As a self-identified computer geek, I can’t help but be drawn to the field of Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4Dev). The basic premise of which seems to be: Think of all the amazing technologies we have in our everyday life and how just a few of those could drastically change the problems facing the poor and disenfranchised of the world?
One of the ‘star’ programs you may have heard of is the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program. This mission is as follows:
“To provide each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. To this end, we have designed hardware, content and software for collaborative, joyful, and self-empowered learning. With access to this type of tool, children are engaged in their own education, and learn, share, and create together.”
Now this sounds like a great idea, especially when the laptops cost only $100.00 each, which seems like nothing compared to the benefits. But, as Kentaro Toyama, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, explains in his lead article of a forum on the role of ICT4Dev, laptops aren’t a panacea:
“OLPC’s target cost of a hundred dollars or less per laptop (in practice, the machines have been more expensive), sounds affordable, but that’s about half of India’s per-student education budget, most of which is currently devoted to teachers’ salaries. Does a hundred dollars for a computer make sense when $0.50 per year, per child for de-worming pills could reduce the incidence of illness-causing parasites and increase school attendance by 25 percent?”
In fact, technology acts much like investment in my previous article: If you are already educated and have means it will multiply your productive capabilities, but if you’re poor, uneducated, and have little means to purchase or maintain technology, there is little improvement.
Mr. Toyama put is brilliantly when he stated that “technology is a magnifier in that its impact is multiplicative, not additive.” Sometimes I wonder how all of us ‘computer people’ can think that simply giving someone a computer will instantly change their lives, magically granting them the same productivity gain we achieved. I mean, haven’t we all given a computer to our mothers and seen how well that’s worked out? I showed my mother how to put photos onto Facebook on three different occasions until it finally took!
But, there you have the answer, once I did put in the effort, once I figured out the best method to teach her based on how she learns as an individual – which, I might add, is quite different from how I learn and thus accounts for the two failed attempts – I was able to instruct her and thus give her the skills needed so that she could benefit from the technology.
This is a problem with the Revolutionary mindset many people have about technology in the developing world. How does, for example, putting a telecenter (like an Internet Café) in villages in India help the people if they:
- Don’t know how to use the computer?
- Don’t know what information is out there and how to access it?
- Don’t even have consistent power to keep the computers turned on?
In Kisangani we gave one of our workers a laptop and have been teaching him how to use spreadsheets and the word processor, but he only has access to the Internet around our house, and he doesn’t even have power at home so he must charge the computer here as well. Imagine giving laptops to all of the kids in Kisangani? How long until the batteries run out?
ICT4Dev sounds like a great idea which could work as a complementary for actual work on the ground, but it is not a replacement for real development work. Without teachers, engineers, doctors, and other specialists actively working in the countries and with the people, technology will do little to change the face of the developing world.
So, for now, let’s just spend the $0.50 for de-worming pills for each kid — Check out DeWorm The World — and get them into the classroom. Maybe the other $99.50 could go towards teacher training and classroom materials?