New Technology in Developing Countries: A Critique of the OLPC Program

   
   
   
   
   

For all the attention One Laptop Per Child has received in recent years, one might have thought that the idea of giving a laptop to each schoolchild in developing countries had been subject to intense scrutiny. Unfortunately, it has not been seriously reviewed by either proponents of the idea or anyone else for that matter. The purpose of this note is hopefully to initiate a debate on the economics of the issue.

From an economic point of view, there are in fact two separate roles played by the OLPC program, roles that together determine its overall appropriateness. One is as a highly commendable low-cost computer designed specifically for schoolchildren in developing countries. The other is an attempt to exceed even developed country levels of sharing, an endeavor, which I show leads to serious resource imbalance especially in the poorest countries.

Whereas for example my calculations show that a balanced number of students per laptop would be above 300 in Kenya, this number falls sharply in Peru, a much richer country. I am also able to distinguish between the costs of extending sharing to the developed country level and those due to an OLPC policy.

One of my conclusions is that with growing interest in technology sharing as a means of reaching the poor, proponents of the OLPC should seriously reconsider their position (no-sharing) on this issue, instead of focusing only on the costs and suitability of hardware and software. If this does not occur (and perhaps even if it does), governments have several other options. One is to purchase Intel's ''Classmate'' computer at a similarly low price and let it be shared by as many students as is thought desirable.

Alternatively, at what appears to be a still lower cost, there is a product based on sharing that has already been successful in various parts of the developing world. Produced by a company called ''NComputing,'' the idea is to divide up the resources of a computer in a way that permits up to 30 people to work together and independently on separate monitors. (See the interesting discussion in Greenberg, 2008.)

Less well known are attempts to induce sharing of computers by providing each child with a mouse and cursor. The software entailed allows a single computer to connect with multiple mice, each of which belongs to an individual student (Pawar, Pal, & Toyama, 2006).

Finally, I would like to question the progress being made by the OLPC project toward its avowed goal of reducing global poverty. On the one hand, the vast majority of laptops from the project have gone to three relatively wealthy Latin American countries, while on the other, the allocation of health and education resources in these countries is notoriously unequal.

This is the conclusion of New Technology in Developing Countries: A Critique of the One-Laptop-Per-Child Program by Jeffrey James, professor of development economics at Tilburg University in The Netherlands

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6 Comments

The Guest Writer is clearly more familiar with the well resourced environments than the realities of the villages.

NComputing simply does not work in villages. Its a high energy consuming set up that is more like a bus while in the villages one may need bicycles as there are no roads buses can run on.

As regarding sharing OLPC, there is an added advantage of collaboration in the classroom while a huge disadvantage in terms of how a child really likes to learn. Just as we cannot restrict one pair of shoes for every 5 children, so is the case with the laptop.

The question requires a bit more serious thinking, some more serious introspection, dialogue rather than conclusion shared in this note.

This is an interesting article that from a fast skimming I got two points.
1) That importing goods compared to locally produced is much more expensive and results in the deterioration of the local economics, particularly in poor countries or the poor segment of the population.
I think is valid and that's why the recent decision to produce the XOs locally in Peru is very important.
At the same time negates one of the points of criticism of the OLPC program.

2) That the ratio of students to laptops should be reflecting gross national income. Furthermore 2007 UK GNI and students/laptop (5/1) is used as the "standard".
I think that this point has some very serious problems in more than one way.
a) No data support the laptops to GNI correlation.
If this was a valid approach should reflect in a whole range of developed countries. Which it does not
b) It assumes a linear relationship between GNI and different sectors of the economy. Which clearly is not the case.
c) 2007 computer prices in UK schools is 3-5 times higher than the XOs thus 5/1 "starnard" is actually d) 2007 data are considerably different in 2011 than 2007, specially after the netbook (and now tablet) explosion
e) UK had no 1:1 ICT4E program in 2007, thus using it as a standard you already reject all 1:1 programs, and of course OLPC's

Of course I do agree that you can not have an ICT4E program that exceeds your education or government budget, but to use the aforementioned calculations to estimate students/laltop is totally misleading, to say the least.

I think that Uruguay is a much better point of reference for the students/laptop vs GNI correlations.
Peru is probably a better example of short/medium-term cost/benefit studies.
Of course this is if you want to check the viability and benefits of such a program. If you want to reject it you pick 2007 UK and linear GNI/sector.

BTW the link in the first paragraph of the article is wrong should be .../files/... not .../file/...

edit:
c).... is actually

edit2:
Bummer! It deletes the rest of the line after the "less" math symbol. So:
c)... is actually less than 2/1 considering cost/GNI

Regarding mavrothal comment on the costs of importing vs. locally produced goods, I really don't know his basis for that, but for highly specialized, highly commoditized goods like computers (including OLPC) local vs. imported is less significant than scaling, and the fact is that there's no proof that locally assembling (not producing, as all the components will be brought from abroad) XO computers in Peru will be less expensive than importing them. There might be other benefits, of course.

This paper very well focuses on the tremendous opportunity cost of granting a laptop to every child.

However the cost benefit analysis is hugely dependent upon local application and local needs; and to what extent the implementation meets them.

Here OLPC needs to be put against more conventional interventions (school meals perhaps) against changing local problems (be that enrollment, results, whatever) and the most cost effective improvement actioned.

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