Investment is the antidote to poverty
Posted Feb 7, 2006 1:19 UTC (Tue) by xoddam
In reply to: Straw man not a good plan
Parent article: $100 Laptop: Great for the world, great for Linux (ZDNet)
(If you would care to continue this discussion elsewhere, my address is
jonathan, at xoddam, dot net.)
> there are no teaching materials readily available for the project.
> Several people suggested that some Web 2.0 artifacts (Wikipedia,
> wikibooks, Google) could be translated and used as reading, but
> this requires knowledge of English...
These assertions might carry some force if there was any truth to them.
For many poorer nations a major source of income and hard-currency
investment is remittances from émigrées. A large measure of
international aid consists of scholarships for developing countries'
nationals to study in the universities of the wealthy nations. The money
might stay in the West, but some benefits accrue to the recipient
country. There are many educated, even wealthy, people who speak the
languages of the poor, at home and abroad.
Online material already exists in the principal languages of literacy of
most developing countries. Inasmuch as any of these resources are
translated from English, the translation is already well underway (and
I'd be surprised if a thorough search found no Spanish schoolchildren
amongst the translators). But that's hardly the point; these 'Web 2.0
artifacts', despite being a gift of Westerners to the world, do not and
never have suffered from monolinguism.
I can't be bothered searching out other resources in languages I can't
read (I am limited to a single fluent language and one other I can get by
in). Rest assured they exist, though I doubt any others would be as
complete as wikipedia unless created by serious forward-looking
investment (which would be as well-placed contributing to these existing
resources as establishing independent portals or preparing textbook
materials for narrower distribution). This initial investment does not
immediately and directly benefit the illiterate and the starving, but the
infrastructure it lays down will be available to them as soon as they are
ready to take advantage.
> In my mind this would be similar to giving Brazilian Yanomami
> a bunch of scooters to move in the jungle, and hoping that
> "roads and gas stations will be created by the local populace
> on an as-needed basis".
That is exactly what it *isn't*. These machines don't need a wire to be
(minimally) useful. They're running free software and aren't about
locking in a market (as petrol-burning scooters or Microsoft laptops
would be). Add a *single* connection to the wider world and voilà, an
oyster ready for the shucking.
It's not the Yanomami who will be the first customers, though there's no
reason that they shouldn't find the machines useful to some extent. It's
the kids in Cidade de Deus, and some of them *will* benefit, because they
will become better informed. I don't see this as a mere hope -- it's all
> Right, hunger as a consequence of famine is probably anecdotal
> (even if still very serious).
'Anecdotal'? Hardly, but neither is it endemic, except in the Sahel
which is becoming depopulated (violently) as a result. (If we don't get
serious about carbon dioxide emissions other marginal regions will
follow.) Famine is usually not a complete interruption of the food
supply, but an escalation of food prices at the same time as a collapse
in agricultural income (as a result of poor weather, land theft or other
violence). The result is that people who, with a good season on their
own land, would have grown most of their own food and had surplus income,
lose market power to purchase the necessities of life. Alternative
income besides agriculture and money in the bank is as important a buffer
against famine as a well-stocked granary.
> However hunger caused by poverty is the rule.
I'm sure many people are hungry all the time, but I'm equally sure it's
not a majority in most parts of the world. You write as though there is
no point investing in the education of relatively poor people who already
have enough to eat and a roof over their heads and can write their names,
if there are destitute people nearby. But how can such people achieve
anything at all if the most well-off of their neighbours is barely
scraping by? Only investment in their entire community, including its
doctors and technicians and shopkeepers and teachers and lawyers, will
help the poorest in the long term.
> And poverty is more difficult to fight than famine.
Famine isn't a mere anecdote, but it is *solely* a consequence of
poverty. The best way to defeat poverty (ignoring the distortion of
agricultural markets by EU and US subsidies) is investment. Education is
investment. Am I begging a question now?
> I think that third world governments could use their scarce money more
> wisely creating traditional teaching materials;
This is the only place where we are really in disagreement, I think. The
rest of our arguments are waffle at cross-purposes. *YES* 3rd-world
governments can make better use of scarce money than spending it in the
global market (Where are these machines to be made, exactly?). Basic
needs must be tended to first. Only a smaller investment is required, as
in the example of Kerala, to achieve minimal literacy. But as Kerala's
disinvestment under 'liberal' governments in the early 1990s and again in
2001-2004 also illustrates, a failure to invest further negates the
achievement of the basics.
("The UDF government did not take any initiative to bring the 1.8 million
neo-literates to a stage where they could do more than write their name
and read the destination boards on buses." I was very disheartened to
read this story after quoting '>90%' literacy above:
You are correct that secondhand textbooks, pencils and slates are cheaper
than a notebook computer. You would be *absolutely* correct that it is
more valuable to spend money on human teachers than to put a computer in
front of an illiterate child. But is it really more effective to 'push'
teaching materials in print than to provide students with the ability to
Don't dismiss this project on the grounds that it is not the best tool to
provide the bare basics, or that it competes with food and housing for
funds in the poorest places of the world. That isn't what it's about.
The internet already competes favourably with technical books, for it can
always be opened to the right page and it is always up to date. That
it's cheaper is, to date, almost irrelevant. This project is an attempt
to cut costs to one *tenth* of equivalent technology commercially
available today. As other teaching materials become available online and
the costs of the network are driven down, it will begin to compete with
them as well.
You seem to think that anyone who is in favour of this project thinks it
is a silver bullet. It isn't. What it *is*, is an enabling technology.
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