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In Libya and elsewhere, the best hope lies in literacy

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Mondeale and Annan
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, left, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Craig Lassig/AFP/Getty Images (left), Oded Balilty/Getty Images (right)

By Kofi Annan and Walter Mondale

After the recent armed conflict in Libya, people there will be working hard to replace 40 years of authoritarian rule with a new democratic system of governance. It will not be an easy task, but one worth the effort and one that will need the continued support of partners from the international community. 

History shows such progressive movements, whether against colonial masters or repressive regimes, are no guarantee of embedding democracy. As young men, we saw a similar wave of change sweep through Africa in the wake of the independence movements half a century ago. Like now, hopes were high both in the countries themselves and among those who wished the new states well. These hopes were by no means always fulfilled. 

There are many reasons for these setbacks, including ethnic and religious divisions and corroding corruption. But while the causes of democratic failure are varied, there are two ingredients common to success: a determination to educate a country's citizens and a commitment to the rule of law. 

More than ever before, the natural resource that matters most today is the talent of a nation's citizens. Education and literacy are the keys to unlocking this potential. For hundreds of millions of individuals, literacy is the bridge from misery to hope. For a society and economy, it is simply essential for sustained social and economic development. 

For example, an educated, literate population has a remarkable impact on national health, particularly if successful efforts are made to close the gender gap in schooling. It is a major driver of improved productivity. By raising sights beyond the immediate community, education can also help build nations by reducing tribal and ethnic ties. 

The rule of law is equally fundamental for the development of a healthy democracy, good governance and a prosperous economy. Both individuals and businesses need confidence that the law will be applied fairly and consistently, whether individuals are powerful or not, and that rights will be protected and upheld by the courts. Without such confidence, there is a danger grievances will fester and divisions will grow. 

We believe in order to reverse this trend that it is essential for all of us who support democracy in Africa to step up efforts to expand education and help promote the rule of law. It is encouraging that national governments within the continent, and the international community beyond, have responded with increased investment in education. But we also need to provide the practical support that makes a difference both to the lives of young people and to the strength of civil society and governmental institutions. 

There can be no better example of this practical help than supplying schools, colleges and libraries with books. Without books, it is very difficult to drive up literacy standards, the bedrock of education. Yet in many classrooms, a single textbook has to be shared among 10 or 20 children. Library shelves can be virtually empty. 

It is a gap that the charity Books For Africa(BFA) has been striving to fill since 1988. BFA has shipped more than 25 million high-quality text and library books to children and adults in 45 countries across the continent. The work has a transformative impact on the lives of thousands of people and their communities.

In recent years, Books For Africahas focused its efforts on supporting democracy and strengthening the rule of law within Africa.  Its Jack Mason Law and Democracy Initiative, with which we are proud to be associated, has sent 26 law and human rights libraries to a dozen countries throughout the continent. The initiative has partnered with Thomson Reuters, USAID, the American Bar Association and attorneys in this country and in Africa. This enables students, government officials and civic societies to access the accumulated international knowledge and experience in the fields of human rights and governance.

Some day we hope to work with partners to ship law and human rights books, as well as books for schoolchildren, to a newly liberated Libya.

In the West, we sometimes forget that building and embedding democracy can be a long and difficult process. There are always vested interests that want to delay or reverse progress. But as we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and many other countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa, the public, with the younger generation in the lead, is impatient for change. By helping drive up literacy standards and supporting the rule of law, we can ensure that, this time, the hopes for a better democratic future are fully met and sustained.    

Even for those of us who have seen a great deal in our long lives, the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been exciting and inspiring. They underline that people, whatever their background, want their rights respected and want a voice in their country's future. They put on notice, too, leaders everywhere who believe they can restrain the democratic aspirations of their people.   

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Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006, and Walter Mondale, a former vice president of the United States, are cochairs of the Jack Mason Law & Democracy Initiative of Books for Africa, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul.