Two thousand five hundred of the world's cheapest laptops—retailing for a trifling $150—will be shipped to educational authorities in countries ranging from Pakistan to Brazil this month. We've blogged about this initiative previously (on the disparate reactions of India and Libya), but here's a refresher: The computers are the brainchild of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a project of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that aims to use the laptops to enable children in developing countries to learn like their counterparts in the developed world. "It's an education project, not a laptop project," OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte has stressed—but the technological achievement is pretty astounding. Each computer, which can be charged by cranking a handle, boasts a digital video camera, multi-lingual keyboard and wireless internet connectivity. OLPC plans to roll out 50 million of them in the next twelve months, by which time it hopes they will cost barely $100 (the original target price).
Not everyone is applauding. After all, $150 is still a lot of cash in these countries, and there's no guarantee the scheme will work. Indeed, many feel the only result will be a thriving black market in cutting-edge laptops. For my money, both sides are missing the point. Affordable computers are undoubtedly worthwhile, but it's small businesspeople, not children, who could make best use of them. Cheap laptops will boost their firms' efficiency, and provide long-distance communication at the touch of a button. When funds are scarce, it might be best that the kids stick to pens and paper—it's worked in the past.
In rural India, half of all schoolchildren are in private schools, but it's not because they're from wealthy families. And the phenomenon goes way beyond India. British Professor of Education James Tooley and his research team also visited slums and shantytowns in China, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, where they found, surprisingly, that "the vast majority of schoolchildren were found to be in 'budget' private schools" in the areas surveyed.
Entrepreneurs from these communities have started small schools, hiring teachers from the communities and charging just a few dollars a month. Students are performing better, teachers are more dedicated, and even the school facilities are better in most cases than at public schools. And all of it costs much less per student.
You can find these so-called "slum schools" in Somaliland, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Uganda, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and the list goes on. While they may be microscopic compared to their larger, richer cousins in, say, Andover and Exeter, these shoestring operations are where the action is in the developing world.
How can the international community support slum schools? One way is for microfinance institutions to reach out to private school owners by providing small loans to help them upgrade facilities. Since these businesses are operating on a quasi-legal basis, owners have little hope of getting a traditional bank loan. Another possibility would be offering school vouchers—always a hot topic in American domestic politics—so that poor families can give their kids a better education.
About a year ago, Blogger and Berkman Center fellow Ethan Zuckerman was invited by the editors of a respected technology journal to write an essay about the One Laptop Per Child initiative, a hot topic again at this year's Davos meeting. Zuckerman went through several drafts with his editor at the journal. "But then the managing editor of the journal got hold of the piece," Zuckerman writes. And this is what happened:
I got a draft back that bore very little resemblance to what I'd written - it was filled with international development clichés ('In a world where half the world has never made a phonecall, does it make sense to give children a laptop?') and mean-spirited skepticism about the project ('if the laptops overheat, poor people can use them as pot warmers'.)"
Zuckerman rightly pulled this piece because it didn't reflect his views. But his experience raises an important point:
Even had I approved the last edit of the piece, it would have taken another couple of months to get through peer review and into print, possibly nine months from my first draft to publication. And this isn't even that bad - I have a book chapter waiting for publication which is now over a year old - when I wrote it, it had up-to-date statistics regarding developing world weblogs. By the time it's published, it will only be interesting as a historical document - not a single figure will be within an order of magnitude of accuracy."
In an age when everything from genetic science to foreign policy changes so quickly, can peer reviewed academic journals be relevant?
By any standards, the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is extravagant. The school's 152 female students enjoy a campus that ranges over 22 acres and 28 buildings. Living quarters include oversize rooms with 5-star hotel quality linens, a yoga studio, a beauty salon, indoor and outdoor theaters, hundreds of pieces of original artwork, and other lavish amenities. None of this would be all that surprising were the newly opened academy found in Connecticut's wealthy suburbs. But it's not. It's located 40 miles outside Johannesburg, South Africa.
And that means Oprah has been taking some heat. Some detractors don't like her extravagance. "It is hard not to see that many feel that what Ms. Winfrey is doing is too much," one anonymous South African school official quipped. Others think Oprah's money could have been better spent in the U.S. That argument has always struck me as short sighted. I'm from Omaha, where I constantly hear people whispering quietly that billionaire Warren Buffet does a lot of good for the world through his charity, but he doesn't do much for Omaha. So what? Shouldn't there be a distribution of resources in philanthropy? What's wrong with the mega-rich focusing on global issues and the just-a-little-rich focusing their efforts closer to home?
For the most part, though, even Oprah's critics have been willing to thank her for her charity and move on. That is, until she dared to respond with these comments:
If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education. I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."
Now, just like comedian Bill Cosby before her, Oprah finds herself under friendly fire from the African American community. "Oh, no, she didn't," blasted Eugene Robinson in today's WaPo. Robinson is right to argue that materialism is an American problem, not just an issue in American inner-cities and their minority communities.
The better critique of Oprah's charity, though, is to ask whether she is doing the most good she can with the money she spends. The poor need a lot of things, but schools with beauty salons? I have no doubt that one $40 million super-school will do a lot of good in South Africa. But wouldn't four $10 million schools do more?
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made good on his campaign promises for a more robust and muscular Japan. His conservative government passed a bill to teach patriotism in schools and to elevate the Defense Agency to a full-fledged ministry for the first time since World War II.
The new policy is not without its detractors, though. Opposition parties to Abe's left have filed no-confidence motions against members of his cabinet. Still, it will be interesting to see how Japan's increasing assertiveness will play out on the global stage, given its recent strong stance against North Korea's nuclear testing and its jostling for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. And also, what will it mean for Japan's controversial textbooks?
The Chinese government has just announced a new $1 billion plan to provide free education to 150 million rural children. Their schooling has been ostensibly free for decades, but fees are often introduced by local authorities, leaving cash-strapped parents unable to pay. (Fees average $18 a child in rural areas, where the average income is approximately $367).
The primary motivation behind the plan is to narrow the ever-widening gap between wealthy, urban Chinese and their poorer, rural fellow citizens. Education is one of the top financial burdens for rural families, who have been largely left behind in China's economic boom.
Higher spending on education is just one of several initiatives, including more and better rural healthcare, that the government has promised to deliver in response to growing rural unrest. Whether it's enough to stop the riots that seem to be occuring more and more across the countryside remains to be seen. Ironically, one group of children is excluded from the new education plan: The children of the millions of rural families who have flocked to China's booming cities in recent years.
Word leaked out this week on the list of contenders for one of the most influential jobs in the world: president of Harvard University. The Good Ship Harvard has been steered by interim president Derek Bok since the controversial Larry Summers stepped down in June. Summers, who was also Bill Clinton's final treasury secretary, argued in FP two years ago that "unless it is brought under control, the U.S. savings crisis will soon be the world's problem"—a case that has only become stronger since 2004.
As can be expected, Harvard's "short" list of 30 names to replace Summers includes a number of big shots, many of them potentates at other major research institutions. Some prominent names: Columbia's Lee Bollinger, Penn's Amy Gutmann, and Nobel Prize winner Thomas R. Cech.
Also on the list, according to the Crimson's source: Jessica Tuchman Matthews, who happens to be president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, publisher of FP.
The French have always been gung-ho about preserving their unique history and identity. They are now, perhaps, taking it just a little bit too far. The country's governing party, UMP, is proposing that wine classes should be introduced into French schools, which would teach the "history and qualities of various types of French wine." The French wine industry has been hit hard by competition overseas and decrease in domestic consumption. The government argues, therefore, that in order "to hold a forceful position in the world, French wine must first assume a strong position at home." What's next? Cheese classes?
Stephen Colbert interviews 2003 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Peter Agre:
Colbert: You said 'anyone who grew up on a farm knows that evolution exists'. Ok, are you saying a monkey can milk a cow?
Agre: Well, if I can milk a cow I suspect a monkey as smart as I am can milk a cow.
Colbert: Are there monkeys as smart as you?
Agre: I'm sure there are quite a few, quite a few.
Colbert: Oh really? mmhum. Do they give a Nobel prize for thowing your own feces?
Agre: ........That's the Economics prize, I think.
Hat Tip: Greg Mankiw
Ban Ki-moon, Roger Ebert, Ghazi al-Yawar... What do these people have in common? They were all trained in universities that top this week's FP List of the Ivy League of the developing world. It seems that institutions that produce influential international figures are not only restricted to those in North America and Europe. Watch out, Harvard.
Libya has reportedly reached an agreement with the American nonprofit organization, One Laptop per Child, to provide all of its 1.2 million schoolchildren with inexpensive laptop computers. The foldable, lime green $100 laptop, which, has the support of the UN Development Program, was developed by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte a year ago. The idea grew out of his experience in rural Cambodia, where after giving children Internet-connected laptops, their first English word was "Google." (Hmm, is that actually a positive effect of the attempt to bridge the digital divide?)
In return for its $250 million investment, Libya will get one server per school, a team of technical advisers, satellite internet service and other infrastructure. Scheduled to be completed in June 2008, the project could make Libya the first nation in which all school-age children are connected to the Internet through educational computers. Looks like Moammar Gadhafi is making good on his agenda to open Libyan society.
Google is at it again. This time it's all set to revolutionize the world of philanthropy with Google.org, its for-profit charitable arm that, with $1 billion in seed money, is out to tackle global poverty, protect the environment, and spur energy innovations. So, how does Google aim to achieve these ambitious goals? One NGO, Planet Read, one of Google's first grant recipients, offers a look at how Google would go about it.
There has been much ado in the press about India's highly–educated, English-speaking workforce stealing white-collar American jobs. But that attention masks the fact that almost 50 percent of India is without access to literacy programs. Planet Read, created by Biju Kothari, aims to change all that. By combining televised Bollywood song and dance routines (the infatuation of millions of Indians) with karaoke-style subtitling, Kothari hopes that people who ordinarily have no reading practice will follow the words as they watch and sing along.
On the Google blog last year, Kothari wrote:
More than 500 million people in India have access to TV and 40 percent of these viewers have low literacy skills and are poor. Through PlanetRead's approach, over 200 million early-literates in India are getting weekly reading practice from Same Language Subtitling (SLS) using TV. The cost of SLS? Every U.S. dollar covers regular reading for 10,000 people – for a year.
Chicago staged a mock terror drill Thursday, with thousands of downtown office workers filing out of office buildings in response to a simulated attack. Ex-Illinois Governor George Ryan must have hoped that this week's events were all part of a staged play, too. He was sentenced Wednesday to six years in jail for racketeering and fraud.
Even on this beautiful summer's day, it is hard to be overly optimistic in Washington right now. The Marines are calling up reservists for combat duty, the Middle East seems to be going to hell in a handcart, and respected economists are predicting the imminent bankruptcy of the United States. Little wonder then, that more than two thirds of voters say the country is on the wrong track. But there is a reason for Americans to be cheerful: Their universities.
A ranking of the top 100 global universities in Newsweek International demonstrates just how dominant America is in the higher-ed field. Eight of the top 10 schools are in the States, as are 15 of the top 20. One state, California, has as many top 20 entrants as every foreign country combined. The only thing more dominant than America is the Anglosphere, which occupies the first 15 spots on the list and boasts 23 of the top 25 schools.
When you consider how universities drive the knowledge economy, this ranking should cheer up even the most determined Eeyores amongst you. Equally, Europeans should be distressed by the results. If you exclude the United Kingdom, the highest ranked EU university is 43rd—directly below Canada's McGill University. As an op-ed in the FT this morning points out, if Europe doesn't reverse this situation, "it can expect a slow but inexorable erosion of the basis of its prosperity."
Hat Tip: Norm
On Saturday night I picked up a friend of mine at New York's JFK Airport. He's a Canadian citizen who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. When I met him at the airport, he spent a good 30 minutes giving me a tongue lashing over America's "Soviet-style tactics" of photographing and fingerprinting foreign tourists as they come into the country. I had some sympathy for his gripes. I was dubious of the "US-VISIT" program when it was announced.
But, four weeks out from the fifth anniversary of 9/11, news that 11 Egyptian men are "missing" in the United States makes me wonder if there isn't some wisdom in the program. The men were admitted into the U.S. 10 days ago to study language and other subjects in Bozeman, Montana. But they never showed up for classes. FBI spokesman Special Agent Richard Kolko released the following statement around 5:30 p.m. last night:
The FBI, in conjunction with our ICE partners at DHS, issued a BOLO (be-on-the-lookout) for eleven Egyptian students that arrived in the U.S. at JFK Airport on July 29, 2006. The FBI and ICE would like to locate these eleven students in order to speak with them. At this point all they have done is not show up for a scheduled academic program and their student visas have been revoked. We do not know of any association with any terrorist or criminal groups. There is no threat associated with these men. We have simply asked law enforcement’s assistance in locating them so that the FBI and ICE may interview them. If anyone has information on their whereabouts, they are requested to contact the FBI or ICE.
India's education ministry has decided to opt out of an MIT-inspired initiative to provide $100 laptops to school children across the developing world. Calling the plan "pedagogically suspect", India's Ministry of Human Resources Development determined that its money could be better spent on badly needed classrooms and teachers than on the impact-resistant, colorful machines designed to bring computer literacy, Internet access, and educational materials to kids in remote and underserved areas.
The decision doesn't spell the end of the initiative - Nigeria has already signed up to buy 1 million of the gadgets - but it is certainly a challenge for the One Laptop Per Child campaign, which kicked off at Davos in January 2005. India was a potentially huge market, and the computers won't go into production until at least 5 million orders are received. Be sure to check out this article in Wired about how the computers were designed with developing-world constraints in mind: impervious to dust, extra-long battery life, and able to network with other computers up to 10 miles away.
As far as global jetsetters go, the name Margaret Spellings doesn't exactly spring to mind. Yet jet-setting is exactly what the secretary of education has been doing. Spellings (perhaps the best-named education secretary EVER) has hit 9 countries in the past 18 months, with two more (Greece and Spain) in the coming weeks. She says that she needs to be able to see what's happening in the education systems of U.S. competitors, as well as where foreign aid is going. Maybe she's been reading FP? In the May/June issue of the magazine, Doug McGray writes about how American schoolkids are sadly ig'nunt about the rest of the world. Her critics say that she's wasting taxpayers' money, but frankly, I think that anytime a Bush administration member leaves the country to learn about others, it's a good thing. Still, if competitiveness is what she's worried about, how come she hasn't visited India or China?
I have a two and a half year-old niece who is obsessed with Dora the Explorer. Actually, obsessed isn't nearly strong enough of a word. I'm convinced nothing short of a rigorous regimen of methadone treatments could wean her off of the Dora narcotic. But apparently Dora the Explorer is old news for some toddlers, like three-year-old Henry Schally, of St. Paul, Minnesota, who prefers to watch The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Yes. The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.
At Henry's most recent birthday party, the cake was decorated with a photo of the newshour cast, the partygoers wore Jim Lehrer party hats, and the prize gift was an autographed photo of "Jimmy Jimmy BoBo" (that’s “Jim Lehrer” in three-year-old speak). Don't miss the video on WCCO's website. Here's my question. What kind of gift do you bring to a Newshour-themed birthday bash? The 9/11 Commission Report? An American flag bow tie? I'm thinking a 2-year subscription to FP would go over quite well.
I have plenty of issues with Microsoft and Bill Gates: a general dislike for his necessary but dysfunctional software that I use every day, and an annoyance at some of his strong-armed business tactics. But the Microsoft founder just announced that in two years he's going to step down from a day-to-day role at his company and devote himself full-time to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
That's good news for those working to improve global health and education. It wasn't that many years ago that people accused Gates of not contributing to society with philanthropy, even though he's the richest man in the world. To his credit, Gates has certainly more than stepped up to the challenge. His foundations have donated more than $6 billion to the eradication of neglected diseases, as Erika Check describes in her story "Quest for the Cure" in the upcoming issue of FP. Some scientists, who can't get funding from pharmaceutical companies or governments, are using Gates's money in very creative ways to get medications to those who need it the most. It's good to hear that Gates will spend his twilight years focusing on these issues 24-7.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.