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Indonesia must urgently tackle poor childhood literacy levels

Reading is key to brighter economic and social future

| Indonesia
Young girls are reading books from a community library in Yogyakarta: the country's people must recognize the broader power of reading to help children thrive. (Courtesy of The Asia Foundation)

The 85 million children growing up in Indonesia are the first generation in the country's history to experience sustained economic growth. Yet a lack of access to books and an underappreciation of reading have left Indonesia's literacy ranked near the very bottom of global charts ensuring literacy's place as a weak link in the nation's commitment to improved quality of life and human resources.

Today, more than half of Indonesians who complete school are functionally illiterate, meaning that they are unable to comprehend what they read and are deprived of the social, emotional, academic and intergenerational benefits of reading. The situation is especially grim for the most marginalized rural communities who are scattered across the world's largest archipelago.

But the appointment last October of entrepreneur Nadiem Makarim as the new Minister of Education and Culture is a positive sign that Indonesia is taking steps to remedy this issue and is willing to use data and technology to address it. Balancing the potential of modern solutions with the growing and diverse localized reading movements makes progress look possible across Indonesia's 17,000 islands.

For example, the Ministry of Education and Culture has adopted a comprehensive and modern index to assess literacy in the 21st century, using reading proficiency, access to books, book alternatives and reading culture.

The ministry's reading index evaluated nationwide data from classrooms, communities and libraries and identified three weak links in the nation's literacy. On a 100-point scale, the index ranked access to books at only 23.1 and the nation's reading culture at 28.5. In short, children do not have books and communities do not value reading in a way that cultivates reading habits.

A girl chooses a book from a mobile library in Palu, Indonesia.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

The third weakness is the massive disparity between provinces caused by the difficult geography of Indonesia. This makes the equitable distribution of books and reading materials nearly impossible.

Today, the public library system only serves the urbanized regencies, or sub-provinces, and large cities, leaving the 118 million people living in rural Indonesia significantly underserved by the nation's efforts to address book scarcity.

There are promising exceptions to the rural status quo. On the bank of the Kapuas river in rural Pontianak city, families line up as the village's office distributes bookshelves to every home in the community, with a collection of 10 books that is refreshed every month.

Other exceptions include international and regional collaborations that introduce technology-driven solutions to rural classrooms in communities like Bulungan and Malinau of North Kalimantan. Although it is too early to know if literacy has improved, we have observed a marked enthusiasm for reading.

Indonesia's commitment to a definition of modern literacy that extends beyond traditional metrics of speed and phonetic awareness will noticeably increase the sustainability of efforts such as the School Literacy Movement that sets aside 15 minutes at the beginning of every day in primary schools for children to read.

On occasion, the fight against illiteracy extends beyond the classroom. In rural, tourist-filled Yogyakarta, schools invite parents to read along with their children at home -- a new concept that many parents are unfamiliar with and often mistake for the less literacy-driven concept of storytelling.

Children read books at the library on a floating boat moored at a pier extending out into Lake Toba in Parapat: the fight against illiteracy extends beyond the classroom.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Another saving grace in the fight against illiteracy is community libraries. Communities have come together to develop more than 6,000 libraries to support the literacy needs of their neighbors.

In the pursuit of a more prosperous future in Indonesia, there are three considerations for actors in the country's development. First, they must meaningfully engage the community in the development of their own book sector to cultivate ownership and pride that will fuel reading. Local authors, local publishers, local books and local readers make a virtuous circle.

Second, they must recognize the broader power of reading to help children, families and communities thrive. When children discover themselves in the pages of books, they begin to find confidence in their own identity and their potential to contribute to society. For children especially, books act as mirrors reflecting their own identities and as windows introducing them to the experiences of others. Books create a sense of connection, empathy and tolerance.

Finally, they should shift away from a national one-size-fits-all approach and build a constellation of local and international reading solutions that accommodate the unique complexities of Indonesia's circumstances.

Impactful reading programs, such as the Asia Foundation's Let's Read initiative, which brings together communities and technology to build early reading habits with high-quality local language children's books, are the only viable strategy to meet the needs of regional language diversity and geographic complexity.

Developing strategies to fill shelves with books and introduce people to the power of reading not only starts to fulfill President Joko Widodo's commitment to the nation's children, but also empowers local communities across the 17,000 islands to thrive sustainably.

Lukman Solihin is a researcher at the Education and Culture Policy Research Center in Jakarta, Indonesia with a focus on literacy and culture.

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