The One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) has highlighted the need to provide computing to kids in the developing world, but headlines surrounding the group's $100 laptop PC have attracted a growing number of companies and organizations trying to figure out how the digital world can help those most in need.
The rush to climb aboard this trend has gotten downright nasty in some cases. While there is no doubt altruism plays a role in decisions to help out, there are other reasons, such as profit and market share.
Some OLPC leaders, for example, have been accused of academic egotism, as well as using their project to expand the use of the Linux OS. Microsoft's donation of time, software and cash to the cause has been characterized as a way to counter Linux and spread Windows. Intel has been accused of building a rival laptop, the ClassMate PC, as a way to ensure its microprocessors are at the heart of computers for kids in poor countries. The OLPC laptop uses chips from rival AMD.
Reading the hubbub surrounding the issue almost makes one forget the main purpose: the kids
Some groups also take issue with the educational philosophy behind OLPC, and there is even disagreement on whether developing nations should invest in computers over say, classrooms and textbooks. Some nations are too poor to buy computers for their schools, much less lay new power lines and Internet connections to actually make them useful.
For example, Fair International, an aid organization from Norway that is also trying to bridge the digital divide with computer labs in schools, has accused OLPC of "misleading poor countries into taking a high investment risk for a new type of technology, the success of which is very uncertain. With uncertain definitions of target groups and heavy international marketing, OLPC appears to be trying to create a need which has not existed before and which does not exist at all in the world's richer regions."
The group upgrades second-hand computers with the latest software to equip computer labs for schools in countries including Eritrea, Gambia, Kenya, Romania and Tanzania.
Other aid organizations focus more on building classrooms and filling them with books.
Room to Read, a nonprofit from the U.S., focuses on some of the poorest areas in the world, including rural Nepal and Vietnam.
Founded by a former Microsoft executive, Room to Read works with local communities to build libraries for as little as US$4,000, and schools with several classrooms for around $20,000 to $35,000. The group also builds computer labs at a cost of about $30,000 in some schools, but uneven development within countries means only some areas are suitable for such labs, like big cities with reliable power grids.
Everything the group does is funded by donations.
That an increasing number of companies and organizations are working with developing countries on computing issues is good news for people in poor areas, especially where they have little or no access to electronic devices or the Internet.
But most of these giving efforts are young and must continually refine and improve their efforts, and in some cases, their motivation. They are working in extreme conditions, deserts, jungles and mountains, as well as in villages so poor they can barely afford classrooms, much less electricity or Internet connections.