The Moral Deficit of “One Laptop Per Child”

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) PrototypeEvery kid needs a computer, especially the impoverished, malnourished, exploited ones living in countries the first world would like to just forget about.

That’s the prevailing logic behind the One Laptop Per Child program being spearheaded by MIT luminary Nicholas Negroponte.

Mr. Negroponte, a geek in intellectual’s clothing, launched his pet project last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Negroponte figures his not-for-profit organization (requisitely acronymated as the “OLPC”) can produce a dirt-cheap laptop that dirt-poor kids can use to enhance their dirt-floor lifestyles.

They originally envisioned combining the cheapest available device components with some open source software to produce a funky, kid-friendly unit so miraculous that it could be hauled unprotected through swamps, dust storms, blizzards and heat waves without suffering any damage.

Unfortunately for the OLPC, the path from dreamy whiteboard sketch to functioning prototype has been a tad rougher than expected.

Already the final cost of the unit has risen from $100 to $140 (all figures in this article are US dollars). They’ve been forced to remove possibly the most ingenious aspect of the original product concept, its hand crank for power generation. And the much-hyped high-contrast sunlight-readable LCD display remains nothing more than a concept.

The final product will only be sold directly to governments that prepay an initial order of at least one million units. That’s a lot of scratch for any country. Then there’s the additional and ongoing costs that always follow technology purchases such as shipping, distribution, training and support. The “total cost of ownership” will be much larger than the initial investment figure.

Despite all of this, the OLPC device has attracted a lot of international interest. Even the Canadian government is sniffing around. The exclusive pilot project includes just a few committed participants, however: Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Nigeria and Thailand.

My mom is a teacher in Macau. She frequently travels to Thailand and visits schools in the country. She’s often found these schools to be without the most basic of educational necessities like pencils and paper. Many kids go without food during the day. Some classrooms are without teachers. One wonders how the educational ministry of the Royal Thai Government plans to reconcile some expensive new technology with a system that can’t support a basic supply and personnel infrastructure.

Nigeria represents an even more fascinating quandary.

On one hand, Nigeria is the perfect African nation to pilot a project such as the OLPC. Its government, a new democracy that basically adopted the US’s constitution, is relatively stable and friendly towards the West. (Not to mention it has some key oil reserves that America would love to dip its carburetor in.)

On the other hand, the country is embroiled in various destabilizing crises of health care, poverty, basic education and gender inequity. These are fundamental societal challenges that, to my mind, should take prevalence over the mass purchase of unproved technology. Yet Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, seems intent on buying laptops.

Over 60% of Nigerians live below the poverty line. Over 7 million Nigerian children, most of them girls, aren’t even in school, primarily because they can’t afford the basics in life such as food and shelter.

UNICEF has been working aggressively in Nigeria to provide more children with access to quality schooling in a healthy environment. They’re focussing on rectifying the gender inequity problem by drawing more girls into the system, improving sanitation and water quality at facilities, and ensuring that students are well fed. Two years ago the UK government provided Nigeria with a grant of $50 million to fund these efforts.

UNICEF Country Representative Ayalew Abai says, “There is abundant evidence to suggest that providing each child with a complete meal, that is adequate in energy, protein, vitamin and minerals, will not only help in making the children ready for effective learning, but will also stimulate increased enrolment, attendance, completion and educational achievement.”

Notice that he doesn’t mention they need a side order of laptop with their rice and beans.

Then there’s the tremendous shadow of HIV/AIDS that hangs over most of Africa.

Almost 3 million people in Nigeria live with HIV/AIDS, the largest number in the world after India and South Africa. 60% of new infections occur in teens and young adults aged 15 to 25, a potentially large user group for the OLPC computer. Somehow, though, I imagine they’d prefer ready access to antiretroviral drugs over a cute little laptop. Unfortunately only about 15,000 enjoy access to the state-funded ARV treatment programme.

It’s estimated that to counter the continued growth of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, the government needs to spend $3 per person on prevention, treatment and care programs. The World Health Organization estimates that the government actually spends only 3¢ per person. In contrast, the OLPC investment represents about $5.50 per person without any clearly defined future benefit.

Before a nation like Nigeria goes investing massively in a theoretical technology, it should do its utmost to cure its sick and educate its poorest. For, as anyone knows, a computer is just another tool, it’s not a magic salve for societal ills (or even for writing a letter or paying your bills). And from a value perspective, a computer is arguably worth less than your basic hammer to the OLPC’s targeted recipients, no matter how low the price tag might go.

Sure, there’s a digital divide between first and third world countries. Everybody know that. But just dumping laptops in the middle of the desert won’t solve this problem, especially if the people there are plagued by more fundamental problems than how to share MP3s with their neighbours.

What the OLPC needs to do is formulate a strategic plan to compliment the product they sell to the world’s poorest people. Don’t just provide a device, but also a program of technology-based solutions that support and advance other ongoing efforts.

For example, in South Africa cell phones were given to tuberculosis sufferers so that text messaging could be used to remind them to take their medications. This program resulted in a higher success rate for treatment with fewer wasted drug resources. There’s no proposal for how the OLPC’s kid-friendly machines might similarly strike at regional social ills.

To be honest, I’m not even a fan of every kid in Canada having his or her own computer. So to propose that our world’s poorest adopt advanced technology before they’ve even acheived a stable and sustainable level of basic survival strikes me as a brutal example of the West’s conceit.

In the case of Nigeria, it’s embarrassing to consider that we are a society capable of sending a sales guy over to pitch some bargain basement technology after we so recently turned a blind eye to the massacres of millions of Rwandan and Sudanese citizens.

Perhaps we are the ones in need of a magic solution to help us bridge our own divide — of morals.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 9, 2006.

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