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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.

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