If they have no pencils, let them have wireless access

Alanna Shaikh, who must be blogging with fingers and toes on four different computers, has written a short obituary on the One Laptop Per Child programme, perhaps one of the most absurd development ventures in recent history. Is that being a bit harsh? I don’t think so.Ā  OLPC’s mission of providing children with laptops when they are lacking basic materials and teachers is purely idiotic techno-dogma.

We need to be very careful when we try to leapfrog over skill sets Ā  that take time to develop. I’ll give a anecdotal example: when I worked in the budget office at the Malawian Ministry of Finance, we tried tried to install, configure and operate an integrated, networked and very, very complicated financial management system. Due to support problems, staff conflicts and coordination problems, by the time I left two years later the system still hadn’t been fully adopted.

All of this was being eagerly supported by the donor community, despite the fact that many in the budget office still hadn’t properly mastered Excel, nor were we able to produce accurate reliable numbers that tallied correctly! What we needed was to improve our basic accounting skills, but instead were asked to adopt a system more advanced than most used by developed countries!

There’s plenty of room for technological innovation to help the developing world catch up, but the value of those innovations should be self-evidence in the markets that are generated for them, not in the public attention gathered by the computer geeks and technophiles who haven’t spent enough time out of the lab.

Update: Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC, responds to Alanna.

4 thoughts on “If they have no pencils, let them have wireless access

  1. Jon Custer

    September 11, 2009 at 8:35pm

    I had a similar experience in Turkmenistan. One day a computer and printer (WITH ink cartridge!) appeared in our school. The assistant director immediately set up shop as a copy center, charging much more than the ones in town. His most profitable line was printing students’ names in fancy fonts for their notebook covers, which he made me type, because he couldn’t master the shortcuts for Turkmen characters. Also, apparently it was tres chic to have your reports to the district *typed*, so they tried to make me type up endless pages of records full of arcane made-up Turkmen words even they didn’t understand.

    I tried to set up an actual student/teacher database for them (we had a major classroom shortage and the administrators spent a good portion of their day shuffling students around and then painstakingly re-drawing their “spreadsheets” by hand), but they were like, why? We can just do everything by hand and then you can type it up the day before it’s due.

    I bought some English language software, including the excellent Russian-English Lingvo dictionary, and excitedly showed it to the English teachers, who were nonplussed. I even offered to pay for computer classes in town for anyone who wanted to go (I prepared a grant), but there were no takers.

    Aside from a little extra income for our assistant director, the computer was absolutely no benefit. I wish they had bought us books instead.

  2. Peter

    September 12, 2009 at 10:26am

    You have to put it in context. The solutions provided have to be adapted to the environment in which you want to implement them.

    As an aidworker, I have deployed telecoms and IT solutions in the most remote locations. First World solutions won’t work. You have to make it easy, fault tolerant, low maintenance. You have to provide the appropriate training and followup, and incorporate that cost into your initial budget and planning. (we calculated the initial procurement and setup costs is 30% of the total cost of a technology project over 3 years).

    There is quite a difference between deploying OLPC computers and – as you said yourself – “very, very complicated financial management system.” which did not work “Due to support problems, staff conflicts and coordination problems”….

    I am weary about the OLPC solution, but I am also convinced of the power of technology, not only as a means, but also as a goal, in the development projects. If done appropriately.


  3. Matt

    September 12, 2009 at 11:14am

    Peter – thanks for the comment. I was a bit worried my rant would come across as anti-tech, which isn’t the case (for the record, I’m a huge computer geek). I believe in technology as well, especially when it helps jump major hurdles and barriers to development – telecom is a great example of this – the mobile boom in SSA showed how simple tech can be quite successful.

    It’s when tech tries to fill major institutional gaps that we start getting problems. As you say, OLPC and complicated IFMIS systems aren’t the best comparisons, but they both try to leapfrog over what should have been incremental improvements. They were also both tech solutions that really aren’t utilised to the same degree in the Western world, and I’m skeptical about applying practices that we don’t even use ourselves.

    You’re absolutely right though – context matters, and most tech is for the better when it’s been carefully planned out and implemented. It’s just “headless” tech that we have to be wary for – solutions cooked up in the computer lab and not out in the field!

  4. Olivier

    September 25, 2009 at 5:52pm

    Another example could be telecommunication. In Africa, people went from no phone to an impressive number of cell phones.
    Developing countries have to shift from basic tools to advanced technologies. You’re no going to provide them with more candles if you can have eletricity.

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