The Strange Case of One Laptop per Child
Charles Dickens invented the term “telescopic philanthropy” for people, like his Mrs. Jellyby, who are preoccupied with the lives of people in faraway places and ignore their own children and others at home. There is another type of telescopic philanthropy, where the telescope is aimed not far away but firmly at one’s own navel. Consider Nicholas Negroponte, a computer scientist at MIT, who has established a charitable organization to help poor children in the developing world. What would a computer scientist think that poor children need that they currently lack? Food, medicine, clean water? Or maybe a laptop computer?
Negroponte’s organization, One Laptop per Child, has developed a laptop that costs about $100 to $200 to manufacture. It has few features but can survive the rugged environment that OLPC imagines poor children live in. According to one press report:
The laptop is designed to withstand harsh conditions such as rain and dust. It has a screen that can be read under intense sunlight. Its battery lasts for 12 hours and can be recharged with the use of a solar panel or a pull cord.
More details here. The OLPC website says that its mission is "to provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore" and that the laptop will enable "nations of the emerging world [to] leapfrog decades of development."
According to the website, children need to “learn learning,” and a “computer uniquely fosters learning learning by allowing children to ‘think about thinking,’ in ways that are otherwise impossible. Using the [laptop] as both a window on the world, as well as a highly programmable tool for exploring it, children in emerging nations will be opened to both illimitable knowledge and to their own creative and problem-solving potential.” This opportunity will be given to children in even the “most remote regions of the globe.”
So let’s pick a remote place—say, Mali, where almost three quarters of the adult population make less than $1 per day, the adult literacy rate is 46 percent, 60 percent of children attend primary school, and 15 percent of children attend secondary school. Will laptops be given to the illiterate children who don’t go to school? Computers might teach children to learn to learn, but one would think that a prerequisite for learning to learn is being able to read what’s on the screen—schools are still necessary for children to learn to learn to learn. Indeed, OLPC does not hand out laptops to children; it deals with education ministries. So the only children who are going to receive laptops are those lucky enough to be going to school in the first place.
Most of the children in places like Mali grow up to be subsistence farmers; many others will end up as unskilled laborers in factories. Even if laptops teach these people to “learn to learn,” it is unlikely that such a skill will provide much value for them where opportunities are so limited. Of much greater value, aside from medical care and the like, would be basic literacy, rudimentary training in some locally useful skill, or—for that matter—access to roads that are in reasonably good condition.
Still, if the education ministries of governments want to buy cheap laptops for children, that’s fine. But this raises another question, which is why commercial firms wouldn’t supply such laptops if, in fact, they have so much pedagogic value in poor countries, and government officials realize this.
The answer is that commercial firms, in fact, do supply such laptops. Intel, for example, has manufactured $400 laptops, and has sold a bunch of them to the Mexican government. Intel’s laptops cost twice as much as OLPC’s, but presumably the Mexican government thinks they are more than twice as valuable. OLPC laptops are cheap because they have few features—maybe too few features for Mexican students, while too many for the students in Mali. Other companies also offer inexpensive laptops. One might imagine that different laptops in different countries have different features, reflecting differences in local conditions. A Mexican child who studies in school and at home does not necessarily need a laptop that is waterproof, can be read in the glare of the sun, and has a solar powered battery.
OLPC is wilting under the competitive pressure exerted by Intel, and now complains that Intel is unfairly disparaging its product, and shouldn't compete with OLPC by offering governments a less cheap but perhaps superior alternative. It's hard to credit this argument: the education ministries are perfectly capable of evaluating the different products, and if they prefer Intel's, they should not buy OLPC laptops. (And if the ministries are incompetent, then it hardly matters what the market looks like.) OLPC has also complained that Intel sells at below cost in order to drive OLPC out of business. But Intel has to compete not only with OLPC but with all the other for-profit companies that, like Intel, believe they can make profits by selling cheap laptops. Selling below cost is suicide in such a wide open market.
But isn’t it a bad thing that Intel is making profits off the sale of laptops to poor countries? OLPC, by contrast, is a nonprofit. But nonprofits that make products no one wants don’t deserve any praise, even if they don’t take a profit. There is a great deal of competition now in the cheap laptop market, so it seems unlikely that Intel is making enormous profits anyway.
All of this raises the question why anyone would think that charitable organizations should be in the business of designing and manufacturing computers. Real charitable organizations can buy computers from companies like Intel and donate them to children in poor countries if they think that’s a good idea; there is no reason why they should buy worse computers from a nonprofit company. The profit incentive will encourage entrepreneurs to develop yet cheaper and better laptops. In the same way, nonprofits buy food, tractors, seeds, and other goods from for-profit companies, and then donate them to poor people in poor countries. Why should laptops be any different from these other products?
Of course, if people set up manufacturing businesses and want to forgo profits, that is their business. Prices will be marginally lower, and that is a good thing, unless quality suffers. However, it is another matter when they ask people for donations, as OLPC has. OLPC has offered the following deal: buy two laptops for $400, and you get one; a child in the developing country gets the other; and you get a tax deduction for the $200 that can be attributed to the donation. Anything wrong with this?
Yes. You don’t really want that $200 laptop. (In fact, a quick google search reveals that if you want a cheap laptop, you can get quite a number of more feature-rich laptops for as little as $300. They won’t have pull cords for recharging the battery, but you didn’t really need that feature, did you?) So you are paying $400 for a laptop you don’t want, and for a laptop for a developing-world child who might want it, or think he wants it, but would really be much better off with a decent education, clean water, clothes, food, and so forth. For $400, you can do much better, for yourself and for poor children. Set aside $200 toward a laptop that you could use. Then give the other $200 to (say) Oxfam, which says that it could do the following with it:
$20 Buys enough maize to feed a family of four in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia for six months.
$30 Buys books to help 10 girls in Afghanistan learn to read and write.
$50 Grows substantially more crops in a region of scarce resources, harsh terrain, and prevalent malnutrition in Peru.
$100 Provides a young student living in poverty in Mali with the vocational training and financial support necessary to start her own weaving business.
$200 Provides disaster preparedness training and technical support to two families in El Salvador.
It takes little insight to see that laptops would be low on the list of priorities of the developing-country poor. One Laptop per Child makes as much sense as One iPod per Child or One Snowmobile per Child.
What is the sense of introducing one laptop per child when they don't have seats to sit down and learn, when they don't have uniforms to go to school in, when they don't have facilities?