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Auditing one laptop per child

09 March 2010

Rachel Brody

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A laptop for every school kid in the developing world can work wonders to bring a better future for them. Yet for the initiative to be truly successful, it would need to address the structural disadvantages in the developing world, says Rachel Brody as she audits the One Laptop Per Child Programme.

This December, as Apple enjoyed yet another Christmastime sales boom, the non-profit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) publicized a much-anticipated design concept for its own “future computer,” not unlike the iPad Apple just released.

With such design plans in the works for what could someday be the cheapest laptop on the market, you may start to wish you were a third-grade child in Burundi.

The XO-3 is the latest in a series of low-cost laptops intended for school-age children in the developing world. Scheduled for release in 2012, the XO-3 boasts a slew of high-tech features: it is half as thick as an iPhone, has a virtual keyboard, and can charge itself through induction rather than through a traditional port. And, at an estimated $75, it is far cheaper than its bulky predecessor, the XO, ultimately priced at $172. As one reporter put it, with such design plans in the works for what could someday be the cheapest laptop on the market, “you may start to wish you were a third-grade child in Burundi.”

Auditing one laptop per child
Image Credits: Claremont Port Side / Auditing one laptop per child

Herein lies the problem with former MIT professor Nicolas Negroponte’s non-profit effort. With the needs of its beneficiaries in mind, the original XO was designed to be a durable, low-energy and cost-efficient laptop accessible to schoolchildren and responsive to their environment. Perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing laptop to hit the market, the XO took into consideration more pressing concerns, such as extreme environmental conditions and the importance of long-range wireless capability.

But plans for flashy additions to the latest and greatest XO have garnered obvious interest among citizens of the developed world, and it is becoming increasingly uncertain for whom this laptop is truly intended.

Basing his endeavor on the core principle of education as a fundamental human right and seeking to provide adequate resources for achieving this education, Negroponte envisioned a programme that would provide children in developing countries with basic access to an increasingly inter-connected and digital world.

This programme has strong merit. We are living right smack in the middle of the digital age, and the notion of an integrated and educated world community without access to computer and Internet technology is unfathomable. Internet communication is now the fastest and most popular way to interact internationally – the sheer speed at which information flows has the damaging potential to leave those without access in the dust. By placing laptops in the hands of needy children worldwide, OLPC seeks to free them from the crippling cycle of world poverty and allow them to further their education and shape their future.

So far, OLPC has successfully distributed laptops worldwide. Expansion of the program to the South Pacific, Ethiopia, Rwanda, the Middle East, and Uruguay indicates its growing popularity among its targeted recipients and more importantly, programme funders.

But for all the advances in the XO-3 laptop’s technology and OLPC’s scope of distribution, the question remains whether the programme has truly made strides in improving the root causes of the structural disadvantages the developing world faces.

Like many other trends in global poverty alleviation, Negroponte’s approach is a far cry from traditional international aid. With the advent of micro-lending and economic development, international monetary aid has been increasingly thrust to the wayside in favor of adopting more creative efforts toward sustainable improvement.

Yet with approximately three billion people – roughly half the world’s population – living on less than $2.50 per day, it is difficult to concede that most enduring such desperate poverty are able to access the true benefits of a connected laptop, especially when they are hungry and sick.

The OLPC programme targets children and families who enjoy the luxury of schooling opportunities, but what about those who simply cannot afford school?  A lot can be said for the organization’s goal of self-empowerment and self-directed education.  But unfortunately, for the most seriously impoverished, time is a scarce resource and not necessarily devoted to furthering one’s education - or to learning the ins and outs of a new computer.

Coupled with international monetary aid and appropriate education training programmes, Negroponte’s vision may come to fruition among the most severely poor, but much needs to be done to achieve such success. 

While the XO-3 may find success among schoolchildren of the developing world, its price and design may be even more attractive to those of the developed world, those with disposable incomes and the ability to invest in such technology.  If so, laptops intended for impoverished children will instead end up in the hands of well-off individuals with an appetite for gadgetry.

Rachel Brody is a Contributing Writer at CMC ‘12.

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