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Thursday, 3 January 2008

OLPC: Teach a man to fish

There exists, now, finally, shipping a little computer called the OLPC. It stands for One Laptop Per Child. And it's cheap. Very very cheap. A small sum of money will get you two of them. One for you (or a nearby kid) and one for a kid in the third world. They say "one laptop per child," they mean that they want to see that happen.

The idea being, of course, that tech will set you free. I'm all for the utopian ideals of sharing information (Mi parolas Esperanton) and this idea seems entirely noble. But OLPC is currently being sued by a Nigerian keyboard maker. They've got an injunction against distributing the OLPC in Nigeria.

I'm thinking aloud here and I haven't done research, so if I'm wrong correct me.

There's a saying that if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him to fish, he eats everyday until he gets mercury poisoning and his fishery dies from being overfished. There's no doubt in my mind that the OLPC folks think they're teaching fishing. But fishers need bait, they need rods, they need boats. If you teach somebody to fish, but make them dependent on importing all of their tools, have you really set them free or have you just you just recruited a client?

Where is the OLPC being manufactured? I know one of the goals is to keep costs down, but if you can do green(ish - or not-more-brown) manufacturing in a country that needs infrastructure investment, aren't you doing even more good? Why aren't the keyboards being manufactured in Nigeria? Wouldn't it help third world kids more to have slightly higher prices, but help create and grow infrastructure and industry in their countries? Does giving stuff away undercut and harm what tech businesses already exist?

Kids with laptops is great and I'm all for it. And I might buy an OLPC to check it out and to get that smug glow of having done something to help. But giving kids laptops doesn't give them clean drinking water. It doesn't give their parents jobs. It doesn't solve any of the immediate problems of neo and post colonialization in the third world. But, man it makes us feel good. Plus, it's cheap!

Widespread corruption in Nigeria aside, are we teaching fishing or giving out fishes?

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