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