Atanu Dey On India's Development

OLPC at the WEF at Davos

David Kirkpatrick filed a CNN report about the movers and shakers of this world at the World Economic Forum at Davos. The Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe apparently pooh-poohed global warming and trashed Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Kirkpatrick later asked Vinod Khosla what he thought of Brabeck-Letmathe’s position. “He should see his proctologist to find his head,” said Khosla, “and you can quote me.” I like that sort of ‘say it like you see it’ attitude.

Kirkpatrick’s report is titled “At Davos: citizenship, apostasy and $100 laptops.” Negroponte with his “$150 laptop which was formerly the $100 laptop” was there. I have written about the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) project in the past over here. I am not a fan. I have nothing against a tool — whether a blackboard or a laptop or a supercomputer. They all make immense sense. A laptop for every child also makes great sense. But if you insist on feeding a select few of a very large population of starving people with caviar, thus ensuring that the large majority will continue to starve, you are being more than a little silly.

My problem with the OLPC sort of solution to the problem of the education of poor people is that it makes no economic sense, however technologically feasible it is to create a laptop that runs on hand-cranked power and is cute as a button. I realize of course that in due course, those who try to fix a non-technical problem with technical solutions will eventually see the folly of their ways. But by then another generation of poor children would have suffered needlessly.

Generally markets weed out these sort of silliness. The problem is that the OLPC wishes to circumvent the market and go to the governments to sell the laptops. A private party would make a cost benefit analysis and will not generally buy something when there are less expensive alternatives. Governments, unfortunately, have no such compulsions. Let’s bear in mind that it’s people in government who control the public purse strings but it’s not their money in the purse. They therefore lack the incentive to spend the money efficiently. The decision to shield the OLPC from the judgement of the marketplace may perhaps be its most telling handicap.