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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Literacy Tipping Point

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Economic Development, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development, Technology on September 15, 2010 at 10:51 am

Just read this interesting article on a Literacy Project in Niger.

It’s a CRS project using cell phones in literacy projects. As it turns out, if you give illiterate people cell phones and include literacy classes, they will retain their knowledge and use their literacy skills to send text messages. This is brilliant and I consider this a tipping point: where literacy is increased, living standards will go up.

I worked on a village based literacy program in the Torodi area of Niger in the late 90’s, and one major thing that kept people from retaining their literacy skills was that there was nothing to read in Fulfulde or Zarma. If you give them something to write and read, they’ll use their skills. Otherwise literacy isn’t of much use to them in their daily lives.

End the poverty cycle

In Appropriate Technology, Economic Development, Governance, International Development, Niger, Sustainable Development, Technology on July 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I’ve been recently reminded of the overwhelming factors working against those in the super-poor parts of the world that I work on helping every day.   The UN’s IRIN news service published this helpful article on “Preventing the Sahel’s next food crisis,” which is already in full swing.

In the international development field, as in many others, we all have our specialties.  This may be more of a function of how competitive it is to work in this field – that many people hyper-specialize to make themselves marketable and to stay employed.  This inevitably leads to tunnel vision, where we feel like what we’re focusing on is integral to the larger objective – which in our case is reducing poverty.

With that in mind – this list of how to prevent the food security crisis currently manifesting itself in the Sahel has both macro and micro level suggestions.  (Sahel – to those unfamiliar – means roughly the region of West and Central Africa between the Sahara Desert and the densely forested equator region, it stretches from Senegal to Sudan)

I’m in a spot professionally where the programs I help support are short term interventions that basically keep people alive and at worst maintain the prior status quo.  (would I then say status quo ante?)  We can do these interventions successfully and meet all our goals.  But what frustrates me is that in Niger and Chad (the two countries that now occupy my time) are stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Yes, there are nifty administrative ways we can get food aid shipped to these places quickly – we can all communicate better, have more eyes on the ground, use social media to attract attention and allocate resources more efficiently… but when does it stop?

I want to see the system change.   Nigeriens and Chadiens need a better deal.  We need a massive reallocation of policies and resources to help bring up the poorest of the poor.  And the more I work in the development field, the more I’m convinced that it has to come from the private sector.

I don’t have time right now to really delve into this – many have earned doctorates in more specialized aspects of this problem… But, landing my plane here… I think the best way forward is to see the poorest of the poor as regular, hardworking people who will work their tails off for the chance to help their families.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Lets give them the chance to help themselves.  Lets invest in the poor.

Another Anti OLPC blog post

In Appropriate Technology, International Development, Technology on May 6, 2007 at 5:54 am

I really don’t want this to be an anti One-Laptop-Per-Child project blog… but I read this article in todays NYT and couldn’t help but think about it:
Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops – New York Times

Apparently, having laptops issued one to a student in American schools, who have access to some of the best technology, with students who actually have previous experience with this technology, hasn’t worked as well as had been expected.

The article brings up one good point – the educational rubric hasn’t caught up to the digital age; having students really use wirelessly connected and networked laptops for their intended purpose – collaborating and exploring their creativity – was taking them away from concentrating on passing outmoded, standardized tests.

What we should take away from this, in relation to the OLPC endeavor… is what I have mentioned in previous blog posts – if you introduce a new technology or development intervention, you have to be aware of it’s wider systemic effects. I’ve come to realize that ecosystems are not just something related to the physical environment, but the social and political environment as well.

I’m in agreement with the sentiments of the OLPC project, and I love the idea of getting students the best technology possible. But with regards to what the NYT article highlights – the systemic effects of the intervention were not considered. Of course some the kids were going to IM each other and look at porn… they’re teenagers for gods sake…

A better plan would have been for the school to create a much more controlled educational environment that is more hardwired to the classroom – and give all the students their own, private flash-drives or iPods. The iPods could be specially adapted to hold the students entire scholastic identity, basically being their boot drive for whatever dumb computer terminal they log into. That way they could take their work home to their home computers – which should be provided to low-income people at subsidized rates and free municipal WiFi access. The school could then maintain their secure network and the students wouldn’t just be distractedly surfing the internet.

Even as a relatively responsible 33 year old grad student, I find that my always on laptop can be an enormous distraction. I find myself looking things up constantly, then getting sucked into reading the news or instant messaging with my friends. My workflow is a stream of short bursts; responses interrupting my creative efforts. My last blog post was done from a class, I’m sorry to admit. The professor structured class in the traditional, passive listening manner that these new technologies were designed to eliminate.

But then again, I have other professors who depend on us bringing our wirelessly connected laptops to class to take advantage of the collaborative and enabling environment they were intended for. I’ve had class meetings using Skype where we were spread out all over the world. It’s completely amazing and fun.

So there is hope for the OLPC project, but like I said the systemic effects of this intervention really need to be considered. The OLPC coordinators should read this NYT article carefully so they don’t end up with a completely busted project.

The One Laptop Per Child Field Tests

In Appropriate Technology, International Development, Technology on April 16, 2007 at 7:09 am

C|Net just ran an article on the OLPC saga: Engineering change: Plugging Africa’s kids in to $100 laptop.

I recommend clicking on the photos and reading the captions to get the whole story.

I’ve been following this story for a while, I’ve posted on it here a few times, just have a look through my archives. To sum up how I feel about it – I love the ideas and idealism, I have major issues with the execution of it as a development project.

As I said, there are tons of sustainability issues to consider – take a look at the photos in the article I linked to above and you’ll get an idea. They’ve decided to field test the laptop in a poor but not destitute village with a pretty poorly-outfitted school, even by Nigerian standards. They had to install electricity & generator and a satellite dish, which had not obviously been at this school before.

What I’m seeing as the first mistake is that Khaled Hassounah himself is training the kids to use the laptops. HUGE mistake. Sustainability error number one; now it’s just another project being pushed on them by a foreigner, a gift given to them that they did not ask for. They’ll ooh and ahh at the laptops and go along with what he says, and then as soon as things start to break down, the project will fall apart, because it’s not community based and generated.

They should have the schools compete to show who earns the right to use the new technology – that would provide motivation for schools to perform better. It would also increase the communities stake in the project. Also, it should be a Nigerian face that the kids are seeing training them to use the laptops. Hassounah should be intensively training Nigerian teachers, who then train the kids. Hassounah must be consumed with his own idealism – I totally understand him wanting to be the one with the kids, but the true home-run for him would be to watch a Nigerian (or otherwise local) teacher flawlessly train the kids.

I really, really hope the kids get some benefit out of the machines while the generator and satellite dish are working at least.

Innappropriate Technology

In International Development, Technology on December 2, 2006 at 5:27 am

Those of you interested in international development should be familiar with the term “appropriate technology” – the concept of having the appropriate tools in the hands of the people who will use them. In practical terms, this means not shipping Caterpillar tractors built for commercial farms in the midwest to subsistence farmers in sandy, dry West Africa.

I’ve blogged about it before, but the whole one-laptop-per-child thing is really bugging me. The NYT posted another article about it.

I just can’t understand how this is supposed to work in a poor country where they have no technology, while here in the US and in Europe where we’ve had ample time and resources to use and adapt the same thing, it hasn’t happened. I’ve lived around silicon valley since high school – and I’ve got both family and friends in the education field. They all use technology, but the kids still have to learn handwriting and how to add and subtract on their own. I kind of see this as my parents not allowing my first wristwatch to be digital, so I could learn how to tell time on an analog clock.

I really don’t want to be bursting such an idealistic bubble. I very much admire the motivation and idealism that the MIT and OLPC people have invested in the project – I would just love to hear more from the potential recipients. It was my experience in Niger that the locals would never say no when an aid organization offered them something, regardless of what it was. Anything free is good. I’m almost positive that once this starts getting out into the field, the laptops will start being resold immediately.

This is not to mention a whole host of other things in the NYT article I linked above – things like charging up the machine, replacing the screen lamp – “A child could do it!” I’m just seeing a whole bunch of constant hand-holding and tech support making this totally unsustainable as a development project. You just can’t introduce this into a place that has absolutely no experience with it. Better to get it into more computer-savvy hands for a while to see if they’re a viable learning tool.

Speak of the Devil!

In Governance, International Development, Technology on November 27, 2006 at 1:50 am

A couple of things that I’ve noticed since my last post below.

First – I came across this article about the Ibrahim Award. Mr. Ibrahim made millions, supposedly honestly – according to the Time article – developing the mobile phone market in Africa. He has created a foundation that would give a huge award, like $2 million, to African leaders who embody honesty and good governance, to be followed by $200,000/year for life, more if they commit to and run a good governance NGO or non-profit.

The authors make a good point – in the US, ex-politicians can make lots of money on the speaker circuit, in addition to the lifetime pension and medical care they receive – African leaders get nothing. This is an incentive to stay in power forever, or to steal their retirement fund from government coffers. I seem to remember Boston University, or some other university in the Boston area, hiring the ex-Zambian president, kind of as a reward for giving up power peacefully.

A hard-core blogger would instantly check this out, but I’ve got opinions, not too much time.

Second – Niger’s getting hooked up to the global Fiber Optics Network. This is great news for Niger and great evidence that high-tech companies of the developed world see value in helping develop African infrastructure. This will most definitely help Niger – they were already on their way to more widespread mobile phone use. The fiber optics can help connect Niger and it’s neighbors to each other and the rest of the world.

Private/Public synergy

In International Development, Technology on November 25, 2006 at 1:10 am

When I see a couple of articles like these, about investing in Africa – the BBC’s about a new Guinean internet cafe and the recent In-Depth Financial Times report about African Infrastructure – it makes ideas swirl around my head.

As I may have eluded in previous posts here, development is holistic and multifaceted. You can’t just build infrastructure or invest in schools alone, there has to be a point to the infrastructure or jobs for the educated, among a million other things that will equal a brighter future.

The internet cafe in Guinea is a great example of the kind of entrepreneur that is trying to make it in Africa. There are millions like this guy, just looking for a break. According to the FT article I linked, and also other research shows it, there are so many barriers to starting a business or enforcing a contract in Africa. The institutions and infrastructure are just not there yet.

The internet cafe is a great case in point – here is a small business that has great potential. The technology is capable of helping lots and lots of Guineans make connections and use information to improve their lives. You would think the government would do what it could to help them out…

This makes me think that the private sector can have a big effect. Why not enlist the Google Foundation to help finance internet cafes or broadband infrastructure in Africa. It could work along the same lines as their city-wide WiFi in San Francisco. Imagine Cisco, Google, and perhaps some local Telecoms partnering in a concerted effort, aided by organizations like the IMF or World Bank. The IMF or WB would be there to influence hesitant governments to speed up or streamline business registrations and clear up red tape – they would be the stick, Google and Cisco the Carrot.

Just a thought…

Back to the $100 Laptop

In International Development, Technology on November 17, 2006 at 7:09 am

Saw this update of the $100 Laptop, a part of the “OLPC” initiative (One Laptop Per Child).

I wrote about this a few months ago in this blog… I like the idea but I think the foundations of this as a development intervention are flawed. I think the space-race levels of enthusiasm and engineering that have gone into producing this are very inspiring – but the technology should be tested here for a while – why can’t inner-city American kids get a crack at this for a while to work out the bugs?

Here’s another idea: Why not sell these like crazy at $250 a laptop here and in Japan and Europe, with the profits going to subsidize the developing-country children? You know it would sell – I know tons of regular college students who would snap this up. My own 3-year old daughter could use a tougher, kid friendly computer; I find myself keeping her away from my Powerbook for fear of what her sticky fingers would do…

And I still stand by my previous post about this – the laptop alone is not enough – the creators of this are too caught up in creating a cool toy for low costs, without really looking at the system they’re trying to make it for… if I am being clear… Sure they’ll have this great, collaborative thing, but how do they make it truly operational and useful in the environment they’re envisioning it for? Who will train the teachers? Who will maintain the network? Who will install the network? Who pays for that? They only ever mention giving the laptops away or selling them at $100.

There are just too many potential bugs in the system. I’m not saying that this project should be abandoned, but they need to partner with Cisco or Google and maybe a host-government school system in a target country to really lay the foundations for this thing. It would be a shame to waste all this effort, and to set this excellent product free into the wild without the proper habitat.