Q&A with Deborah Backus, new project director of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development

Photo of Deborah Backus, All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development project directorWhat interested you in the leadership role at All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD)?

I like working on complex problems and finding ways to bring people together to solve them. Because of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge’s unrivaled platform enabling anyone with a great idea to address the critical global challenge of child illiteracy—and our firm commitment to creativity, innovation and partnerships—I believe there is no better place to focus my work.

For the past three years, I’ve managed many of ACR GCD’s grant projects and designed and led prize competitions. During that time, I’ve been inspired by the work of the innovators we’ve funded–from a women-owned social enterprise in the Middle East providing children access to an online library with fun books in Arabic, to teachers in the Philippines who are ensuring blind children have access to the same materials as their classmates, to deaf researchers and academics creating tools that support deaf children in learning their local sign language. The creativity, ingenuity, and heart these innovators put into creating solutions is contagious. I’m excited to move into this leadership role and continue building a community that is passionate about creating a world where literacy and learning are possible for all children.

What do you believe is unique about ACR GCD’s approach to improving child literacy in developing countries?

All Children Reading convenes such a diverse group of stakeholders and partners to solve problems, from the ACR GCD three founding partners—the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Vision, and the Australian Government—to universities, governments, creative solvers, and those we seek to serve through the solutions we fund. ACR GCD is also an innovation fund, and that gives us the flexibility to test and trial new methods for improving education and literacy outcomes in developing countries and then share our learnings about what works and what doesn’t for the benefit of the broader development community.

ACR GCD is identified as a “spotter” of education innovation. How does this designation define ACR GCD’s mission moving forward?

It is an exciting role to have, as we continually scan for gaps impacting children’s learning potential, call on innovators to create solutions to address those challenges, and highlight these solutions for consideration by the global child literacy community. Yet with that also comes great responsibility. We want to ensure we aren’t just emphasizing innovation for the sake of innovation; instead, we strive to build upon learnings and best practices and provide a platform for innovators around the globe to come together to develop solutions that make an impact in practical and sustainable ways. Moving forward, we’ll continue to spot and source innovations while also discovering ways our past and future work can become integrated and accelerated within the work of the broader global child literacy community.

In your three years at ACR GCD, what elements have been vital for ensuring the uptake of literacy innovations?

Finding sustainable solutions to longstanding problems is rarely the result of a single person or organization. Partnerships are a key tenet of the Grand Challenge model and therefore central to the work of ACR GCD. Each of us who are founding partners of ACR GCD—USAID, World Vision and the Australian Government— have leveraged the expertise of our organizations to create significant impact. This same model has informed our outreach and commitment to partnering with others to expand our reach. For example, we partnered with Pearson’s Project Literacy to advance our work in accessible publishing and youth engagement and with the World Federation of the Deaf and Deaf Child Worldwide to expand our reach to deaf children around the world.

Partnerships will remain central to our model, and my vision is to build upon current partnerships while identifying new ones that ensure all solutions we source are relevant, impactful, and sustainable. This includes Disabled People’s Organizations, Ministries of Education, the private sector and others committed to ensuring all children have books and the opportunity to learn to read. 

Research and evidence building are crucial for the EdTech for literacy sector. What contribution has your research made to education technology, and what role do you see it playing in future efforts to advance child literacy around the globe?  

A key pillar of our programming is understanding the effectiveness and impact on reading outcomes of the educational technology solutions we’ve funded, as well as the potential for solutions to be scaled for future iterations. Our goal with research is to lay an evidence base for the EdTech and education community to leverage as they develop and integrate new solutions. We know our partners, innovators and other key audiences look to our leadership in providing cutting-edge EdTech research in a space where there’s currently a dearth of resources. Data and research will always be critical to the mission of ACR GCD to ensure the innovations we source are resulting in positive impact for the children we serve.

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