Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Give One. Get One.

This is an interesting idea that just came my way. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet, but I wanted to share the information.

It's a philanthropy project titled "Give One. Get One." You buy a $399 laptop computer, and they donate one to a child in a 3rd world country. Actually, you donate a laptop to a child in a 3rd world country, and they'll give you another one for yourself for free. The deadline for purchase/donation is December 31st.

It's an interesting idea. Here's the link.

I am definitely intrigued by the concept. On the outset, it seems like a wonderful philanthropy project. The mission is an important one---"to empower the children of developing countries to learn"---but the method---"by providing one connected laptop to every school-age child" may or may not be flawed. I'm certainly not poo-pooing the idea, I just have some questions and I'm not yet finding the answers.

My most important concern is whether or not the method will actually achieve the goal. Will these laptops empower school-age children around the world? particularly children in impoverished countries where there's not even running water let alone electricity and batteries to operate laptops? Or are there better, more cost-efficient, more intelligent, and culturally-appropriate ways to achieve the same goal? And how does this method translate across the globe? Clearly a laptop donation will be viewed differently depending on where you live. Not all cultural groups are going to view the device, the technology, the gift, in the same way.

You might guess, and hope, that the wonderful people who put this project together have already thought about my question. It is a seriously impressive team of researchers, techies, academicians, and such, from respected institutions like MIT and Harvard. However, well-intentioned, intelligent, thoughtful people have made such mistakes before.

I remember a story told to me when I was a graduate student in anthropology. My advisor, let's call her LA, had done her PhD field research in anthropology in Zambia. In the small farming community where she did her research, an international development aid agency had decided to help local farmers increase their crop production. This aid agency was filled with intelligent, thoughtful, well-educated, do-gooders. They weren't stupid, and they had the alphabet soup after their names to prove it. And importantly, they were well-intentioned. They believed that if they helped this community improve their crop yield that less people would starve. Greater crop production equals more food and more money.

It was a good goal. But their method? Well, their method was a bit flawed.

What did they do?

They donated tractors. Large pieces of machinery designed to help farmers tend their fields.

What LA observed over the two years she lived there, was that these tractors were virtually never used in the fields. Instead, they were being used as taxicabs. Yep, big old, gas-guzzling, expensive tractors were being used to transport people from point A to point B. And the farmers/taxi drivers who were driving the tractors were charging their passengers a fare to do it. Apparently, the local people thought this was better use of the equipment than using the tractors in their fields. And I'm sure they believed this was a better income-generator, or at least knew that it was a more immediate income generator than waiting until harvest for some extra crops and cash.

My point is that we may be intelligent. We may be educated. We may believe we are doing a good thing. But sometimes our Western ideas do not translate well in other places.

This may be the case with the laptops. But it may not be. I'm hoping it's not.

In any case, these are some interesting laptops. Check them out here.


the dragonfly said...

I've heard stories like that, too. Hopefully these questions have been addressed, because at the heart of it it really is a good idea.

Family Adventure said...

I have to laugh at tractors being used as taxicabs... :)

Clearly, the intention -- behind the tractors as well as this laptop idea -- is a good one. But you have to look into it more to find out how thought through this particular idea is.

I do think that one way to promote philanthropy is through campaigns like this -- it is a way to introduce a totally new consumer group to the idea of 'giving'.

And even though there's been misses in the past (ex. the tractors), that shouldn't prevent us from trying again.

Ecellent post.


Mary Alice said...

I am must admit, I was annoyed for an entire day after I first read the news about this laptop project last month. I think it is absolutely ridiculous and the underlying concept is to create more consumers -while warming the misguided do- gooding gifters who can't think in broad enough terms to think their way out of a paper bag. Bahh.

Candy said...

I think I agree with your reasoning. Is this the story that was on 60 Minutes Sunday? I only heard a small portion of it at the time.

Who's to say that there is internet connection in these areas. And really, how much good would it serve them if it was a bare bones laptop with Microsoft Word and Solitaire on it? Although I guess Mine Sweeper could be a useful exercise in some places...

I think the Heifer International people might have a better idea. At least you know that will get used by someone.

Marie said...

I live in urban Albuquerque, NM, in a rough neighborhood. They don't believe in computers here. If you gave one of my neighbor kids a laptop, they'd either sell it for drugs or use it as a booster seat.

Sue said...

Thought provoking. This kind of selective cultural blindness is so unfortunate. Anytime you see people banding together to really try to make a difference, it's a good thing, you just hate to think some of that time may be wasted.

I'm friends with some people who do a lot of work in Kenya building schools. These laptops would be useless for them. The kinds of schools most children attend have dirt floors and tin rooves and no doors and DEFINITELY no electricity. I watched a slide show of the schools, and they showed us a huge stack of second hand computers that had been donated by a public school system in Utah, that were just stacked against one of the wooden walls, blocking out the wind. A very well meaning but completely useless gift.

As you said, I hope they are SAYING laptops, but in reality, giving a gift that makes sense for the area, that has the same monetary value.

I love Heifer too, but my pet charity has always been anti-malaria projects. It kills me to think that millions of children are still dying for lack of a mosquito net.

Mrs. G. said...

This is a great post! Sixty minutes did a fantastic segment on the man behind this mission--I'm sure it's available on You Tube. I was mighty impressed with his vision. Sadly, his goal is being thwarted by other comments trying to grab a piece of this international pie and profit from selling their own version of the lap top.

Crystal said...

Very interesting. I have all the same doubts about this as you do. While the need for a laptop might exist, the need for medicine, food, clean water, clothing and animals are probably more realistic.
I like this post.

Jenny from Chicago said...

Great post. It is incumbent on all of us to be more than just "well-intentioned" in our charitable giving.

Family Adventure said...

Hi again!

I was looking through your other comments, and it is really interesting to see how many different POVs there are! Obviously you hit a nerve.

There's different types of needs...there's the absolute basic survival needs that need to be addressed by other measures.

But there's also millions of people who have enough to scrape by, but who can never get ahead in life because they are unable to afford the necessary tools - and in such cases a laptop can make a huge difference.

I also still believe that there are people out there who are never going to get involved in philanthrophy without initiatives such as this one. I just hope it actually does the good that those behind it clearly want it to do.

OK -- I'm done. Promise.