Inspiring the local [by default]

I’m all for local solutions to local problems. Or even locally-inspired solutions to local (or national) problems. Or nationally-inspired solutions to local or national problems. I think you get the picture. But one thing I’m not quite so keen on is the default state of international solutions to local problems, or national problems in some cases. Sure, you can quite rightly argue that certain solutions need to be developed internationally to obtain economies of scale, particularly if your solution involves manufacturing, or if you’re working on the environment or in the health arena (after all, malaria is malaria, wherever you are). Just take the One Laptop Per Child Project, or OLPC, for example. For all it’s good and bad points – and I’m not going to go into any of those here – it troubles me on two interconnected fronts. Firstly, it’s international trying to solve local, and secondly, it really doesn’t need to be. Once again we’ve reverted to the ‘default state’ (one day I’ll draw up a diagram of how this should work. I keep getting asked what my ‘model’ is!).

(One point I’d like to quickly clarify here is my own belief in providing tools and not solutions wherever possible. Capacity-building is generally far more effective this way. This blog entry, however, deals with the issue of “solutions” because these are usually what’s offered. Hopefully one day this will also change).

With all the hype around the OLPC project you could have easily thought that it was the only computer-based ‘digital divide’ solution in town. Well, you’d be wrong. It’s quite possible that you may not have heard of some of the others, despite the big names behind them. How about the Eduwise laptop from Intel, or FonePlus by Microsoft? No? Maybe..? Okay, the Personal Internet Communicator from AMD, the chip maker? These are all being touted as THE solution to the digital divide problem (that’s providing internet connectivity/IT to the worlds’ poor, to you and me). A couple of these solutions use similar, but others distinctly different, technical approaches. But the one thing they have in common is they are all US-based responses to problems outside of the US.

Ever heard of NetTV, NETPC or Novatium? Well, soon you could be hearing a lot more. Ramesh Jain, one of the men behind Novatium, is an Indian. Not surprisingly he knows India, and he’s working on his own (not surprisingly, Indian) solution to India’s own digital divide. Luckily for Ramesh (if that’s the right word to use), his government rejected an offer of a million OLPC’s on the grounds that they were too expensive. His solution – a unit based on a cheap cell-phone chip, no hard drive, a keyboard, a screen and a couple of USB ports – comes in right on the $100 mark (OLPC is hovering around $140 these days). What’s more, Ramesh believes he can get the price down to nearer $70.

What’s so different about the two approaches – other than the obvious technical ones and the fact that one is a national and the other an international solution – is that Negroponte’s OLPC is based on heavy subsidies from private and public philanthropy. Ramesh is in it to make money. OLPC- and NetPC-style initiatives often lack sustainability, a ‘minor’ issue which often ends up totally spoiling the party. Look at the history books – the superhighway is scattered with the remains of initiatives forced to leave early with their USB cables dangling between their legs.

Now, a local or national approach to the problem, based on a socially-focused business model? That could just work. It certainly ticks all the right boxes for me.

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.