Atanu Dey On India's Development

Formula for Milking the Digital Divide

They don’t really intentionally kill babies just to make more money, do they? They wouldn’t, would they?

Well, I don’t really know.

Infant or baby formula was developed in the developed world when women began to join the work force and did not have the time to breast-feed their babies. What a wonderful great invention it was. Convenience for the mother, and great nutrition for the baby.

Developed as an alternative to breast-feeding, the industry promoted it aggressively in the developed world. On the way back from the hospital after the birth of a baby, the industry gave as a “gift” all that you need to feed the baby formula—the bottles and the bottle bag–and gave just enough “free” formula so that the mother stops lactating because of lack of nursing. Once the mother goes down that formula road, there is no turning back.

Babies are important when it comes to profits for the peddlers of formula. But there are only so many babies in the developed world. For real profit, they have to tap into the babies of the under-developed world. All with the best of intentions, of course: to help the babies of the poor parts of the world because there is a “formula divide.” Why should only the rich “gain” from the wonderful benefits of baby formula?

So they aggressively began marketing it to the third world. The World Health organization estimates that around 1.5 million infants die because they are not breast fed and instead fed formula. How? Breastfeeding not only provides nutrition, but also provides immunity to the babies. Of course, for a baby whose mother cannot produce milk, formula is better than starvation. But often the mothers stop producing milk only after getting started on formula. The initial amount is given free to the mothers in the poor parts of the world and they are told that formula is much much better than breast milk. So when the free amount is over and the mother is no longer lactating, the formula has to be bought. Since it is expensive, soon the formula is severely diluted until the infant is receiving practically no nutrition and is slowly starving to death.

But even if formula were given free, there is still a problem. In the poor parts of the world, clean drinking water is a luxury. Dirty water used in preparing the formula lead to deaths through diarrhea. Feeding formula to third world infants exposes them to all sorts of diseases that arise from inadequately sterilized bottles and nipples.

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About 30 years ago, there were no personal computers in the world. Anyone reading this will find it hard to imagine life now in a world without computers and the world wide web. One wonders how one could get along in those ancient times when there were no laptops and cell phones? Yet, the world developed well enough. If you think that there is a digital divide now, what do you think the digital divide was like 50 years ago when only a few research corporations and US government agencies had computers? Yet 50 years ago, people got educated, built productive economies, conducted business and got on with their lives.

The computers and the internet are wonderful things to have. They make life absolutely wonderful for those who can afford them. Actually, you have to be able to not just afford them and also be able to afford what it takes to make them useful, such as reliable power, broadband connectivity, good useful applications, a real world to which the applications are relevant, etc. And on top of all that, you have to be sufficiently trained to use them. It is really no use if you have a computer but there is nothing that you can do with it. But if for some reason, marketing hype convinces you that you need a computer to solve all your problems, you could end up spending money you cannot afford on things that are of no value to you.

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One Laptop Per Child is a MIT Media Lab project that is getting immense amounts of press. A sub-$100 laptop for every child in the third world and the digital divide will be a thing of the past, we hear. Sure it will. Just as formula will make malnutrition a thing of the past in the third world.

Given the perverse incentives, the peddlers of these laptops will make billions of dollars selling them to third world governments. As the MIT site says, “The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives.” Large government initiatives, you bet. Why? Because people who have no money will not waste their money on laptops. Only government bureaucrats with large public purses at their disposal will buy these. The Media Lab people are not stupid.

The government officials will be handsomely rewarded for spending limited public resources in buying hundreds of thousands of these to make villages into “fully computerized” villages. A few trips to the US, a chance to speak at huge conferences on “Bridging the Digital Divide” sponsored by Microsoft, HP, Intel, and the Ministry of IT. Hundreds of millions of dollars which could have been more useful in providing primary education would instead end up in the pockets of hardware manufacturers and software giants. Sure a few children will become computer-savvy, but the cost of this will be borne by the millions of children who will suffer from a lack of education.

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I know that one should not ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained as stupidity. Not everyone involved in the “laptop for every child” is motivated by greed; some are motivated by a zeal that comes from an inability to figure out what the problem is and how it can be most effectively solved. The operative word is “effectively.” You can always use a cannon where a fly-swatter is sufficient. But for the cost of a cannon, you can get a million fly-swatters which will be more effective than one cannon. Cannons are more impressive then fly-swatters, however, and that may explain their fascination with some people.

A blackboard and chalk is not as sexy as a laptop. In fact, a TV and a media player is pretty much all the hardware that you need to provide basic education to a village full of children. That hardware (and some free software) would cost all of $200 a year, and if you pay about $2000 a year as salaries to a couple of village school teachers, you can educate a 100 kids for about $20 per child per year. Compare that to just buying $100 laptops for each kid.

I am confident that the One Laptop Per Child will have the effect which is the educational equivalent of the nutritional disaster that imported formula has had on the poor parts of the world.

Yes, they do kill babies in search of profits. And yes, they will not care that millions of children will be denied primary education because they are focused on the profits to be made from selling laptops.

[There's much more here on the OLPC.

See this informative article "Breast milk or formula: making the right choice for your baby" from the Swedish Medical Center.]

  • http://ssrdatta.blogspot.com Saheli

    Fabulous post Atanu. I’m not sure that you’ve convinced me it’s entirely a bad idea, but you’ve definitely given me a lot of food for thought.

  • http://ssrdatta.blogspot.com Saheli

    Sorry! I hit submit too soon.

    So, I think the argument can be made that this is the same principle as the IITs, and that principle is basically a version of trickle down education. But trickle down education makes a lot more sense then trickle down economics. So it’s a mattter of balance. You have this parameter (how much money to spend on the elite vs. how much money to spend on the masses) and it has to be controlled by two separate considerations–one is, that every dollar spent on the elite is a proportional dollar stolen from many more masses, and the other is that you can’t have a nation of students just educated in primary school.And then you have to really rigorously account for both of those considerations all the time, and consider the effects emphasisizing one over the other will have quantitatively, and vary the parameter accordingly. It’s always a multivariable balancing act.

    Your post is a very good reminder to remember the consideration of the money stolen from the masses and balance the parameter appropriately. I’m sure we too often forget it, perhaps almost always. However, I don’t quite see the extent of the parallel between this situation and the really deplorable milk situation you have explain so lucidly and powerfully. In that scenario really, nobody benefitted except the corporation selling the good. A very small percentage of children whose mothers could not provide breast milk could have benefitted, but they could have easily been reached through much more targetted marketing and outreach–a campaign that said, “IF you CANNOT breastfeed THEN we can help you.” However, in the computer model the students who DO get the laptops benefit, and arguably so does the government paying for them. The nation as a whole may not have acquired maximum benefit from money spent (that depends on optimizing the two parameters) but it has acquired something for its money.

    What does hold, of course, is the realization that no government or society or consumer can rely on the merchant selling to them for an accurate assesment of what’s in their best interests.

    Atanu’s response: Saheli, you write about “trickle down education” which is the IIT model–that is, teach a few at great public expense so that some of those will turn about and teach the others. Whenever I hear of trickle down theories, economics or education, I recall Galbraith’s earthier description of the phenomenon which is the “horse-and-sparrow” theory. Feed the horse more oats so that some of it will pass through to the road for the sparrows.

    It is an interesting topic which I will discuss later.

  • Sukumar

    Thank you Atanu for a very good article. The people who talk about 100 Dollar laptops for poor Indian children are not aware of the poverty in India. Amartya Sen in a recent BBC interview pointed out that over 40 percent of the children in Indian primary schools were suffering from severe malnutrition. Even sub-saharan Africa has less malnutrition. Many primary schools have no buildings, toilets, blackboards. Classes are sometimes conducted under a tree. Now we are thinking of providing laptops to these children! We should understand the reality and stop daydreaming. The rich in the West (and their selfish educated Indian friends) only think of sucking more blood from the poor Indians by creating so-called new business opportunities. They have no compassion, no feeling for others. They live in a different world. The only thing that apperas in their brain is to make more profit at any cost out of the people who have almost nothing. Atanu, you rightly pointed out that they kill babies for profits. But it is not the people in the West alone who will kill babies for profit. Due to lack of moral and ethical values, the educated Indians are very very selfish and they will not hesitate to do the same.

    Atanu’s reponse: Sukumar, thanks for the comment. The conditions in the poor parts of the world are truly deplorable and those conditions need change.

    I would hesitate to paint the West or any other collection of people with such a broad brush. The heads of some corportations are evil and seek profit over everthing else. But that does not mean that all business are unethical or that all people in the land where these corporations are based are evil. More often than not, people are well-meaning and genuinely believe they are helping. “Let me save you from drowning,” said the monkey to the fish and put it up on a tree. Some people are monkeys saving fish from drowning. These people usually join NGOs.

    Just for the record, I think that corporations must make profit but must not do any harm in their goal to make profits. Unlike the pinkos, I am firmly in the business of letting businesses do what they do — sell goods and services for a profit.

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  • Vivek S

    Atanu,

    Sometimes you are exceptional.

  • http://constructal.blogspot.com Sameer

    Great post! I work with an organization here in the US and we work to support NGOs in India. I was talking to one of our partners and she said that the mothers who afford to get the formula dilute it so much (so that it lasts longer and she has to buy it less often) that it doesn’t even provide the daily nutrition for the child. You are absolutely correct about the “large govt programs” because the formula is pushed by thru the medium of PHCs (Public Health centers).

    Another one of our partners working in Himachal told us of a donation of a computer system to a local school thru a Microsoft program. But the problem was there was no electricity to run it on so it was “inaugurated” by some minister with fanfare and then was lying there collecting dust.

    I don’t think it is a matter of prioritizing or deciding how much money to spend on elite and how much on masses. It is a question of using the appropriate solution for the problem at hand. No matter how much money is spent it is useless until it is spend “Effectively”. If money is spent effectively and ALL kids in India indeed get good education till highschool or even primary school, the human capital generated will accelerate the economy greatly. The output generated will surely produce good quality colleges and also give people the resources to pay for higher education. There will obviously be more demand for higher education too. Human capital is the wealth production engine. Laptops in themselves are not bad, but the idea of giving thousands when hundred would suffice is surely motivated by profits.

  • Vikram Asrani

    I concur that the idea of one laptop per child in India (or for that matter any country where people go without food, water, shelter, education and other basic amenities) is practically a stupid idea because that $100 per child could be comfortably used to feed the child for at least 3-4 months in India or for that matter, provide them basic education for about 3 months. (*)

    Isn’t it all about a question of priorities and isn’t it the responsibility of our beloved leaders to be able to weight the pros and cons of any idea before jumping into it ? Food, shelter, sanitation, eduction are the basic amenities required by every human being and thinking about providing secondary needs like a laptop to those whose primary needs are not satisfied displays the naivety of the thinker. I’ll digress a bit and mention that I think one of the very fundamental responsibilities of the leaders of India should be to gather and monitor statistics which reflect the state of India :- population, how many people are assured of a meal on a daily basis, histograms demonstating educational qualifications of the masses, histograms demonstrating how many of those who are education have the ability to leverage that education in their day to day life, statistics about those who have and can afford a shelter, statistics about the availability of reliable and robust, and so on. These are more important than focussing on the mundane and absolutely useless things which our leaders and media focus on.

    That said, I think the idea of a $100 laptop is a creative one and will help at least those who have the ability to leverage the power of computing and the internet, but at the same time cannot afford it for cost reasons. I admit I have not yet read much about the “one laptop per child idea” and have only just heard of it. If the thinking is that the cost of production of a laptop will be brought down to $100 because of the scale of operation rather than improvement in the manufacturing technology, then I think the manufacturers should re-think the idea. They need to clearly rethink whom they intend to target as the consumers. If the thinking is that the solution to this problem can be achieved by leveraging improved technology, then I think it is a wonderful challenge to focus on without focussing on how this would be applicable later on.

    I like the idea of decreasing the cost and improving the availability of computers but that should never come at the cost of primary needs like food, sanitation, shelter, education.

    * Those numbers are true at least in rural areas. I suspect the costs might be higher when talking about urban areas.

  • http://onlyvoid.blogspot.com Shivani

    Very informative post. But what does a common man do with the knowledge of the wrong doings happening in this world ?

    Awareness without action induces guilt within . How do you seek the solution ? – by spreading the awareness further ?

  • Pardeshi

    Atanu,
    Have they forgotten in the third world countries the old saying – a sound mind in a sound body;kids can certainly acquire the faculty of reasoning without the aid of PCs .May be at a higher level of education, computers would be of some use in pouring pertinent information
    Pardeshi

  • sv

    sukumar,

    Why is that poor and illiterate are considered more moral or ethical than educated and rich? I don’t understand this romanticizing of the poor. For instance, I have asked this question, ‘why is it that the poor have more kids’? I have read all kinds of reasons, but all these reasonings show poor in poorer light.

  • http://www.redmonk.com/jgovernor james governor

    very strange. you think a one way consumption oriented approach to education is more effective than a two way model? is there any evidence TV works as a useful education tool? its certainly valuable to increase consumption and desires for things nobody actually needs. but…

    where on TV can a villager find spot prices for organic basmati?

    it may be that mobile phones are more useful than 100 laptops, but i am really not sure of your logic here.

    it seems to me that the TV is the formula milk. TV is the killer. the laptop on the other hand may provide some real nourishment, in that it allows the kid to put something back into the world, rather than just learning MTV.

    if you’re making a case for free content from MIT learning labs or something, i might understand this.

    but why go with last century’s technology – tv?

  • http://driveindia.blogspot.com Pranay Manocha

    Atanu, the milk scenario you point out, is more a case of ineffective use of the product rather than a failure of the product itself. The companies which sell such milk can easily argue that they were unaware of such things when they started distributing the product. This can also be blamed on the lack of cultural understanding that exists.

    The $100 laptop is nothing special in the irony that it exhibits. Even the NCERT textbooks in India have diagrams and footnotes in some chapters listing some trivia usually like ‘The cost of one F-16 is equivalent to opening 1000 schools or educating 1 million students’.

    This does not mean that if India bought one less fighter plane we would suddenly have 1 million educated kids. Similarly, if tomorrow, India decides to buy 10 million laptops, it would not normally mean that they would not be getting what they were getting earlier.

    To use a rather cliched term, it would go a long way in empowering Indians. Some kids are exceptional, they demand exceptional knowledge and exceptional resources in order to fulfil themselves. These are the kids who grow up to be leaders and pioneers. Buying a few million laptops might mean a billion dollars going where most people do not think they should be going, but it would mean that at least a few thousand exceptionally bright children get the means to dream beyond the obvious.

    Yes, it is a highly inefficient way to progress intellect, but it does work.

    Another thought, was wondering if you’ve had the chance to see the movie ‘Wall Street’.

  • Venkat Ramanan

    Atanu,
    Another great article pouring from your mind! Makes me think more about out Educationists, Politicians and how the world corps are trying to milk these cows…
    The following incident shocked me when I heard it in person! No wonder it will make us laugh, but if we start thinking about the truth behind it, we should cry for the sad state of education (not primary or secondary but college) in our country.
    I visited a cousin of mine studying in first year in a rural college. She had some doubts in her English course. The lesson was about Nehru expressing his feelings about Kamala (Which Indian text book will not have a lesson about Nehru??, this is another sad point to be debated in large!! :) ) ). She had marked a few lines important (her teachers had said that those lines often appear in fill up questions. I was totally shocked after reading those lines!!! especially the point that was highlighted was a very trivial one. Let me recollect that line here “Nehru travelled by Royal Dutch KLM Airline while returning to India” and Dutch KLM was highlighted!!!!! I felt really angry over our educationists who would continuously ask such questions, and at teachers who would deem this very trivial thing important! I am sure, this is just the tip of an iceberg!! Our lessons are boring, and our teachers more of demons and demotivators. No wonder we need another medium to make education simpler and easier to handle. The question here is what is the medium, could this be a multimedia kit or a laptop? I give hands down to a laptop since this could be the sickest of all ideas that comes to anyone’s mind – giving $100 laptops to rural and poor school kids in india who are malnourished and not in a position to handle a laptop!!! I am sure, some of their parents might pawn it in nearby pawn shops too.. SAD SAD. GOD Save me from this poor politicians in my dear country!!!

  • http://www.kundalini1.blogspot.com/ garima

    hi atanu,

    it is important to note in the east-west comparison (my frame of comparison being middle and low income households) that while formula is initially handed out free of charge and subsequently subsidised in the west, this is not largely the case in india. formula is in fact the costly option which the poor mother can ill afford accounting for breastfeeding rates inadvertantly being among the highest globally in india and bangladesh. as a student of public health in the US, i would proudly present results of this (unintended) success story. this is one area, besides traditional medicine, where the west is actually emulating us.

    while i wouldnt defend the agenda of formula companies out to earn profits, I believe a lot of their zeal to promote their product in recent times comes from the change in health norms. most of us (today in our 30s and 40s) are largely formula fed babies, not because our mothers were working, but because it was believed that a formula baby, definitely bonnier in appearance for breastmilk has no fat, was a healthier baby (latest research of course shows evidence of lower IQ besides lower immunity). the same with giving water to an otherwise exclusively breastfed baby (there is no need since breastmilk is a complete food + there is risk of infection as you mention). health norms have evolved as they do, with current WHO recommended best practices being as recent the last decade.

    moving up the income ladder, as a practitioner i conduct a prenatal session in one of mumbai’s more swanky obstetric clinics. i see two kinds of moms – those like myself nursing all the way to the first birthday or at least for 6 months, and those who are looking for ways out of breastfeeding for cosmetic reasons. so here’s one easily identifiable commonality across all income groups – the uneducated and irresponsible mother – one unfortunately caught in the cycle of malnutrition and early conception, the other waiting to get back on her diet (a nursing mother is a very hungry mother) and pilates.

    (if you are interested in country-wide stats, a really good place is the national family health survey – II. the reports, some of which you can find on the internet carry good analysis)

  • Vikram Asrani

    This does not mean that if India bought one less fighter plane we would suddenly have 1 million educated kids. Similarly, if tomorrow, India decides to buy 10 million laptops, it would not normally mean that they would not be getting what they were getting earlier.

    Pranay, you can be rest assured that while the Indian government is capable of thinking about purchasing 10 million laptops, it will never ever think about spending an equivalent amount of money for the purpose of feeding and educating the same set of people for which it will claim to purchase these laptops.

    One can argue about the utility of such an action and wonder who in reality will really benefit from such a purchase. Surely, it will benefit the coffers of the folks involved since they can claim to be the smart ones to have made such a decision and have to take their cut from it. They have the incentive to make such a foolish decision. Surely, it will benefit the manufacturers for without being able to sell their product, their business is a failure (they cannot afford the costs unless they can sell a large number of such laptops). Will it really benefit the large uneducated and hungry masses which it is targeted for ? That is the most important question which should influence the manufacturing decision. Surely, there will be a few children who will benefit from such an action but the arguement here is that a large fraction of the masses need food, shelter, sanitation and basic education which they can apply in their lives rather than a laptop. They will the ones to suffer the most since the money has to ultimately come from somewhere !!

    Take a look at the MIT lab FAQ at
    http://laptop.media.mit.edu/faq.html. It clearly lists that one of the reasons for it to be able to lower cost to such a number is the need for large scale production ie scale of manufacture is an important aspect in reducing cost. If the number of units manufactured comes down, it means that the cost goes up.

    The question which needs to be addressed before manufacturing such a laptop is who is the target of the $100 laptop and which group can really benefit from it. How many of such a group exist in each developing country and is the size of that group sufficient to offset the manufacturing cost. I wonder if this question has been thought about and I’d like to see MIT labs publish answers to these questions on its website to justify such an action.

    Just as a note, another thing to remember is that laptops needs some form of power which again is a limited and not easily available resource for a large fraction of this countries population. Sure, this will change the dynamics of the target group since only one who can afford at least a limited form of power to recharge these laptops frequently can make efficient use of such laptops.

    PS: I hear that these laptops like emergency radios will have a power crank which can be used to charge the battery. I’m curious to learn how much cranking is needed for charging the battery sufficient enough to run the machine for one hour in a power efficient mode.

  • shibani

    Great post!However there’s one thing that confuses me…can MIT-without a doubt up there with the most reputed institutes in the world- actually be in collusion with organisations who ruthlessly push products?Wouldn’t that grossly undermine it’s reputation for integrity?Maybe I’m just being naive.Or maybe they’re all just misguided “monkeys”.It reminds me of the greek myth of Sisyphus who was doomed to push a rock up a slope and roll it down only to roll it back up for all eternity-a classic example of futile effort.
    Also,digressing slightly,one book which is based on the same principle of misguided effort is The Ugly American by William Lederer and another author whose name I forget.It basically talks about how the U.S. so nearly lost the war against Communism through sheer stupidity.

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  • http://driveindia.blogspot.com/ Pranay Manocha

    Pranay, you can be rest assured that while the Indian government is capable of thinking about purchasing 10 million laptops, it will never ever think about spending an equivalent amount of money for the purpose of feeding and educating the same set of people for which it will claim to purchase these laptops.

    :-D
    Exactly my point! So if the Indian government is not going to spend it on feeding and educating these people, at least let it spend on laptops (rather than the money going to corrupt politicians to buy farmhouses in Gurgaon).

    On another thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get laptops that could be cranked up to work even when power fails? and for $100! Incredible! Now if we could only get genuine broadband to India that works even when the power fails…pff.

    :-)

  • Krishnan

    There appear to be two parts to this debate:

    1) Would a laptop be useful to a school going kid ?
    2) What is the best way to procure and distribute these laptops ?

    The issue of how effectively a school going kid can use a laptop could be settled by doing some pilot studies (provide kids with laptops and see if they learn better).As Atanu points out, TV is a good medium of instruction and the content could be distributed on DVD’s or even via satellite broadcast. However, the TV medium has its problems
    (retainability of information is low, there is poor or no interactivity, one can’t go back to an earlier show, programming is expensive, locally produced programming is of poor quality etc.). Laptops are in many ways complementary to TV’s and cheap storage + excellent search facilities (e.g Google/Yahoo desktop search) + open source content (e.g. Wikipedia) could enable the child to carry a lot of good information on his laptop and retrieve it at will. This could perhaps even eliminate the need to study crappy textbooks. Media such as “flash” could also make the learning more interactive. Once the kid has a laptop, there is still the problem of getting useful content into that laptop. However, it is not very expensive to distribute such information using CD’s or even by datacasting using satellites.

    An open market system (such as the one that exists for PC’s) could be used for the procurement and distribution of laptops. The Media lab will hopefully make the Intellectual property around the design of the laptops open. Since these laptops will use Linux/GNU, the Copyleft license will ensure that the software that runs on these will also be open.

  • bowerbird

    nice post. i don’t think i agree with it —
    infant formula is giving people some fish,
    while computers give them a fishing fleet
    – but you’ve certainly laid a clear burden
    on the one-laptop-per-child people to do
    extensive follow-up studies on their efficacy;
    dump-and-run is no longer viable for them.

    -bowerbird

    p.s. content will come from the o.c.a.

  • Kya yaar tu bhi

    Atanu,
    $100 laptops are simply a flavor of the times.

    In the 50s-60s, India embarked upon a series of hugely expensive industrialization ventures – dams, Bhakra Nangal, steel plants,cement, chemicals, whatnot, at the expense of everything else.

    Then all of a sudden there was a ton of moolah spent on healthcare – family planning, nirodh, dpt ke teen teekay, sanjay gandhi forced sterilization fiasco, oral rehydration formulae etc.

    Then a lot of telecom projects, mobile telephony, deregulation, STD & ISD booths all over the place…

    Now these laptops, call centers & IT ventures are seen as a panacea to everything under the sun.

    In another 20 years, we’ll look at every problem as though it is somehow related to genetics & bioengineering!

    It becomes very clear if you just take the time to talk to a few policymakers, MPs & the bereaucrats. See who has their ear. Everytime I come to India, I make it a point to meet a few members in the secretariat & do just that.

    Initially, we gave a lot of weight to civil engineers & architects. For a lot of 50s kids, civil engg was the thing to do. Naturally, they graduated, invested heavily in that sort of thing & got politicos to listen to them. So you saw dams all over the place.

    Then doctory became the in-thing. Everybody got themselves an MBBS & MD & FRCS & all sorts of medical diplomas & every problem was seen as – arrey just solve smallpox in India first, later on we’ll build dams. First provide free DPT vaccine. First make sure no kid dies of diarrhoea, provide free oral rehydration….

    Then electronics became paramount. Everybody wanted something to do with telecom. Sam Pitroda was seen as some kind of God, & you had unnecessarily high numbers of units…20-30 STD booths on a single road, as though every Indian was dying to talk to another Indian over the phone! Soon the mobile thing took off & now the market is saturated with SMS & MMS & umpteen cellphone players.

    Somewhere around this time, Narayan Murthy & Premji became the darling icons, & everybody wants to get an IT degree. So what is the solution of illiteracy in Indian villages ? Why, it is the $100 laptop! Give every Indian villager 1 laptop & no more illiteracy, all Indians will benignly surf the web & post erudite pieces on BPOs on the indianeconomy blog!

    Like I said, give it 20 years. Then we’ll talk about genetically modifying Indian brains so they all forego any shred of leftist thought & become pure 100% neocon capitalists & rise by their bootstraps & incorporate as LLCs & spawn multinational corporations on every streetcorner, hawking everything from cellphone to yes….infant baby formulae.

  • http://blogpourri.blogspot.com Sujatha

    The part of your post about the baby milk formula is nothing short of distressing. Forget about the companies pleading ignorance about mothers diluting the milk or not using sterile bottles – the problem lies in marketing and promoting formula as being superior to breast milk in the first place. If not anyone else in the whole entire world, these companies should know that breast milk is the best food for an infant. No formula in the world can even come close to replicating the virtues of breast milk, quite simply because breast milk has all the immunities that the mother has developed over the years, unique to her part of the world, the diseases and infections in her part of the world, precisely the kind of immunity the infant needs.

    There was a period in the 60s when even the educated mothers in the West were convinced that formula was the way to go. An entire generation grew up on formula. It’s not only the poor who fall prey to the might of the PR machine.

  • http://fonly.typepad.com/fonlyblog/2005/11/index.html Lee Felsenstein

    I refer you to my paper on the subject, prepared as I leave for Tunis.

    http://fonly.typepad.com/fonlyblog/2005/11/index.html

    I shall be attempting to put my reputation as a pioneer of personal computers behind the effort to discredit this approach.

    Thank you, Atanu, for your words.

  • MS

    Atane you really took the steam out of the article for one of our kannada website.Yes you guessed it, it was about digital divide and sub-$100 laptop.

    In the face of issue, it is so important to maintain focus. When we lack the basic ammenities, say water to drink and flush, roof to sit and sleep, it is foolish to believe a laptop is a panaeca for primary education. Not to mention the profit motive of those backing sub-$100 laptop for 3′rd world.

    Your thoughts(Media player et.al) are really pragmatic.

    Last punch:: If children are to use laptops, what might be used in corporate trainings?

  • Nick

    what profit motive? where is everyone getting this idea that some evil corporation somewhere is getting huge profit out of this venture at the expense of poor indians? Are MIT and random electronics manufacturers in bed with each other just to get profit?

    This line of reasoning is totally off base. Debate about basic needs vs technology, or trickle down education vs primary only, but inserting cynical gripes about a non-profit educational project backed by people like Kofi Annan (watch out for his profit motive!) are totally off topic. There are far better, less complicated ways to make money than ripping off poor Indians.

  • http://www.basicallyblah.blogspot.com m.

    hi.

    this is the first time im coming here, and boy, am i glad i did! its heartening to see another person saying this. its stunning, and a little frightening to see how thoroughly conditioned we are by media mainstream and corporate consumerist culture. technocracy sure has made its place into todays politics!

    GREAT going!
    :)

  • http://www.basicallyblah.blogspot.com m.

    sorry, just an after thought. i wanted to share something i found cynically amusing. i was working in the HIV circuit until recently, and am generally very interested in the politics of bodies like the WHO and UN.
    now WHO, while presenting very telling statistics like the one you’ve quoted, also has the most vague policy and healthcare guidelines ive read. they fudge and wuffle though they have their own numbers before them – things just dont get clearly spelt out and a stance taken, because that stance, most likely, means less (or no) funding!

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  • http://parvativetri.blogspot.com Parvati

    There is a couplet in tamil written by the wisest of them all, Thiruvalluvar, regarding how a job has to be done – use the right quantity of the right resources, instruments and exactly just the right effort expended on just the right target to get the work done. Not an iota more not a bit less.
    This is pure common sense and should be remembered while thinking of giving away laptops to all and sundry without proper thinking going into it.

    # As to the infant formula fiasco, that is pure crime that too against the poorest of the poor, and most innocent in the world -new born and very young children, the worst punishment would still not be painful enough for the perpetrators of this cruelty.

  • Jayakumar

    I certainly have many concerns about the OLPC. The explicit statement that limits it’s sale to government only is extremely troubling. To quote the OLPC team, from their new site at laptop.org:

    > Please note that the $100 laptops—not yet in production—will not be available for sale. The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives.

    It’s the “will not be available for sale” that I find so troubling. Why wouldn’t you want to increase volume further by selling to the private sector? Even if you marked it up a certain percentage. Is there some concern that it’ll steal laptops from the hands of children? I’d like to see that issue discussed by the OLPC team. But I can understand that right now, they’re busy creating something. So I’ll reserve further judgement until the product comes out.

  • http://none shantanu basu

    atanu i really appreciate the article i read just now but have u had some pilot study u reffered to ? i am a college teacher working on development economics and wud appreciate if the findings are made known.

  • Vikram
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  • anandsrivastava

    This article is wrong on so many levels.

    So it is true that the XO (the OLPC laptop) costs around 4 times the monthly salary of a teacher.

    Now a question for you. Would you teach your child in a government school/college? I know that the answer would be no. But why not?

    The answer is that the schools impart pathetic education. They literally kill any talent that the children may have.

    XO is not an attempt to provide food to children. It is an attempt to provide a simple way for the poor but interested children to have a decent education.

    The XO is not for famished children.

    It is for children from lower middle class background that cannot afford a good education and must rely on what the teachers at government schools provide. The XO can provide access to the Wikipedia, to online books, that will allow them to study on their own, even if they cannot afford the books.

    I have not studied in government school either, but my brother had the misfortune of attending such a school for a couple of years. That is a reason why I think that for the poor people the XO is the only way out.

    Another problem is that the Indian government is not even interested in education its not an issue that wins votes. I don’t expect them to ever get XO in India.

    BTW I will be buying one for my son, when it is available in India. It is a wonderful machine. I hope that other people in my community buy them too. They are great for children to communicate and be creative. My son loves computers a lot. But I am afraid of giving a normal laptop to him. He may break it. But XO is virtually indestructible.

  • http://jihadwatch.org/ Notsure

    Mr srivastava
    R u connected with any vastava existing thing?
    How would XO on a P2P network provide access to wikipedia?

    That too to “for children from lower middle class background that cannot afford a good education and must rely on what the teachers at government schools provide”

    And frankly you would be a fool to buy your kid a laptop like XO….
    Teaching some basics like
    (a) health/ nutrition/ hygine
    (b) RRRs If i need to tell you this wasnt a growl i’d be missing the point

    are important and no laptop woud teach that to your progeny.

    And guess what for $350 you can get your kid a laptop.

    And spare the world the virtually indestructible
    All it needs if Flash memory(b/c hdd are more succeptible to mechanical problems) and another plastic layer over screen.

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