BETWEEN 1883 and 1929, Scottish American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron turned philanthropist who was known as the second-richest man in US history, built more than 2,500 libraries in North America and Britain. The very first opened in his home town of Dunfermline, with a carving at the entrance reading: "Let there be light."
A century later, the fast-growing education charity Room to Read claims to have inherited Carnegie's mantle. It has built 7,000 libraries and more than 700 schools across the developing world since 2000. But, as the group sets out to expand its Scottish fund-raising operation, founder John Wood, a former Microsoft executive, has appealed for a new Carnegie to take a lead.
In 1999, Wood left his job as Microsoft's business development director for China after a visit to Nepal, where there's an illiteracy rate of about 70 per cent. In one village, Bahundanda, he was taken to see a school with 70 children crammed into one classroom, where the few volumes in the school library consisted of a Danielle Steel romance, an Umberto Eco novel in Italian, and The Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia.
With the help of his father, Wood returned with several donkey-loads of second-hand books. Under his leadership, a fledgling organisation, Books for Nepal, transformed into Room to Read, a charity with a 14 million annual budget, and which operates in nine countries in Asia and Africa. Its efforts extend from South Africa to Sri Lanka, where this year it dispatched 50 mobile libraries to cater for schools in refugee camps.
"Education is the one issue that has the ripple effect. If a child gets educated they have a greater chance to escape from poverty, to start a business, have a healthy family. They have lower infant death in childbirth, or maternal death in childbirth; educated women are treated better by society. Education is the one issue if you get it right, everything else follows from that," says Wood, adding, "I believe firmly in the value of focus. Education in the developing world is the only thing we do. If you go into the IDP (internally displaced persons) camp and say what is your number one need, they are probably not going to say books. I don't want to turn Room to Read into some general relief agency running 20 programmes."
Room to Read already boasts key backers in Britain, including Douglas Hill and Frances Williams, an Edinburgh couple who initially raised 4,000 to build a school near Khatmandu in 2002, and who last year helped funnel 1.2m to the charity's UK arm. This week, in an event at Edinburgh's Dovecot Studios, the charity is trying to boost its profile on Carnegie's home turf. But Wood's new dream is to encourage one of the world's billionaires to take the charity to a new level. The Carnegie libraries were "one of the most successful philanthropic investments in history," he says. "Why has nobody emulated this, and become the Carnegie of Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Carnegie of India, or of Southeast Asia?"
Room to Read not only builds libraries and donates books, it publishes them, in Nepali, Vietnamese, Tamil, and other languages. With little market for children's books – because the parents don't have funds to buy them – the charity has issued more than 300 titles.
Wood's experience with the poorly stocked library in Bahundanda was fairly representative of the problem in the developing world. Children's libraries, so far as they exist, often carry decades-old Western titles.
Similarly, when Mr Hill, a Royal Bank of Scotland accountant, visited Nepal, he found schools with corrugated iron roofs and floors that turned to mud in the rain. "The kids had no books at all when we were there; it was quite a big change in culture to get teachers to take school books into class, because they had never done it." The libraries relied on donated English school books. "They would say to me, Mr Douglas, what is Hickory Dickory Dock? You would have to explain it, but if the teachers don't understand, they can't take it into the classroom." Today, RBS employees, using double-matching grants, are currently helping to put 100 girls on the Room to Read scholarship programme, paying about 150 to educate a girl for a year.
Shilpi Pradhan, a former teacher and Room to Read director in Nepal, now works as a fundraiser in London. She has had nearly ten books published with Room to Read, including Sani and Suri, which uses the framework of a story about a girl and her cat to teach "opposite" words. "When I was teaching, we used to translate English books into Nepali and then make our own hand-made books with paper cuttings and stuff like that," she says. She explained that building new schools boosts enrolment because parents are impressed, while libraries keep children occupied at school rather than drifting home to do chores.
Wood is a very 21st-century charity boss. In person, he has a Bill Clinton-style charisma and plenty of vision. His language has the ring that would appeal to a corporate chief: it's all "multi-step relationships", investments and returns, a "hand-up, not a hand-out". Of his specialist charity, he says: "We are what a venture capitalist would call a pure play."
He obviously understands how to forge connections with his target audience – the charity already counts Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, and wireless technology giant Qualcomm, among their supporters.
Wood speaks about a thirst for knowledge in places where libraries are not taken for granted. There was the village in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where one student declared his intention to read all 1,000 books in the newly opened library. And then there was the 14-year-old girl in India who began teaching her mother to read.
Room to Read is also dedicated to educating women, and to date has funded over 3,000 scholarships for them. Wood cites figures showing that two-thirds of those people out of school worldwide are girls, and a World Bank survey suggesting that paying for the education of women in the developing world "is the investment that has the highest return over time". It is the cost, not bigotry, that often stifles women's education, says Wood.
"There are, literally, families who are lining up to get help to get their daughters into school. In many cases, it's not an attitudinal barrier, but a financial one. We have to make sure that women get educated, so when they become mothers, they can pass on that education to their children."
• The Dovecot hosts an event to support Room to Read tonight to mark the closing of John Burningham's exhibition, Mr Gumpy and Other Outings. Anyone wishing to attend should call 0131-550 3660. Room to Read's website is www.roomtoread.org