OLPC and Economic Development

   
   
   
   
   
Nicolas Negroponte's claim that One Laptop Per Child is an education project, not a laptop project is well known and often discussed. What is less well known is his claim that OLPC is about eliminating poverty:
"But what One Laptop Per Child is, it's about eliminating poverty. And that's the reason we do it, that's why everybody who's involved in the project is involved with it. And the belief is very simple.

That is that you can eliminate poverty with education, and no matter what solutions you have in this world for big problems like peace or the environment, they all involve education. In some cases, it could be just with education and in no case is it ever without education. And we particularly focus on primary education."

As I mentioned in my last posting, OLPC and Education Reform, I am Robert B. Kozma, Ph.D., an international consultant on technology in service of developing countries. I have just returned from Kenya where I had an opportunity to reflect on the claim that OLPC is about eliminating poverty.

For the past two years, I have been working with the Education Committee in Sauri, a set of rural villages of about 5,500 people in western Kenya. I have served as a pro bono (or should that be pro-Bono) consultant to the Committee members as they formulated their plans for a community learning resource center. I have also supported their efforts by donating a dairy cow to the school lunch program, providing scholarships, and purchasing equipment and supplies for the center, including books, a digital camera, and a laptop.


Sauri education committee

Approximately 67% of the people in Sauri live on less than $1 a day. Most are subsistence farmers, growing maize, beans, tomatoes, onions, and kale. Until just a few months ago, there was no electricity in Sauri. There is now an electrical line to the clinic and soon there will be one to the learning resource center.

Economic development efforts in Africa will have to address the needs of people like those in Sauri because 70-80% of the labor force in most Sub-Saharan countries is in rural areas. And poverty is the highest in the rural villages of Africa.

Furthermore, the dramatic increases in economic output and standard of living that we are seeing in countries like China and India were built on twenty years of increased farm productivity in the rural areas. Africa has yet to experience this Green Revolution. In fact, during the last twenty years, agricultural productivity in Africa has actually dropped each decade and hunger has increased.

Given this context, it is perhaps not surprising that members of the Education Committee in Sauri want to build a community learning resource center that can help them increase the productivity of their farms and improve their lives.

The Committee's emphasis on this learning center is particularly appropriate since 90% of the students in Sauri do not go beyond primary school--not because they are incapable or unmotivated but because their parents can not afford the tuition and uniforms. So the Education Committee sees the center as a means to provide education for out of school youths as well as adults.


Nakaseke community radio station

In planning their center, the Committee members wanted to know how technology might be used to achieve their goals. In response to their interests, I visited eight community telecenters in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya; interviewed the managers, staff, and community users; and then returned to Sauri to report what I learned and make my recommendations to the Committee.

While technology was a common feature of all these telecenters, the key was the role that it played in providing villagers with access to needed information and the means to communicate it.

I found computers in all the centers, but bicycles, books, cell phones, community radio stations, and video tapes were also used to obtain and share information. This information often related to farm practice and productivity: information on seeds, planting, fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting, as well as animal breeding, feeding, and treatment of diseases. Information on current market prices was also highly valued. But desired information also included that on water harvesting, energy efficiency, education, health, nutrition, culture, local news, and even national sports.

Like Nicolas Negroponte--and the villagers of Sauri--I believe that technology has a role to play in supporting economic development in Africa and reducing poverty. But my conclusions about how technology should be used are quite different than those of Negroponte.

Based on my research in other rural villages, I recommended that the Sauri community learning resource center be equipped with a variety of means of obtaining information that was needed by the community. This included books, magazines, videos, and a single computer with access to the Internet.


Nakaseke village telecenter

In addition to making these resources available to villagers as a means of distributing information, the center should also use a low-wattage radio transmitter. They should also set up small satellite centers in various locations across the geographically dispersed set of villages that constitutes Sauri and equip them with a radio receiver and a cell phone that villagers can use to call into the telecenter with their questions.

Finally, a key to the success of the center is having a manager who is not only technologically skilled but familiar with the informational needs of the villagers and is capable to searching the vast resources of the internet to meet these needs.

So to return to the issue of OLPC and economic development, it is important to start with an understanding of what people need and their context rather than what the technology can be made to do. Taking this perspective, it is not clear that the widespread distribution of computers to children is the way to eliminate poverty in Africa.

Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on XO machines, wouldn't it be better and cheaper for national governments to support rural villages in their efforts to set up and staff internet-connected community telecenters where villagers have access to the information they need to improve their livelihoods and their lives?

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29 Comments

"Rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars on XO machines, wouldn’t it be better and cheaper for national governments to support rural villages in their efforts to set up and staff internet-connected community telecenters where villagers have access to the information they need to improve their livelihoods and their lives?"

My question is, would this work in South America, South Africa, and Asia?

I know they tried this kind of stuff somewhere in South America. The problem I see is that it tends to stay passive. People get information, but are not stimulated (or allowed) to produce it. Which would nurture more dependence.

Another question is, are these centers accessible and available for children? In the sense that ALL children get a reasonable amount of computer and network time? If not, it will not improve educaiton much.

Winter

"... I recommended that the Sauri learning resource center be equipped with a variety of means of obtaining information that was needed by the community. This included books, magazines, videos, and a single computer with access to the Internet.

In addition to making these resources available to villagers as a means of distributing information, the center should also use a low-wattage radio transmitter."

With this set-up in the learning resource center, people using it should find the "Edu-Mobiile" pretty useful. Edu-Mobile is a simple mobile phone with radio, USB, e-book reader etc. More information here:

http://flosse.dicole.org/flosse/?item=the-edu-mobile-gsm-gprs-radio-e-book-wiki-blog-reader-writer-usb

What do you think, would people be willing to invest extra 10 USD to get the “edu-features” on their mobile phone?

Dr. Kozma's article provides some excellent first-hand information and analysis about effective ways to use computer and communication technology to advance economic development. My conclusions are well in line with his, and the concept I have been advocating of "One Telecentre Per Village" is essentially the same as the one presented here.

My education in these matters began when I was approached with a request from villagers in Laos for a means to get telecommunications to their villages. They were a refugee village engaged in farming, and they suffered from low prices for their produce due to the fact that they could not check around to find the highest price when ready to take their crops to market.

They were highly socially coherent (having stayed together as a village during their passage through refugee camps after being bombed out of their ancestral land) and had taxed themselves to improve their school (no disregard of education there). But they were poor and the new free market that was developing in Laos was leaving them out - cell phone service stopped at the mountain ridge-line and they had no power or phone lines in their valley.

It has been shown time and again that telecommunications, especially locally, makes a tremendous difference in raising agricultural incomes. Farm information as broadcast by radio is also highly important. The theory of markets maintains that to the degree that information is less freely available the market will perform less efficiently, and this has apparently been borne out in practice.

Economic development is, as Dr. Kozma points out, based upon agricultural surpluses (over and above food needed for survival) and a functioning market. General agricultural information, weather reports, and community feedback by radio are important elements in developing the surplus, and telecommunications is highly important for individual communication.

One computer per village is a good starting point, if managed well (as can be done as a telecentre - I use the British spelling in recognition of the work that has been done in India to develop the practice). Telecentres will bring the Internet to the village with an economic basis of support, and will pave the way for larger schemes like OLPC.

But it is putting the cart before the horse to act as if education alone can bring about development.

Winter,

"The problem I see is that it tends to stay passive. People get information, but are not stimulated (or allowed) to produce it."

This is a good point. I am very much a believer in the importance of local or indigenous knowledge. I think there should be resources that enable villages to document their own best farm practices (as well as culture, news, etc.). That's one reason why I donated a digital camera to the villagers.

Robert Kozma and Lee,

"But my conclusions about how technology should be used are quite different than those of Negroponte."

Only because telecenters are a good idea and helping local economics it does not mean that OLPC would be a bad idea and would not help local economics.

IMHO the main difference lies in the different time scale. Telecenters can help the economy as soon as they are implemented. With OLPC the kids need first to be educated and grow up to become farmers themselves (or whatever profession) to increase economy. OLPC's effect on economy will come with a delay of 5-10 years but be more profound because the kids will be literate and fluent in technology usage and two-way-communications.

So both approaches should be followed simultaneously.

Roland,

"OLPC's effect on economy will come with a delay of 5-10 years but be more profound because the kids will be literate and fluent in technology usage and two-way-communications.

So both approaches should be followed simultaneously."

Several responses:

1) There is no evidence that I'm aware of that would support the claim that OLPC would have any impact what so ever (let alone a profound one) on the economy of a country other, perhaps, the economy of Taiwan that would be producing the millions of XO machines. Whereas there is significant evidence that increasing farm productivity will have a huge impact on the economy.

2) Part of the problem in developing countries is that they don't have the resources to do multiple big-scale projects at the same time. So trade offs need to be made. Claiming that the best course is to purchase a laptop for every child doesn't leave many (any) resources for other, perhaps more effective and/or proven strategies.

3) As with education, the economic development argument is yet another example of how OLPC is starting with the technology rather than studying people's needs, constraints and aspirations.


The Sauri program sounds excellent. However, there is always the question of cost. Which would produce more economic growth for the amount of money expended, Sauri-like programs, or oplc? Alas, you left out the cost per villager for the Sauri program. Perhaps you would be so kind as to provide some figures.

I have a high consideration for the work of Dr. Kozma and I certainly agree with most of his, let's call it, community-centered argument. In fact, a 'one telecentre per community (or village, or neighbordhood)' policy is increasingly considered as a good idea also in this part of the world (south america).

Yet, this discussion brings again the issue of what kind of poverty we are trying to reduce with OLPC.

As we know, most of the candidate nations (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru in this continent) are far from having the extreme poverty levels of many Africans countries.

I think that most of those who have been following the OLPC project would agree upon the fact that XO is perhaps not suitable for a context of extreme poverty where many other -MOST RELEVANT- efforts should be promoted first.

Yet, what we are all hoping to achieve here is that OLPC (or similar projects)can help many Latin American nations such as those mentioned above to leave poverty behind. These nations are not too far away from the that target because many of the most terrible problems linked with extreme poverty have been already solved.

For countries like ours, OLPC can mean a giant leap forward. The great transformation will be unleashed by the creative powers of thousands of children.

Our hopes are disruptives.

Thanks,

Luis Ramirez
www.ucpn.cl

Luis,

I think this is an excellent distinction. You are correct. I am speaking very much on this point from my African experience. And that experience is very different from Latin America, where I have worked (Chile). It is also different from Southeast Asia (where I've also worked--Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong).

I am quite willing to say that in some countries, OLPC might make a significant contribution to education (if combined with teacher training and other changes) and even economic development.

I only wish that the OLPC would make these distinctions ("best there; probably not here") and qualifications ("might work"), rather than using a "one size fits all" solution and unqualified assertions that border on arrogance.

It's so ... Western.

Robert Kozma,
Quote #1:
"1) There is no evidence that I'm aware of that would support the claim that OLPC would have any impact what so ever (let alone a profound one) on the economy of a country other, perhaps, the economy of Taiwan that would be producing the millions of XO machines. Whereas there is significant evidence that increasing farm productivity will have a huge impact on the economy."

Of course there is no proof yet about the economic impact of OLPC itself. But I am convinced that there are studies proving the impact of education on economy in the 3rd world. Frankly, I am surprised that you as an expert in this area don't (want to?) know of any such studies.

Quote #2:
"I am quite willing to say that in some countries, OLPC might make a significant contribution to education (if combined with teacher training and other changes) and even economic development."

If OLPC increases the level of education of a large part of the kids then it will automatically also profoundly influence the economy due to a new generation of workforce with better education. This is even obvious without a scientific study as you admit yourself in this second quote.

As I already pointed out earlier in
http://www.olpcnews.com/use_cases/education/build_schools_buy_olpc_xo.html
there are very poor countries that cannot afford OLPC whatsoever. For these countries the telecenters are a good solution. But the other countries that actually could afford OLPC quite certainly could also simultaneously afford telecenters and therefore should do both at least until the better educated kids enter their professional lives. By the way, countries going for OLPC could even equip such telecenters with low cost OLPC hardware e.g. for computing and internet link.

IMHO the question about OLPC is not whether their aims are right but whether their methods to achieve these aims are right. I agree that the OLPC leadership showed some arrogant western attitudes in the past
http://www.olpcnews.com/people/negroponte/olpc_miscommunication.html
and that it does not yet consider local mentalities quite enough and that it has not yet scientifically proven the effectivness of their education method in order to justify the substantial cost. But all that criticism is not disqualifying the OLPC program altogether. It instead requires corrections, additional efforts and more time.

"I think this is an excellent distinction. You are correct. I am speaking very much on this point from my African experience. And that experience is very different from Latin America, where I have worked (Chile). It is also different from Southeast Asia (where I've also worked--Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong)."

Recently in the news: More than half the human population now lives in cities. Mostly slums.

What I wonder is, when every child in a village gets a laptop with internet access, a telecenter should not be that difficult to add?

Winter

Sorry, Winter, you've got it backwards. When you get every child a laptop with internet access, then every child has a telecentre.

To bring internet access to a village takes a bit of investment, and there has to be an economic gain to pay for its operation costs. A telecentre can do that.

OLPCs approach completely begs the question of economics. A payback on a 10-year time scale is not going to be attractive to politicians who need results much faster. Besides, there is ample evidence that young people who are educated beyond the level where their society can provide them jobs will tend to emigrate to places where their training can pay off.

"A payback on a 10-year time scale is not going to be attractive to politicians who need results much faster. Besides, there is ample evidence that young people who are educated beyond the level where their society can provide them jobs will tend to emigrate to places where their training can pay off."

That is a very specific view of politics. People CAN require good outlooks, like education NOW.

I live in a country where people reserved 10% of GDP (over the years) to build something that would take 30 years to complete. And everyone was cheering the politicians who did it. The UK spend a complete GDP or more happily to fight the Germans.

Winter

Bob,

How about an answer to my question about the cost-per-villager for the Sauri program?

Eduardo Montez,

"How about an answer to my question about the cost-per-villager for the Sauri program?"

Estimating costs is difficult because they vary from country to country and, of course, they keep coming down. But let me give it a try; these are all very rough. The start up costs would include a laptop ($500-$700), a low-wattage radio station in a box (pretty much everything needed, $5,000), and VSAT installation for internet ($1,500-$2,000), license fee (varies from country to country). Add a digital camera, some books, a few hand crank radio receivers, cell phones and it all comes to about $10,000. With 5,500 villagers in Sauri, that would be about $1.80 per villager, as a rough indicator. However, the recurring costs are an issue. The cost of (low band-width) VSAT internet subscription is the highest at about $400/month. Then there is the facility rental, utilities, and the staff. Most managers I talked to worked for room and board and a small amount of money each month. My rough guess would be about $1,000 in recurring costs each month, or about $.18 per villager. Does that give you an order of magnitude?

Roland,

"But I am convinced that there are studies proving the impact of education on economy in the 3rd world. Frankly, I am surprised that you as an expert in this area don't (want to?) know of any such studies."

Actually, I am quite aware of the research on education and economic development and I have used the "education leads to economic development" argument myself (see: http://www.humantechnology.jyu.fi/articles/volume1/2005/kozma.pdf). However, if one is to use this argument it is encumbent on one to develop the logical/causal connections, particularly if you then add another component (i.e., technology) to the causal chain. What is the added value? How exactly will ICT contribute to education in a way that contributes to economic development? Professor Negroponte does not develop this argument. Without doing so, you can only take his word for it. That's a big gamble for a developing country.

Dear all,

I may like to add on Bob's and Luis' comments about extreme poverty and rural poverty, making a reference to Eduardo Montez's previous statement about OLPC being geared towards rural communities without teachers.

Countries in Latin America do have African-level poor people. The extent of that kind of poverty is certainly minor compared to African countries: there are fewer extreme poor.

However, the distinction to be made is that a significant number of the extreme poor do live in urban areas. That's a whole set of issues, quite different to those of rural poor communities.

Also: one of the things that make people stay poor is inequality; one wonderful argument in favor of OLPC-style programs, but that can also turn as a big disadvantage in time, is that giving everyone the resource inequality is being fought. There's the issue of exactly where and how inequality works (agency inequality being more important than income inequality, Amartya Sen dixit).

Focused, tightly focused programs attacking agency inequality can be extremely productive. These may work better in areas where opportunities for newly trained or newly educated people can become part of the workforce. However, and this is obviously beyond the scope of any program like OLPC, there has to be economic conditions for job creation, or those with new skills won't be getting any jobs.

In other words: it's complicated. I agree with Luis that in some respects, Latin American countries are more likely to get a jolt from OLPC computers than other countries, where the productive sector is less developed, or where urban living is less widespread. Again, it's complicated.

"However, if one is to use this argument it is encumbent on one to develop the logical/causal connections, particularly if you then add another component (i.e., technology) to the causal chain."

Bob, I must say that I am puzzled by these arguments about the economic relevance of education.

If we look at literacy, there must be thousands of studies linking literacy rates to any aspect of socio-economics and development.

This single pdf (250 pages) from 1997 is full of references and abstracts around gender issues and literacy:

Education research gender, education and development -
A partially annotated and selective
bibliography -
Education Research Paper No. 19, 1997, 250
p.
http://www.dfid.gov.uk/pubs/files/edresgenderedpaper19.pdf

Are there really people who have to be convinced that spending money on increasing literacy is good economic sense? And are their really problems in quantifying the benefits of literacy?

Winter

Winter,

"Bob, I must say that I am puzzled by these arguments about the economic relevance of education."

The issue is not whether education will lead to economic development and poverty reduction but whether OLPC will. Professor Negroponte does not make a strong case for how OLPC will improve education. He is even more casual about developing the connection between OLPC and poverty reduction.

Making claims without warrants leaves developing countries with hype not argument. I think they deserve more than that.

"The issue is not whether education will lead to economic development and poverty reduction but whether OLPC will. "

I do not have any numbers ready, but computer assisted reading programs and Computer Assisted Language Learning are well developed fields.

It must be relatively easy to get the relevant research. As far as I remember computers can speed up the learning considerably in both fields.

And the link between speed of learning to read and economic development seems to be not very difficult.

Learning is not something abstract. It is learning to read and write, learning to calculate, learning languages and literature, history, science, health, mechanics. These have all been studied to death, with and without computers.

Some random examples from the web

A study from 1991: Computer-Assisted Instruction by Kathleen Cotton
http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/sirs/5/cu10.html

A meta-study from 2006:
A Review of the Literature on Computer-Assisted Learning, particularly Integrated Learning Systems, and Outcomes with Respect to Literacy and Numeracy
http://www.minedu.govt.nz/index.cfm?layout=document&documentid=5499&data=l

Winter

Rober Kozma wrote:

"The issue is not whether education will lead to economic development and poverty reduction but whether OLPC will. Professor Negroponte does not make a strong case for how OLPC will improve education. He is even more casual about developing the connection between OLPC and poverty reduction.

Making claims without warrants leaves developing countries with hype not argument. I think they deserve more than that."

Very well said, Bob.

Fortunately, the entire world agrees with you - thus the lack of orders. So far, the OLPC Project is just an unfinished laptop with a long list of dubious claims and objectives.

Professor Negroponte has a long way to go before any responsible country will invest millions - perhaps billions - of dollars on his word alone.


Euripides

"So far, the OLPC Project is just an unfinished laptop with a long list of dubious claims and objectives."

This is just a silly thing to say. OLPC will soon be a finished laptop and a remarkable one at that.

Does anyone really doubt that there will be a demand for this laptop? I don't. It may not make it into the hands of the children it is intended for but I'll bet rich countries like the US will be happy to take advantage.

Patrick Hallinan wrote:

"Does anyone really doubt that there will be a demand for this laptop? I don't. "

Well, Patrick, it is hard to be so optimistic when the 2 deadlines set by Professor Negroponte have passed without a single order. Another sign of trouble is the lowering of the initial mininmum orders from 1 million to 250,000 units.

It doesn't look like people are banging on the XO's door...

Bob,

ok, so the costs-per-villager are quite low (though I imagine that if it were made county-wide, most of the staff would have to be paid more regular salaries.

Now the question is how to compare this with oplc. Now the group most in need is regions where the educational system is quite dysfunctional. And as I have argued elsewhere, the most effecient use of oplc in this setting would actually be to load up the laptops with self-instructional software for basic subjects including reading, writing, and mathematics,
plus various other useful software, and give a single laptop to each family for use by all the children and also the parents.

If a computer costs, including the server, $250
a piece, and there are 6 person per family, then over 5 years that works out to about $.75 per person a month, not counting recurring expenses.

Now the question is whether a person with part time access to a family computer would gain more benefit on average than a villager in the Sauri plan. My guess is they would, for instance because they would have a communication system, and access to a large library, and so on but it would be best to run comparitive tests.

I truly do not understand how a laptop can make a significant change to poverty. In my opinion it will continue to make the rich richer and poor poorer. If we truly want to educate those living in third world countries, let us first start with the basics. As we often hear teach a farmer how to grow his own crops then he can feed his family and teach them at the same time. Teach the young one to become better doctors or Lawyers. Things that can make a difference in their society. For this, one does not need a laptop. In fact all a laptop will do is add to the poverty. Many places in the third world do not have electricity on a good day, how will they be able to fund for this? Is it not a fact that technology is causing global warming which is affecting them more than us? Lets work on the basics first. i am sure having food and fresh water on the table is more important to them than learning how to use technology for now.

Don’t get me wrong. I realise the importance of technology, but should that really be our focus right now!!!

"Teach the young one to become better doctors or Lawyers."

I would start with plumbers and mechanics. Or even at reading and writing.

And for that, improved education starting at primary school is needed. Given the shortage of teachers, and the inability to increase their number dramatically, other measures are required. In this light, automatization is a valid policy.

Winter

I, for one, celebrate OLPC as a well-intended effort that may bring some fresh air into environments frequently permeated by politics, inefficiency, and self-interest.

Discussions about OLPC often miss some basic facts, and this one is no exception:

1. No one solution fits all cases, nor it cures all ills
2. Developing productivity and "social capital" requires improvements in social conscience and justice, health, education, infrastructure, legislation, and local entrepreneurship, and is simply not practical to bring those in one by one
3. Participation is voluntary. Countries and organizations will make their own field evaluations and come to conclusions which a much higher degree of validity for their specific conditions.

Even if nothing else is achieved, OLPC has gotten people in the "First World" better informed on the plight of fellow human beings, and thinking of what can be done to help others get out of endemic poverty.

Julio Cartaya's last comment...

"Even if nothing else is achieved, OLPC has gotten people in the "First World" better informed on the plight of fellow human beings, and thinking of what can be done to help others get out of endemic poverty."

...hints at an argument that I'll elaborate on a separate post: Why *should* the OLPC project succeed?

Bob Kozma and many of my fellow posters in this thread have identified why it *will* or *may* fail. I'm preparing an article for publication in an academic journal where both sides of the argument are addressed, and hope to have it out before long.

Hello,
I want to collaborate in OLPC project, i have some ideas, one of those is to develop a chat interface for those who live in Africa's subdeveloped regions with poor internet bandwidth, the chat allows to comunicate them to a user with high internet bandwidht and willing to donate 1 hour of his or her time doing searches of information that usually requieres good internet access and good applications installed in the desktop or laptop.
So the basic idea is volunteers be the "eyes" searching for valuable informations for sustainable projects of whos having not good internet, resources and only have enought bandwidth to a chat aplication or la light browser.

you can e-mail me, your comments are very welcomed.

Thanks
Raul Trujillo, BSC
Iberoamericana Univesity.

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