I’m generally very pro-technology, but the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) effort always struck me as putting the technology cart in front of the educational (and cultural) horse. A report at The Economist has examples of technological fixes that haven’t actually “fixed” the problems they were intended to solve:
The American charity has an ambitious mission — transform the quality of education in the developing world by giving every poor student a laptop. Targeting a $100 laptop, OLPC succeeded in creating a usable computer at a very low price point (the actual number was closer to $200). Unfortunately most of the attention in the project was focused on the technology and not enough on its efficacy. In the first rigorous evaluation of the programme, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) found little evidence that the laptops influenced educational outcomes. The study, conducted in Peru four years after the programme was launched, found no improvement in math or language. While the computers did lead to some gains in cognitive skills, the authors concluded that access to a laptop didn’t improve attendance. Neither did it motivate students to spend more time on their homework.
There is similarly disappointing news on cooking stoves. The World Health Organization estimates that indoor pollution from primitive cooking fires contributes to 2m deaths annually. One solution is to use clean cooking stoves. At a cost of $12.50, these stoves are an inexpensive way to reduce respiratory ailments and improve air quality. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), a public-private initiative, is making a big push for 100m homes in the developing world to switch to clean stoves by 2020. But a new NBER paper by Rema Hanna from Harvard University and Esther Duflo and Michael Greenstone from MIT, questions the long-term health or environmental benefits from this programme. The authors evaluated a clean-stove programme in eastern India, covering 15,000 households over five years. Their study found that after the initial year, enthusiasm for the stoves waned and households didn’t make the necessary investments to maintain them. As a result, the programme had very little effect on respiratory health or air pollution.
Both these projects highlight some common misconceptions in using technology for development. For one, solving intractable social problems requires fundamental changes in the target population. It also needs a supportive institutional framework to reinforce the right behaviour. Technology can complement this process, but it is no substitute for the human element. In Peru, simply adding laptops to the classroom, without investing in teachers who were proficient in computer-aided education, meant that the academic impact was limited. The IDB paper rightly points out that in poor countries where wages are low, development money may be better spent on labor-intensive education interventions than on expensive tools.