News / Africa

Some Development Experts Criticize 'One Laptop Per Child' Initiative in Africa

The One Laptop Per Child website shows students in Kenya using the small green and white computer, March 2011
The One Laptop Per Child website shows students in Kenya using the small green and white computer, March 2011
Nico Colombant

While the U.S.-based foundation One Laptop Per Child is building new partnerships in Africa, the initiative also is being criticized by some development experts. They say there are limits to how technology can help reduce poverty.

An advertisement for One Laptop per Child calls it the little green laptop that could. "My name is Zimi. I am seven years old. I come from a place you have never heard of. A country you cannot pronounce. A continent you would rather forget."

The ad shows the young girl from South Africa balancing her laptop on her head, walking with it wherever she goes and using it at school and at home. The ad ends with a link to an online site where for $199 one of these laptops can be donated to the developing world.

Ambitious program proliferates

About 2 million of the small laptops already have been sold. The laptop connects to the Internet through wi-fi hotspots or school networks, like any other computer would. It has less code than other computers, which brings its cost down, but so far not down to the original $100 goal of the project's initiators.

A new version expected later this year will cost $165, with the added ability to run on just two watts of power. It also will have a hand crank that can be used when the battery is running low.

The initiative, founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte, is now in its sixth year. Last month, his non-profit organization reached a new partnership with the African Union to deliver laptops to primary school students throughout Africa. A separate deal was reached last month with Rwanda's government to increase distribution of the devices.

Inefficiencies, other priorities cited

Many development experts, however, dislike the ongoing initiative. G. Pascal Zachary, who teaches a class about technology and development in sub-Saharan Africa at Arizona State University, is one of those against it.

"They continue to push technologies at Africans and tell them that they ought to accept these technologies," said Zachary. "They ought to have more personal computers. They ought to have better seeds. They ought to do this and they ought to do that. But very clearly, when Africans decide themselves what they value, they quickly take up a technology and mobile phones is a great example."

Zachary said one area where Africans could use help is to make their electricity systems more robust.

He finds the One Laptop per Child program inefficient and prone to corruption, especially when the organization cuts deals with governments, while, he said, the school system in Africa is extremely decentralized.

"Most Africans that I talk to in African cities want the same laptop you get, not some gizmo that has a special power source and looks like a shoebox. But for some reason the wise people at M.I.T. did not think Africans deserved getting a normal laptop, they wanted to give them a special one that looked like a brick. I think there are a lot of levels in which this kind of pushing at Africans technologies that are inappropriate for them simply to benefit their own need for vanity and for moral reinforcement. Let's hope that we are seeing less and less of this type of thing."

Defending educational goals

At a recent conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, exploring links between technology and eradicating poverty, Negroponte defended himself against similar criticism. He said his project is an educational one, and that with his laptop, children have an intuitive way to learn.

"So solution to poverty is education and the way to get learning is, in my mind, very much connected to technology, particularly in the developing world."

Another panelist at the conference, Kentaro Toyama, from the University of California Berkeley, said his research has shown technological educational initiatives so far have proven to amplify inequalities more than help the poor.

Educational outcomes questioned

"There are studies that show that just putting a computer in a school and having students interact with it does not actually contribute to educational outcomes. Many people say that in developing countries, because teacher absenteeism is such a problem, that at least a computer is better than no teacher at all, but the cumulating research seems to suggest exactly the opposite. Computers can help good schools with good teachers, caring administrators, and so on, but in schools which are really struggling to teach their students, it turns out the computers only suck up resources and take up space."

Other panelists also said they believe cheaper assistance, such as providing deworming for school age children, or school lunches, or helping with teacher salaries, were more efficient than donating a computer to help improve education.

You May Like

Video Obama: Action on Climate Change 'Economic, Security Imperative'

President spoke to reporters on sidelines of UN Climate Summit outside Paris, where leaders are working to agree on binding measures

IMF Bets on China’s Resolve to Reform

IMF announcement already raising questions about just how much Beijing is committed to such reforms

What Happened When I Landed in Antarctica

Refael Klein chronicles what it's like to visit one of the coldest, most desolate places on Earth

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs