Why OLPC misses the point: its politics, not iPads

OK, so the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative isnt asking for funds to give every child an iPad. But they do believe that “technology can help foster [literacy skills and access to information] that spurs economic growth.”

That in itself is true, but Ive long thought that OLPC totally missed the point and was an example of techno-utopianism that failed to understand the basic elements of a good education – teachers.

But this very good piece in the New York Times, which notes that OLPC is asking the United States Government for $750m to give every child in Afghanistan a laptop,  reminded me that OLPC, like so many other development initiatives, really miss is something that underlies the issue of laptops or teachers. And its the reason why there arent teachers, laptops or even iPads in schools (and reason for a litany of development FAILs). And its plain and simple politics.

Its politics – corruption, nepotism, vested interests – that get in the way of resources that make all the difference – from teaches up to and including laptops.

In Uganda addressing corruption helped increase the money schools received. In 1996 despite increased Government expenditure, only 13 per cent of intended grants actually reached schools. The government responded by publishing the monthly transfers of public funds to the districts in newspapers, broadcasting information on the transfers on radio, and requiring primary schools to post information on inflows of funds. As a result, a World Bank study found instead of 13 per cent, around 80 per cent of education funds began reaching schools. Although there are strong critiques of the Ugandan success story (see Paul Hubbards excellent paper here) most agree with Transparency International’s findings from a comparison of education inMadagascar, Uganda, Ghana, Morocco, Senegal, Niger and Sierra Leone that “Information about material and funds allocations to schools must be made public at district level, school by school, through notice boards and local media”.

Where technology can really make a difference is in supporting the kind of communication necessary to make the politics work so that money flows to where its needed most – to schools, teachers, and yes even laptops (or iPads!). In Afghanistan $750m could pay the annual salary of around 1.5m teachers.
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