February 27, 2018
The Problem Space
Textbooks undoubtedly enhance learning outcomes especially in large classrooms with poorly trained teachers and crumbling infrastructure. Challenges to textbook distribution are abundant—especially in low-resource settings—and increasingly well-documented ranging from supply chain breakdowns to poor knowledge management to misuse or no use at all. Reducing wastage in warehousing and distribution is critical as annual loss rates of up to 50 percent or more have been recorded in some countries.
The root of the problem, however, remains elusive: responsibility for leakages and wastage. It is common to hear reports of selling textbooks, unwillingness or inability to ensure delivery in the last mile, usurping cargo space for more influential clients, etc. Community members are rarely notified of upcoming book deliveries or their status and are left out of the distribution process.
Without appropriate resources and advocates, the lack of transparency and accountability has hampered book distribution efforts, placing them many years behind other industries, such as medical logistics operations. New low-cost tracking and tracing books solutions offer an effective way to improve distribution from point-of-origin to the student while also ensuring transparency and accountability. Equitable access to textbooks is essential to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education (Sustainable Development Goal Four).
Past Solution Strategies
Several Ministries of Education have addressed leakage using methods that are low-cost and simple to implement. The most common “stamp and paper” strategy involves a shipping document with multiple carbon copies accompanying any delivery. These sheets are signed and countersigned by all parties whenever a handoff occurs between the central warehouse, the transport company, delivery couriers, the district office, and so on. However, these solutions are time-consuming, prone to error, and entail large efforts to collate and input data by hand.
Most noticeable, however, is the missing voice of community members. Parents and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) leaders simply must trust that materials arrive on time or at all. While a PTA leader is occasionally required to co-sign for a book delivery, this excludes other community members including students’ parents. The more knowledge a community has of a book delivery schedule, the more accountability and pressure to deliver on time can be pushed up the delivery chain, starting from the level that is closest to the student.
Current Participation Strategies
Innovations to track and trace books are being piloted in several countries, many initiated by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development’s Tracking and Tracing Books prize competition. These innovative solutions provide administrators a near-real time view of any delivery operation’s status through an online dashboard and map. To date, the primary technologies employed have centered around Short Message Service (SMS), smartphone scanning and geo-location services, and discrete tracking devices such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips. Solutions using one or a mix of these technologies are being piloted with varying degrees of efficacy and cost implications.
Generally, the lower and simpler the technological intervention, the higher the community participation; however, the fidelity of information or timeliness may suffer. For example, SMS is a feature that exists on almost all feature phones in rural areas, but features that can determine where a message was sent from can be difficult or impossible. This limits the use of geo-positioning features that improve transparency by confirming the exact location of a delivery.
A summary of the tracking and tracing systems available and key features are presented below. Additional systems are operating, but data is not publicly available.
|Tracking Mechanism(s)||Community Involvement||# of Schools||Complete Open Source|
|Creative’s Track and Trace with Geospago|
|Creative Associates International||Afghanistan|
|SMS feature phone, smartphone, phone camera barcode reader, automatic reporting||No||560|
|OpenEMIS Logistics||Community Systems Foundation (CSF)||Malawi||SMS feature phone, smartphone, phone camera barcode reader||Yes||4||Yes, with UNICEF MOU|
|Teaching & Learning Material (TLM) Tracking||Education Development Center (EDC)||Nigeria||SMS feature phone, smartphone, phone camera barcode reader||Yes||2400||No|
|Track and Trace||John Snow Inc. (JSI)||Malawi||SMS feature phone, smartphone, phone camera barcode reader||Yes||4||No|
|Track and Trace||John Snow Inc./World Education Inc.||Cambodia||Chatbots, smartphone, barcodes (optional)||Yes||400||No|
Without community involvement, any technological intervention will simply devolve to yet another program pushed downward. However, incentivized parental inclusion in the book chain creates opportunities for innovation within the track and trace system. Community-led accountability will be a factor that increases year-over-year demand for the right textbooks delivered at the right time, and thus improves the systems’ sustainability. However, creative approaches are needed to incentivize community participation by educating them on their rights to books and empowering them to advocate for themselves. Several of the systems listed above are testing features that improve communication and offer opportunities for the government to work directly with their constituents. Additionally, to ensure sustainable use of any tracking and tracing solution, it must be customized and managed by the Ministry of Education and in-country partners.
Technology and community engagement are not the only solutions, but they are the quickest to implement and easiest to scale. Although these solutions attempt to make tracking easier, Ministries of Education will need to invest in data input, custom software, and discrete devices. Similarly, training, system updates, and support can increase as feature sets are added. Comprehensive cost analyses, like the approaches tested by the Millennium Challenge Corporation to measure improved income per textbook, are necessary to determine the most effective approach and the benefits of adding additional features.
Sonny Lacey is the lead technical consultant for All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development.