Not sure whether this is a good thing or not.

February 13, 2007 at 9:16 am | Posted in Technical | Leave a comment

This month the One Laptop Per Child project will be shipping laptops to some of the poorest developing countries in the world. The laptops cost $150, and operate on a pull-string or hand crank so that they don’t require a battery. I love the technical innovations involved; these laptops use flash memory drives instead of spinning hard disks, and run on very little energy.  I like the idea. Computers can bring kids the entire body of world literature at a click, in a place where they can’t afford textbooks. They inspire kids to be creative, to explore other cultures and their own, and store information on everything imaginable.

This sounds exciting, doesn’t it? But then I started to wonder if this is really what the kids in question need. Let’s take the children of Rwanda, for example. According to the World Bank’s data (from 2005, which is the most recent I could find) the gross national income per capita in Rwanda is $230 per year. They represent the one-fifth of the global population living in abject poverty the likes of which no one born in the US could possibly imagine. According to the CIA Factbook, taking into account the excess mortality caused by AIDS and infant mortality, the life expectancy of a child born in Rwanda in 2006 is 47 years.

If I were the average Rwandan mother, according to the Factbook, I would have 5 or 6 kids to feed, clothe, and shelter, and I’d have to do all of that on less than $1 per day. As a US citizen I can’t presume to know how that would feel; but logic and common sense dictate that if had a laptop, I would sell it in a heartbeat to buy food and medicine. It’s a no-brainer. If I’m asked to choose between a device that allows my kid to read Shakespeare and a year’s supply of food, I choose food. (And I like Shakespeare, too.)

I don’t think it’s entirely wrong to want to share technology with developing nations; but I think these things need to happen in some sensible order. Before we provide the Internet and an e-book, the global community needs to address the increasing gap between wealthy nations and the poorest ones, where daily life is a horror show of disease, war,  and crushing poverty.

The gadgets are neat… but they aren’t a basic human need.

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