while the Bangladesh model of development spearheaded by MFIs like BRAC and Grameen has adopted a “public transcript” of “microfinance evangelism”, what sets the Bangladesh model apart from mainstream microfinance is a “hidden transcript” of “putting pressure on the state” by “organizing the poor” (p. 119-120). I would argue that what the UHRC is doing is rendering public the “hidden”, private transcript of the Bangladesh model. The UHRC is publicly arguing on behalf of social protection and government accountability through grassroots organizing rather than making its public cause the inclusion of the poor into financial markets.

The UHRC’s approach aims to tackle poverty at a fundamental level. This comes with a unique set of challenges. While it is highly resource efficient, and effective, relative to costly multi-national aid initiatives, it requires true dedication on the part of NGOs, field workers, and communities. The need for genuine community member investment coupled with low levels of funding from donors mean that community groups must consist of volunteers, not employees. The work is not glamorous and requires time and patience – nothing can be rushed because if a fast pace is adopted, people will be left behind and the communities doing the work will lose investment. Furthermore, in bringing community knowledge and expertise to the forefront, this approach challenges the current centers of poverty knowledge generation (such as research institutions and global development banks). It asks poverty experts to recognize community knowledge as legitimate.

This is why the UHRC’s methods have so much potential. I remember one day speaking with some women’s group members in one of the poorest UHRC Agra slums called Indra Nagar. For most of its history, Indra Nagar has been a tent colony, home to nomadic merchants and craftsmen. One of the women explained that before the UHRC, nobody would even come into their slum. Nobody would loan them money and women could barely even leave their homes due to highly conservative gender dynamics. Recently, however, she was able to take out a 10,000 Rupee loan from her Federation.[ii] She was able to open up a storefront and is currently paying back her loan at a rate of 1,000 Rupees per month. It is because of this high degree of community member investment that, this summer, I heard many women talk about going to unorganized slums to establish women’s groups in Agra.
I believe UHRC’s work is rooted in something basic – what Dr. Agarwal frequently calls trust. What he means by this is that by putting trust and faith in slum community members, an iterative process of mutual learning is able to take place. It’s a process that allows slum residents to cultivate their faith in their ability to navigate urban institutions and to build a stronger social fabric. It’s also a process that demonstrates the poor can be active participants in their own empowerment. And that to me is a very big idea.

Works Cited
Agarwal, S. (2011). The state of urban health in India; comparing the poorest quartile to the rest of the urban population in selected states and cities. Environment and Urbanization, 23(1), 13-28.

Agarwal, S., & Srivastava, A. (2009). Social Determinants of Children’s Health in Urban Areas in India. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, 20(4A), 68-89.

Agarwal, S., Satyavada, A., Kaushik, S., & Kumar, R. (2007). Urbanization, urban poverty and health of the urban poor: status, challenges and the way forward. Demography India, 36(1), 121.
Appadurai, A. (2001). Deep democracy: urban governmentality and the horizon of politics. Environment and Urbanization, 13(2), 23-43.
Bandura, A. (1994). Self‐efficacy. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Boo, K. (2012). Behind the beautiful forevers. Random House LLC.
Chaplin, S. E. (2011). Indian cities, sanitation and the state: the politics of the failure to provide. Environment and Urbanization, 23(1), 57-70.
Gibson, C. B. (2003). The Efficacy Advantage: Factors Related to the Formation of Group Efficacy. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(10), 2153-2186.
Molyneux, M. (2009). Conditional cash transfers: a pathway to women’s empowerment? Pathyways of Women’s Empowerment, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.
Roy, A. (2010). Poverty capital: Microfinance and the making of development.
Sridhar, K. S., & Kumar, S. (2012). India’s urban environment: Air and water pollution andpollution abatement.
Talyan, V., Dahiya, R. P., & Sreekrishnan, T. R. (2008). State of municipal solid wastemanagement in Delhi, the capital of India. Waste Management, 28(7), 1276-1287.

[i] Such as monthly per-member contributions, late fees, and repayment interest rates, which rarely exceed 3%

ii] A Federation is a collective of women’s groups in a particular region that runs a higher level collective savings program and pursues larger-scale initiatives

Past Winners Take Their Ideas to the Next Level!

On Thursday, November 13 Big Ideas winners launched the first-ever partnerships with the world’s most established crowdfunding platform: Indiegogo.

By: Jenna Hahn; November 18, 2014

IndiegogoBigIdeasBanner_final400pxOn Thursday, November 13 Big Ideas winners launched the first-ever partnerships with the world’s most established crowdfunding platform: Indiegogo. This was created as a new opportunity for past winners to expand their ideas and reach a greater audience. The encouragement Big Ideas staff provides is not meant to end after teams win. Every year Big Ideas searches for new ways to help past winners uncover appropriate ‘next steps’ for their product, service, or organization to continue on their own.

According to an internal study from the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which manages Big Ideas, the contest’s 400-plus student teams and award winners have gone on to secure over $35 million in additional funding. This opportunity aims to allow teams to increase that number and impact even more.

Indiegogo has proven their success in empowering campaigners since Cal Alumni founded the platform in 2008. They offer a range of tools and resources to support campaigners in strategies throughout the entire process.

This new opportunity was announced at last May’s award ceremony, immediately sparking the interest of many teams. Throughout the fall past wining teams were invited to apply to participate in the Big Ideas partner page.

The 7 teams are all past winners that are now working independently of Big Ideas, outside of UC Berkeley, to scale up their projects and impacts. For the past month teams have been tirelessly building elements of their campaign and preparing marketing schemes. Campaigns will run from November 13 through December 20, 2014.

Teams benefit from discounts on Indiegogo transaction fees, receive personalized guidance from the Indiegogo Cause Team, and gain access to the extensive Big Ideas network interested in social challenges.

To view the different campaigns, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/partners/BigIdeas

This year’s participating crowdfunding campaigns include:
100 Strong – Empowering Young Female Leaders
Emmunify: A tool to save lives with vaccination
Energant: Burn Trash to Cook Food and Generate Elecricity
Speech with Sam: Helping kids in speech therapy
Suitcase Clinic: Art to Heart
The Transfer Service Community- TSC
The U.C. Vision Project

A Contest to Catalyze Literacy Via Mobiles Worldwide

A 2013/2014 UNESCO report found that 250 million children across the globe are not learning basic literacy and numeracy skills. Of these, 57 million children—a disproportionate number of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, live in conflict-afflicted countries, or are disabled or simply girls—aren’t enrolled in school at all.

By Andrea Guzman

Mobiles for ReadingA 2013/2014 UNESCO report found that 250 million children across the globe are not learning basic literacy and numeracy skills. Of these, 57 million children—a disproportionate number of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, live in conflict-afflicted countries, or are disabled or simply girls—aren’t enrolled in school at all.
Big Ideas@Berkeley and USAID’s Global Development Lab are aiming to change these numbers through the Mobiles for Reading contest category by inviting students to develop novel technology-based innovations to enhance reading skills for youth in developing countries. This new contest category is sponsored by All Children Reading:  A Grand Challenge for Development, a partnership between USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government.

The creation of the category comes amidst a growing international movement to use mobile technologies as tools for enhancing children’s reading skills. Numerous studies have shown that children who do not develop reading skills during early primary education are on a lifetime trajectory of limited educational progress and economic opportunities. Meanwhile, mobile devices are ubiquitous, even in low-income regions. According to the International Telecommunications Union, 96.2% of people on the planet have mobile cellular telephone subscriptions.

To Rebecca Leege, project director of the All Children Reading initiative, mobile technology can be a particularly effective tool to disseminate local language instruction materials. “Evidence confirms that children best learn to read in the language with which they are most familiar,” said Leege in an email. “However, many children enter schools where they are taught in a foreign language and have little or no access to mother tongue reading resources, making it difficult for them to gain the foundational skills needed to learn to read. This, coupled with low engagement from family or their community to support their learning to read, limits the reinforcement needed to develop a proficient reader.”

Leege added: “A basic phone or tablet can provide new and vital mother-tongue reading resources to engage children’s curiosity and interest in reading in communities with sparse access to books.”

While mobiles for reading remains a new approach, some programs have illustrated promising results. A pilot program for illiterate women conducted by the Afghan Institute of Learning showed that between May 2011 and May 2012 reading via mobile halved the time in which students were able to attain literacy at a basic 2 level. Teachers sent daily texts to students, who read the incoming messages and responded via SMS, demonstrating reading comprehension and writing skills. Researchers found that cell phone texts generated excitement among students, as literacy became not an “abstract skill” of alleged importance, but a tangible skill that could bring the students to “another level of understanding of the world around them.”

Over the past few years, a growing number of NGOs, academic researchers, social entrepreneurs, donors, and policymakers have begun to develop and support mobiles for reading technology. On October 15-16 2014, USAID and the mEducation Alliance held the third annual Mobiles for Education Alliance Symposium in Washington, DC, which brought together 185 participants from the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and the Middle East to discuss trends and topics to advance the field.

Although participants repeatedly underscored that technology and mobile devices are exciting new tools to foster inclusive and quality education, many also pointed out that the human element is crucial. “What matters is the human interaction,” said Brian Gonzalez, the symposium’s keynote speaker and director of the global education sector at Intel. “But not one-to-one, but one-to-many in order to improve the way teachers teach and children learn.”

Leege believes that among the greatest barriers to innovation in mobile reading are access to electricity and connectivity. “To assist those learning to read in low-resource settings, low-cost and open source materials easily maintained by the user are vital,” she said. “We would like to see student innovation that addresses unreliable—or absent—electricity and connectivity in low-resource communities.”

The Mobiles for Reading contest is open to over 500,000 students across 18 universities, from Uganda to Australia (for a full list of eligible universities, visit the Mobiles for Reading webpage.) Students who wish to participate must develop novel mobile technology-based innovations to enhance reading scores for early grade children in developing countries. Alternatively, proposals may use existing mobile-based technologies to improve early grade reading scores by adapting or applying those technologies in new and innovative ways. A five-page pre-proposal is due November 13 to the bigideascontest.org website. Three to to six student teams to be selected to continue on to the full proposal round in the spring. Winners will receive awards up to $10,000 to go toward further developing their idea.

“We hope to capitalize on student’s creativity, knowledge, personal experience of learning to read, as well as their desire to innovate for a better world,” Leege said.