Sunday, April 24, 2005

Are Cheap Computers the Answer?

Steve Cisler asks this quesion and gives his own answer. Steve's observations make it clear that if so, you asked the wrong question. Here is my take.

Computers can be part of a solution to poverty, but only if they are designed to meet the specific, stringent requirements of the poor, and only if they are combined with the other elements of a solution.

The defining characteristic of poverty is lack of disposable income. Further constraints that the poor in many areas operate under include

Lack of knowledge is what the computer is supposed to cure, but first you have to know how to use one. Second, you have to know English, or you have to have a lot of friends translating software and creating content for the Web in your local language.

Any proposal to help the poor without specific measures for circumventing these constraints is a fantasy. In principle it can be done using solar power to recharge batteries, using wireless to connect to the Internet, and using microcredit to finance placement of the equipment plus the training to use the computer to make the money to pay back the loan.

The microbanks have not yet put such a training program together. The Grameen Foundation USA and Grameen Communications both have village computing projects, but I haven't heard of results from either. For now, that means that none of this is happening.

It is not that Simputers, for example, are too expensive. They cost more than the the cell phones that Grameen and other microbanks place successfully in villages all over the world, but not vastly more. (And they use rechargeable batteries and wireless, and support some of the target languages.)

It is not that there is a fundamental difficulty in training people to use computers to make money. The ITC e-choupal program is lifting millions of farmers in India out of extreme poverty by giving them free access to computers and offering to buy their crops at world prices. But you see that it is not enough just to provide the computers.

In fact, it will be necessary to train villagers to service computers, to create local content, and to program computers. Meaning that we have to make the computers operate in their languages.

Given computers in villages, and the initial methods of making money using them, we could obviously design programs in health, education, appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, and so on and on. But we would still have the obstacle of language. We need to provide software and content in as many languages as possible. This can only be done by speakers of the languages. The rest of us can provide financial, technical, and moral support, and license our content to them at a price they can afford--free.

There are a number of distributions of Linux in languages of Africa and Asia not supported by commercial software, and more being created. The Free Software in use in developing countries is the functional equivalent of billions of dollars of commercial software, although the Free Software movement doesn't get to claim that we have donated billions of dollars worth of software.

What we need to do together (the techies, the NGOs, and the poor, among others) is to create a program that integrates these elements and more, and to test it and make it work for the poor. Then we can begin to talk about taking it around the world and answering some questions in the way that counts, by making it happen. Many of my friends are working on various components and on the way to bring them together. Some have successful development projects in quite poor countries that are ripe for the addition of computers. They could do much of the R&&D for the rest of what we need. You are all welcome to join in.

My own efforts right now, apart from working on the overall vision and plan, are going into e-commerce with Africa and Asia and promoting Linux development in more languages. I have some other ideas, for example telemedicine in the villages once they have computers of some sort. But that is for another time.

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