Something other than the $100 laptop

The $100 per child laptop, now formally (but inconsistently) known as the Children’s Machine, is verging towards US$150 delivery price and the name — well, it reminds me of an ill-fated crusade centuries ago.

News has it that people in the wealthy West can buy one of these computers — originally forbidden — provided the purchaser buys one for a child in the field. The wide interest among wealthy tech-users has made me suspicious. Does the gee-wiz factor trump local concerns for affordability, propriety and sustainability? What about the millions of dollars poor nations’ education ministries will pour into imported hardware? What of theft, corruption and the risk of toxic materials? While I appreciate the goals of the $100 laptop, I wonder if the means have trumped the ends. How can the technology, information and communications needs of the world’s poorest and least connected people be met on their terms, in a fashion that respect their ability to create and maintain systems. The laptop project seems imposed in the old, deprecated “west to the rest” model of missionaries of old.

I have found seven projects that I think better respect these emerging technology, information and communication needs. Some use computers, some don’t. Some will want your money, others don’t need it. Think of this list as opportunities you may not have known of.

  1. Campware, based in Prague, creates open-source software for managing radio stations and newspapers, modes of journalism that are vital for supporting fragile democracies and for informing large numbers of people at low cost. (Radio has the additional virtue of reaching the non-literate.) Its founding donor, the Media Development Loan Fund, is based in New York and will gladly take your donations.
  2. The Hesperian Foundation produces books — these can also be downloaded as PDF — and (seems to) coordinate(s) translation about primary medical care for people without access to trained medical professionals. Specialized books help women, persons with disabilities and those working to prevent HIV transmission. You can donate to them, too.
  3. Geekcorps is a Washington-based, USAID-supported initiative of the IESC. Their work in Mali, especially in the remote north of the country, has mixed local solution and open-source software to create Internet access, radio stations and opportunities for small business.
  4. Whirlwind Wheelchair International, a program of the Urban Institute at San Francisco State University, “works to make it possible for every person in the developing world who needs a wheelchair to obtain one that will lead to maximum personal independence and integration into society.” (Citation) They focus on open-source design and local production.
  5. The Open Prosthetics Project, while smaller, deserves note in the field of prosthetic limbs.
  6. Ecology Action promotes small-scale, organic biointensive farming and trains persons in the technique, some in remote, poor and ecologically fragile areas. Long time readers of Mother Earth News and the like will be familiar with biointensive farming, which would make adequate, low-input local agriculture possible on remarkably little land.
  7. Anywhere Books is a project to produce books on demand through a “digital bookmobile” in Uganda. (Site not loading.)

There are many others. Feel free to add your own.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

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