I imagine that brightly coloured laptops sit in a small closet in rural Africa and slowly collect dust as the days pass. The school that owns them cannot secure power to recharge their batteries, the broken dreams of a grand philanthropist idea that was supposed to revolutionize the world.
In 2005 at a conference in Tunis, Tunisia, Nicholas Negroponte unveiled the One Laptop Per Child campaign with the goal of outfitting children in the developing world with laptops. The grand scheme was to extend children’s knowledge with computers and expand their educational horizons. Four years since the first laptop was touted the program continues to struggle getting off the ground and fulfill much of its early goals. Any person who studies international development knows this story is only one among a long line of philanthropist development program carnage. From One Laptop Per Child to the scandal that marred Gap’s RED campaign, these programs often crumble under their own weight.
Be it laptops, using consumerism to end AIDS or using large sums of money to wage war against disease with pharmaceutical drugs, these large-scale philanthropist programs always have one ultimate goal. The development of these programs with one sole goal narrows the view of the project considerably. Development with blinders on becomes the reality of the day, streamlining the project. This fails to address problems outside of the scope of the mission.
Development is a messy and complicated affair. Rarely can a problem be attributed to one item or solved through one solution. Every problem has to be looked at from various angles and solved through concurrently looking and addressing many issues at once.
The western world is a wired society. Cell phones, computers and technology devices become extra appendages to our bodies. We often think of the benefits that such technology has brought to our lives and want to extend this to the developing world. While this technology could help, the perpetual lack of secure power grids, poor communication infrastructure and high costs mean such solutions have towering walls for developing communities to surmount. These technology solutions often add to the problems that exist within the community. Lack of tech support, and using valuable fuel to power generators can make it difficult to use such technologies. While technology can help with the spread of information, it is possible to use local means of communication and development to attack problems that technology could also solve.
We often see philanthropist programs develop ventures for themselves and not for their partners in development. This is readily seen in the One Laptop Per Child program. In Ethiopia teachers will not allow laptops in the class since they think it will distract the children from learning. It is ironic the exact issue that the program is trying to solve becomes the problem itself. It is important that local systems be able to use the technology. If the system or the local people cannot use the solution since it fails to work within their own worldview, the project is guaranteed to fail. It is important that we look at development as a partner relationship in which we take the ideas of the community in question and together develop solutions to problems.
The relocation of philanthropist to the mid section of the development machine will enable huge changes to be made. We can no longer afford to continue with a top-down approach. The development of many grassroots programs over wide area that are well funded will bring about considerable change. This means using money where it is needed, developing programs with local needs in mind and eliminating the strings attached to the money. It is important we study programs as One Laptop Per Child ensuring that we do not make the same mistakes in the future.