Monday, December 10, 2007

Is One Laptop Per Child Insulting?

As far as I can tell, we really don’t have anyone with a broad international focus on this blog, and I wish we did (anyone want to join?). But let me say a little about a recent critique of the XO “$100 laptop” project. For those who don't know, the XO is a tiny laptop that consumes little energy, can be recharged in the field, can be easily fixed by local folks, has an incredible screen that can be read in direct sunlight, and more . . . .

John Dvorak in PC Magazine went on the attack recently, arguing that One Laptop per Child Doesn't Change the World. Dvorak notes the incredible challenges of starvation and malnutrition around the world, and then ridicules the XO project:

So what to do? Let's give these kids these little green computers. That will do it! That will solve the poverty problem and everything else, for that matter. Does anyone but me see this as an insulting "let them eat cake" sort of message to the world's poor?

"Sir, our village has no water!" "Jenkins, get these people some glassware!"

He goes on to note that:

People don't want to consider the possibility that their well-meaning thoughts are a joke and that a $200 truckload of rice would be of more use than Wi-Fi in the middle of nowhere.

Now, I’ve noted before the dangers of thinking that education, by itself, can create jobs or change economies. However, simplistic responses like Dvorak’s don’t help the situation. I am no expert on the complexities of “development” but I recently have done quite a bit of reading about it, and Dvorak’s quip completely misunderstands how challenging it is to bring economic change to incredibly isolated and disconnected areas of the world.

For example, it turns out that except in the most dire circumstances, the last thing you want to do is send a “$200 truckload of rice,” at least when that rice is from the developed world. In fact, poorer nations are increasingly refusing direct food aid. Why? Because when you flood the market with free food from outside, you completely destroy the local food production economy. And you create the conditions for more food emergencies in the future.

So it’s not so simple. And in contrast with the United States, since access to any education or any books is extremely limited, it may be that education is more likely to have some economic impact. Furthermore, in many of these areas, whether outsiders agree or not, there is an incredible desire for education for children.

I don’t know whether the XO project is a good idea or not. But snide responses like Dvorak’s simply avoid the incredible challenges involved in assisting areas that face vastly different challenges than anything we are used to grappling with in the United States.

In places where there are almost no books, it may be that solutions like the XO may make it possible for local people to engage with the vast amount of information available in the world outside, and make decisions for themselves more effectively.

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