1/5 Of The World's Laptop Production
Before catching a flight to Cameroon, I saw Nicholas Negroponte, director of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), speak at Harvard's Berkman Center Internet and Society Conference.
To briefly summarize the talk: Nicholas described OLPC as an educational program that happens to use new technology as a means. The strategy is to give out these laptops en masse to entire countries of primary school students, allowing them to learn to read, write and count in new and exciting ways bypassing other unexciting and unsuccesful learning systems. OLPC already has contracts with several countries on a massive scale. In fact, scale is central to OLPC, and Nicholas does not see this as a gradual program, but one that will be producing 1/5 of the worlds laptops by 2010.
I came away from Nicholas' energetic talk both freightened and hopeful. After spending a year in Uganda, one thing I learned about community development in Africa is that the only thing more important than providing a means for staying alive for those in 'extreme' poverty is to work towards a system that promotes entreprenuership and self-reliance in the rest of the population.
The best long term solution for this is a revitilization of basic education. OLPC is probably a better and more exciting solution than any other that I have seen. However, there is a variable whose effect is impossible to predict. No development on such a large scale has every involved giving expensive devices to millions of children, most of whom have never had anything. This could either cause massive disruption to a struggling school system, or as Nicholas predicts, massive enthusiasm for showing up at school.