The dream of OLPC and the aid bubble

OLPC - One Laptop Per Child

Fellow aidworker Alanna wrote a provocative post on UNDispatch about the "end of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) dream".

OLPC set out a couple of years ago, designing, manufacturing and distributing a simple laptop (or call it a "Netbook") geared towards kids, specifically in developing countries. Their mission was formulated as:
To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

From the beginning, the plan was ambitious, innovative,.. and controversial. "Tall trees catch a lot of wind" is surely applicable. The more as it was such an easy target for cheap sarcasm: "How will a laptop feed a hungry child"? You can imagine...

OLPC cartoon
Alanna's post is creating a bit of a sturr in the ICT4D (ICT For Development), and in the development blogosphere as such (Check out the latest posts via a Humanitarian News search). I might disagree with Alanna on the OLPC, I surely appreciate provocative posts to stir up discussions. ;-)

Here are my views:

  • Anyone trying to make a difference, and is not afraid to put words into deeds, especially if it is innovative, provocative and controversial, deserves my respect. Especially if it is well thought through. OLPC has my respect.
  • Proper education is one of the principal ways to eradicate poverty. There are different means to boost education in the developing world. Rendering technology more affordable and accessible is one.
  • ...But it is not the only solution. Cheap laptops can not feed hungry children, that is for sure. But neither can "feeding children teach them how to read". Boosting education in the developing world has many challenges. Starting at the basics:
    • How do we get the kids to come to school, if they have to work in the fields helping their parents to grow enough food?
    • Once they come to school, how do we keep them in school up to the point their education becomes applicable to their lives?
    • How do we train teachers, and keep them into education. How do we avoid poaching of teachers by the commercial world?
    • How do we ensure kids have enough nutritional food, are they properly de-wormed (and are healthy enough), so they can capitalize to the max on the efforts brought? (there is a whole series of studies illustrating how proper nutrition boosts a child's capacity to learn)
    • How do we make sure there is a proper school infrastructure, proper teaching material, proper latrines?
    • How do we make sure the educational programme is institutionalized and self-sustainable (I need to write something on sustainability as this is one of my sore points at the moment).
  • Attacking OLPC because they triggered only one part of the solution, is unfair, I think. However triggering debates to ensure OLPC is properly integrated in a wholesome solution, is constructive.
  • However, as the cynical aidworker I sometimes am, I have to say that wholesome solutions to complex development goals are virtually non-existent. It is simply not built into the humanitarian system. It is very very very difficult to have different organisations work together for a common goal. Even if it would be as simple as "address the problems of this ONE school in all of its aspects". Leave alone all schools in a country. Beh.. Different organisations have different means and goals. But most of all, they compete. They compete for the same donor-dollar. In the end, why would I, as organisation X, work with organisation Y, if I know that in the end, we will be approaching the same donors for the same money? X and Y are competitors in a competitive world. And that will remain forever (unless at a certain point, there is a more even balance between the world's needs and the world's capacity to give. Dream on!).
  • And finally: OLPC is an easy target. I will challenge anyone to bring up examples of aid projects which are the right bang for buck, with wholesome approaches, lasting and self-sustainable projects. There are not many. There is a lot of "make believe", but there are not many good examples. If the aid organisations would be commercial enterprises, the "aid business bubble" would have burst decennia ago. And would have burst every five years.
OK, that is a lot of ranting, what is the solution then? According to me, we have to start at the basics. Some food for thought:
  • Better and stronger oversight of the aid spending, both by the organisations themselves, governments and independent bodies. Make the audits public. Make the impact data public.
  • Work out better criteria to measure impact, sustainability and integration in wholesome solutions.
  • Ensure outcomes are measured by impact, and not by amount of money spent. (You think I am kidding? I am not! No donor is ever happy if at the end of the project, you return the balance of unspent money. Ever!)
  • Entice cooperation between organisations, while recognizing that healthy competition is good.
  • Transparency, transparency, transparency, transparency.
Shoot me. I am a dreamer.

Pictures courtesy OLPC,


Sharon 12 September, 2009 17:09  

As a long-time advocate of the vision of OLPC (not necessarily its "business plan") and team member of Teachers Without Borders - Canada, I thought you wrote a terrific blog post. I just returned from a second stint in Africa where our teams spent many weeks on the ground working shoulder-to-shoulder with African teachers. You clearly addressed so many of the issues of aid to developing nations and where education fits in. We experienced and witnessed many examples of what we would call corruption and misuse of donor funds that would be called "acceptable practice" by most Africans. That theme of transparency came up very early in our visit this time and I have returned to it again and again in my conversations with our team members and NGO partners. You also addressed the reality of competition between aid organizations - so much needs to be done in so many communities, it seems astonishing that we have to compete, but sadly, it is the truth. Few people openly acknowledge that fact, so I thought it was very brave of you to do so.

Like you, I applaud OLPC for its vision and tenacity to at least TRY to make an impact. Yes, health and nutrition need to be addressed as well, but who are we in the developed world to say when a community is sufficiently "ready" for more and better and education through technology tools? Should they not go hand in hand? It is arrogant and patronizing to say that one MUST come before the other. As you have pointed out, there is no one quick solution that addresses a very complex situation.

Thank you for sharing your ideas - your post articulated many ideas that had not yet crystallized for me.

Peter 12 September, 2009 17:34  

I am glad you liked it, Sharon!



Wayan @ OLPC News 13 September, 2009 17:39  

Great post, especially the recommendations. Might you consider expanding on them in Guest Post for OLPC News? We're the independent blog of record for the OLPC project.

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