by alok shrestha
Published on: Nov 18, 2007
Type: Opinions

The project named, OLPC (One Laptop per Child), is gaining rapid popularity in developing as well as developed countries. This project was initially conceptualized by Nicholas Negroponte, founder chairman of MITs’ (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab and was announced in The World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland on January 2005. The project aims to provide laptops worth $100 to each and every school age child of underdeveloped and developing countries so that children do not have to be deprived of basic education. That means children don’t need to go to school, buy textbooks and other accessories to gain an education. The idea is conceptualized referencing the fact that most of the parents in underdeveloped and developing countries don’t even have enough money to buy textbook and pencils for their children.

Though at first it seems that this project is charming and has strong appeal for poor countries and its poor children, it is not as it seems to be. There are lots of questions to be answered and problems to be solved before the real implementation and success of this project can be felt. Can developing countries afford these laptops? Do they have any estimates about how much $100 means to developing countries? The per capita income of Bangladesh, one of the poorest and developing countries and where OLPC is willing to sell its laptop is $300 i.e. 20, 557 TAKA. Can the people of Bangladesh afford this laptop? OLPC is saying it will be selling these laptops to the government of the poor countries and they will have to distribute laptops to their poor children. Have they gone out of their minds to sell this $100 laptop which may seem very cheap here in USA and other developed countries, but is actually really expensive for underdeveloped and developing countries? I don’t think the governments of these countries who even don’t have money to provide basic needs of its people have ability to buy this so-called $100 laptop. And also who cares about this laptop if they don’t have anything to eat and wear? I don’t believe that educational needs comes before the basic needs like food, shelter and clothes.

Let’s assume that government of poor countries will buy these laptops for their poor children. It will be their first time investment. They will spend optimum of their nominal budget for buying these laptops. It’s ok that they spend money for this noble cause. But for how long will these laptops operate smoothly and without problems? One year? Two year? What about after then? It’s possible to make first time investment but it’s more costly to maintain this laptop and who will pay for that? Anyone can see in these poor countries that once some infrastructures like road, building, water supply etc. is built with the help of some donor, there’s no one to take care of it. Government is responsible for this but ironically these governments don’t have enough money to maintain it. Hospitals, roads, schools etc. are constructed once but after two or three years it’s common to see it ruined because of lack of care and management. So I don’t believe that these governments have enough financial capacity to repair these laptops after some time if they get into problems.

What about language problem? Are they going to build these laptops for English speaking children only? I don’t think so. Most of the developing countries' children don’t even understand English, then how are they going to use this laptop? Most of the underprivileged children of the underdeveloped and developing nations go to schools where they are taught in local language rather than English and more priority is given to those languages as its convenient to learn and gain knowledge in the language that are known in prior. So it’s obvious that they are not good in English. The majority of them even don’t understand English. Then how are they supposed to learn the content from this $100 laptop which obviously will be in English. Let’s give an example from Nepal itself. There are two categories of schools of Nepal. One that is established and operated by government and the other one which is established and operated by the private sector. In government schools the medium of teaching is the Nepali language whereas in private schools more priority is given to the English language. And $100 is should be for government school children as they are more poor and underprivileged than the children studying in private schools.
So it’s now crystal clear about the unfeasibility of OLPC project. I am sure that OLPC people are well aware of this problem and are trying their best to overcome this problem. I heard that they are thinking to localize the software for this Laptop that means all the necessary applications will be developed in a customized manner. Again the problem is who is going to fund for this. Thus what we can see is that $100 is not actually $100. We are well aware that software development cost is often more greater than hardware development and they are just talking about hardware. So what can be the real cost of this laptop after we add software cost as well, may be $200 or $300 or even more.
Technology is not education but it’s an only means for providing education. And what I believe is that the means for providing education should be as affordable, cheap and accessible as possible. If these OLPC really wants to do contribute for the education of these poor children from poor community, it’s not necessary to develop this kind of expensive electronic gadget which costs billions of dollars in research and development itself. But help them by providing pencils, notebooks and textbooks which are far cheaper than $100 laptop. It’s the responsibility and duty of the technocrat like Negroponte to think about the use of technology in education but it’s also their duty to make the technology affordable, accessible and efficient for general use.
So, does this mean the $100 laptop is worthless and the project should be dissolved? Well … it depends. It is true that every technology brings promises at the beginning. Then it goes through lots of brainstorming, debate and transition and finally the real output of that technology is seen. Who believed that the primitive abacus would take the shape of today’s powerful computer? So, I don’t say the $100 laptop is completely worthless. In the current situation it’s worthless. But if the cost of the laptop could be decreased and modified so that it will be easily accessible to the people who need it and won’t be a burden at all, I am sure it will really play a magic role to provide education for these poor children. I firmly believe that if the problem I specified above in this paper is addressed, OLPC is going to meet the goal.
In conclusion, One Laptop per Child Project is not as it seems to be. It seems cheap but not for those who really need it. It seems that it will cost $100 but there’s lots of hidden cost like software cost, maintenance cost, distribution cost as well. Software should be developed in local languages and the content of the internet and other educational resources should be localized in order to make it accessible to these poor children. Poor countries are not in the condition to buy it on their own. They have to bring in money either as loan or grant through some INGOs (International Non Governmental Organization), international banks like World Bank, International Bank, etc. And this is going to do nothing but just increase the national debt of these countries. But every problem gives rise to new ways of thinking and solutions. Therefore, though it seems worthless and unfeasible right now. I hope OLPC, with the support of its good wishers, will find the right way and a solution to make the $100 laptop feasible and worthy for every poor children of this world.

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