At the London Book Fair, I participated in a panel called The Role of Publishing and Culture During Global Conflict. The panel provided a great opportunity for me to reflect on my work over the years supporting the international publishing community in conflict and post-conflict situations in the Arab World and beyond.

Unfortunately, the Arab World has 8 of the 35 countries on the World Bank’s annual Harmonized List of Fragile Situations. Due to this widespread fragility, operating in conflict has been normalized as the standard operating environment for MENA publishers. In fact, I chaired one of global publishing’s first events that discussed the role of publishing in conflict in 2019 under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan. The event explored the role of publishing in conflict settings, humanitarian response, and refugee resettlement — with much of the discussion applicable to the current crisis in Ukraine.

The ongoing Ukraine crisis has captured the world’s attention and led to a renewed focus on defining the role of global publishing in conflict. For over 15 years, I have been working with publishers in the Arab World, Africa, and other regions in conflict and post-conflict settings to foster hope, support reconciliation, and secure peace through books. From my on the ground experience over the years, I believe there are several roles that publishing can play in conflict and post-conflict settings.

The global pandemic — and programs like the International Publisher Associations’ International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (Inspire) initiative — have shown how vital industry support can be in overcoming crisis. In conflict, industry solidarity is even more critical.

In addition to Ukraine, the International Publishers Association (IPA) has members in 8 other countries carrying out their work in conflict including Armenia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and Venezuela.

While IPA does not have a formal crisis response playbook, it supports members in building ecosystem resilience to keep books reaching readers and critical institutions like schools and libraries. It steps up efforts to safeguard freedom to publish by serving as a watchdog to highlight government violations and rally behind persecuted publishers. To mobilize resources that benefit national publishers associations, IPA also often serves as an information clearing house to highlight the work of institutions and programs working on the ground and mobilize in-kind and financial resources.

Globally, governments are increasingly using conflict, instability, and crisis as a pretext to crack down on freedom to publish by silencing independent analysis and reporting and quieting voices critical of government. In times of crisis, the international publishing community plays a key role in highlighting and exposing instances where freedom to publish is under attack by government overreach and coordinated disinformation campaigns aimed at misleading the public.

While there is much more work to be done to institutionalize global publishing’s response to freedom to publish violations in times of crisis, one of the best ways the international publishing community can support is by standing in solidarity with publishers associations and individual publishers to keep credible, reliable, and objective information in the hands of readers. For many years now, the publishing industry has discussed the need for an objective, country-level measure of freedom to publish — similar to the Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net and Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Progressing these efforts could be very valuable to global publishing’s ability to adopt more tailored, impactful responses to freedom to publish violations in conflict and post-conflict settings.

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to visit many conflict affected countries. I’ve been deeply moved by the eagerness of children in conflict and post-conflict settings to continue their education and live normal lives. It is absolutely essential that the international publishing community, together with international organizations and non-profits, support children struggling to continue their studies and who are out of school because of conflict. A recent study by UNICEF found that 30% of youth between 15 and 24 living in conflict are illiterate. The risk of not supporting children in continuing their studies and building literacy skills is a lost generation that struggles through adulthood due to lack of critical life skills.

In my experience, a particularly effective response to support children to continue learning in difficult circumstances is providing safe spaces enriched with books. These refuges can offer a literary escape, chance to build new skills, and hope to plan for the future. For example, the Dubai Cares-sponsored Africa Publishing Innovation Fund funded the construction of a library in Kakuma refugee camp — the world’s largest refugee camp which hosts almost 150,000 refugees over 60% of which are under 18 years old. Through Kalimat Foundation, the corporate social responsibility arm of my publishing house Kalimat Group, I also led library building and book donation projects in the world’s second largest refugee camp, Zaatari Camp in Jordan. These initiatives provide a safe environment in which children affected by conflict can continue to learn and play and dream of a better future.

Many victims of conflict find refuge through resettlement in other countries. In adapting to their new communities, books and reading are useful in helping refugees become self-sufficient and integrating more quickly into their new communities. Books that tackle meaningful issues like war, poverty, spirituality, racism, and other settlement challenges in an entertaining and informative way can support acculturation, mutual understanding, and language acquisition.

In 2018, in response to the inflow of Syrian refugees into Italy, my publishing company Kalimat Group partnered with Galucci Publishing to form a new publishing house called Gallucci-Kalimat. Gallucci-Kalimat publishes dual language books aimed at youth in refugee and diaspora communities. Our books address themes like social inclusion and intercultural dialogue to promote cultural exchange between our regions leveraging the power of books and reading as a starting basis for building mutual understanding and deescalating conflict.

We are still very early in exploring how best the international publishing community can support post-conflict community peacebuilding, healing, and reconciliation. In response to humanitarian disasters, programs such as therapeutic bibliotherapy initiatives and rebuilding reading materials collections are increasingly helping communities heal and facilitating peacebuilding. In particular, bibliotherapy, in which psychological support is infused with reading, reflecting, and discussing books, holds a lot of promise. At the same time, individuals suffering from visual impairments, either caused by or worsened by conflict, are also increasingly in need of accessible books.

Kalimat Foundation’s Ara initiative, which supports blind and visually impaired children by facilitating the production of accessible Arabic content, is a response to the high volume of blast injuries that affect eyesight in conflicts. Kalimat Foundation’s Pledge a Library program also offers training to support librarians and teachers in developing bibliotherapy skills so they can help communities in conflict heal. While Sharjah World Book Capital’s support to rebuild the Samir Mansour Library, one of the largest libraries and booksellers in the Gaza Strip, after it was destroyed in 2021 is another example of how critical safe spaces are to community healing and returning to normalcy.

In my experience, humanitarian funding gaps have been the primary limitation to the international publishing community doing more. More publishing ecosystem stakeholders, international organizations, non-profits, and other donors need to step up to contribute to funding programs and initiatives.

A good example of multi-sectoral cooperation to mobilize resources was the partnership I formed between Dubai Cares and IPA to support African publishing innovation, library restoration, and book collection development initiatives. In February 2022, the Sharjah World Book Capital Office also responded to the Wroclaw Literature House’s appeal for financial assistance for Ukrainian authors, illustrators, and translators whose livelihoods have been disrupted by crisis. Through collective efforts such as these, the private sector, non-profits, international organizations, and governments can make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of children and families affected by conflict.

Global publishing’s response to crisis is a book that is still being written. I am delighted to have participated in London Book Fair’s panel on publishing in conflict because it raises a very timely and important question: what is the role of the international publishing community in conflict? Unfortunately, many of our colleagues have been publishing in conflict and post-conflict environments for years with little offered in the way of support. Regretfully, we don’t have all the answers on how our industry should most effectively respond.

In this blog post, I’ve tried to unpack my evolving thoughts. There is a compelling need for a more institutionalized publishing industry playbook for responding to crisis and post-conflict situations. In my experience, most multi-stakeholder publishing, reading, and literacy interventions have focused on developing and frontier publishing markets, which, until recently, have not attracted the attention of global publishing. As demographic trends, technological progress, and economic growth in emerging and frontier markets attract more attention from global publishers seeking growth, it seems inevitable that many of the promising future markets for publishers are ones which will be scarred by conflict and face development challenges.

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Bodour Al Qasimi

Bodour Al Qasimi

President of International Publishers Association; Founder and CEO of Kalimat Group, Kalimat Foundation and PublisHer network to empower women in publishing.