Tech and solution-ism

A little over a decade ago, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) idea was hoisted out of obscurity by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab at – where else? – the WEF in Davos. He got a bunch of big, mostly techie corporations to commit to backing it, and later, at another Davos summit, the UNDP. The idea was basically this: schoolchildren in the developing world needed computer literacy to compete, yet computers (notably then) were expensive. So a non-profit effort needed to develop a basic computer that would cost <$100. This would enable massive distribution and give children in poor countries access to computers.

The program has been mired in controversy for the last decade. It’s still something of a cause célèbre in some techie do-gooder circles, while development experts have generally reserved deep skepticism. Sure enough, the American Economic Association just published a new, large-scale, randomized evaluation of the OLPC program in Peru, where it found “no evidence” that the devices contributed to math or language skills improvement.

Before I got into tech, I worked in international development, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and then as a program manager for a U.S.-based development contractor implementing a bunch of USAID projects. (I’ll write about that sometime.) In 2008, I got to play with one of the “OLPCs,” as they were called. It was cute, but manifestly not a “computer.” Ironically, I had just gotten my first iPhone at that time. Like many people, I’d started to suspected that was the future of computing for most of the world; now, we know it is.

I have started writing, abandoned and then revisited a big formal Medium post on tech silver-bullet-ism many times. (I had one that was popular earlier on why Google’s balloons and Facebook’s drones are bad ideas.) It’s incredibly frustrating. Every year, millions are spent on dumb, gadget-y projects that some white person sitting in America (or Europe), who either spent a cursory amount of time in the developing world or sometimes none at all, imagines will revolutionize life there. The OLPC is just one such example. PlayPumps was another famous one. It’s an incredibly myopic, and predictably ineffectual, view on structural, contextual problems like poverty, education and healthcare. But it makes for great PR. So the reason it keeps happening should tell you why many people/companies invest in it.

OLPC’s goal was to improve education in the developing world. The best way to do that, as almost any expert on the topic agrees, is not by building a school (every “mission trip’s” favorite pastime) or handing out gadgets. Rather, it’s systemic: you start by paying teachers. (No, that doesn’t always happen.) Pay them enough, and on time, regularly. Give them respect and don’t place them in a corrupt administrative system. Provide sufficient resources for children to learn. In many contexts, comparatively small investments in providing meals and healthcare at school works wonders.

Just imagine what could’ve happened if Negroponte had pitched those ideas at Davos?

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