On laptops and malnutrition

Here is a very interesting post from the OLPC news blog. It is written by a person working in Darfur and, as the publishing venue suggests, is addressing the One Laptop Per Child idea in the context of their work with refugees.

It reminded me of a a post i had a while ago about OLPC and the discussion that followed. Particularly it reminded me Nadia’s comment:

I don’t want to sound cynical, but IMHO kids in developing countries would benefit much more from improved health care than from laptops…

Nadia’s comment is not unique.  The common critique of the entire ICT4D idea is that there are basic needs, such as nutrition, health care, and literacy, to be addressed before the information technology can introduce any good.  Many times, I personally find it difficult to explain the importance of ICT in addressing these issues.  It is hard to talk about abstract concepts such as knowledge and human capital with an image of a hungry kid in the background.  I think this post provides some of the potential explanations in a better way that I could probably articulate:

This is not going to stop the fact that children are hungry, and if the extent of their malnutrition is such that they are developmentally challenged to the point that the XO is useless to them, then obviously alimentary relief is in order, but I would say that most of the malnutrition I have seen in my work in the Sahel comes from ignorance about balanced diet, and mismanagement of water resources (so you see toddlers eating only white rice, a water-hog of a crop grown in the desert). For this type of hunger and malnutrition to stop on a societal level it has to be learned and discovered, and shared throughout the community.

Coming from a person actually living this reality and working there, I think this observation has more authority than my academic debates.  Also I think the bottom line of the post captures the idea pretty well:

I think the XO, if distributed, deployed, and integrated properly into the educational and societal systems of developing countries, has a better shot than anything else I have seen to end hunger and poverty.

There are many “if”s in this statement, but I think it captures the essence.


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