Battle at the bottom of the pyramid

You can imagine the headlines.

“Western giants battle over the hearts, minds (and ultimately the wallets?) of Africa’s rural poor”

I’m talking about the battle going on right under our noses between MIT and Microsoft, or Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Gates, or the $100 laptop and a Windows/mobile device (as yet unnamed since it’s not even in existence). Or all three if you like.

For those of you who might not know, the $100 laptop is a product of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit association dedicated to researching and developing a laptop to revolutionise ICT access for the ‘rural poor’ in developing countries. The idea was announced by Nicholas Negroponte at the World Economic Forum in January 2005.

The laptop itself is a rather bright little green thing, its most striking feature being a crank handle which gives it the power it needs to run. As is traditional in such cases, the idea has caused jubilation and alarm in equal measure, not least from Bill Gates himself who, not surprisingly perhaps, is a little miffed that the laptop designers have opted to use open source software, shunning his beloved Windows operating system. Maybe for this reason alone Mr. Gates has gone on the warpath, slamming the $100 laptop and claiming that some Windows-powered mobile device plugged into a keyboard and TV is the answer. All very interesting stuff, even if it doesn’t exist yet (or does it?!).

All of this strikes me as yet another example of top-down interventionism. Are these projects (or visions in Bill’s case) needs-driven, or big business agenda-driven? And whose needs? If it’s the ‘rural poor’ then are their needs real or perceived? Who’s representing the ‘rural poor’ in all of this? What do they think (not that they can all collectively respond, naturally)? I imagine it’s like being in a hospital bed with two doctors standing over you arguing about how you’re feeling and what’s best for you. As the patient, surely you have some say? In a similar way, the ‘rural poor’ should not be treated as passive recipients of whichever ICT becomes dominant, based on battles of ideas, money and ideologies far, far away. Is it really for us to say what they really need?

“African women who do most of the work in the countryside don’t have time to sit with their children and research what crops they should be planting. What is needed is clean water and real schools”. How many would agree with that?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not particularly for or against initiatives like the $100 laptop. It’s just the process that I’m having a little difficulty with.