Sunday, December 30, 2007

Technology, Culture, and Development

The debate over Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) reinforces my belief that few of us willingly recognize that technology alone can never be an answer for anything. Technology works within cultural and need contexts and not by itself. That is, it has to address perceived need and to operate within a milieu of cultural acceptance. Only then can it to be of use.

There are people I know who would be insulted, were I to go out and buy for them a new flat-screen TV—not because they wouldn't appreciate the idea of a gift, but because they believe that a friend should recognize that such a TV is not part of what they want as their lifestyle. Most of us have learned to respect such individual differences, even if we can't imagine not getting our daily does of The News Hour. Yet, for some reason, we are not willing to allow difference and choice outside of our own cultural context.

Yes, few of us are willing to extend the same courtesy we give to individual friends to other cultures... especially if those cultures are poorer or less developed than our own. We hold an assumption that our wealth and technical skill provides us with knowledge about what other people should want or should do. In addition, we would never say to the friend appalled at the TV set we've brought over, “Just keep it; it can't hurt,” yet I have heard many say exactly the same thing about the OLPC computers.

Anytime we wish to work with someone to improve their life, we need to start with a number of basics. First, we need to make sure we are dealing with each situation individually, not claiming that one size can fit all. Second, we have to make sure that the person wants our help. Not everyone, even in the direst of need, does. Third, we have to work with the person we are helping in making decisions about the aid. Fourth, we need to follow their lead when the actual activity starts.

The same process needs to hold true for development. Yes, it can be frustrating to “know” what may be good for someone else or some other culture, but (just as we have learned in our personal lives) forcing something on someone never really works.

A friend of mine, when we were in Peace Corps, wanted to give a gift to a family she had stayed with. Their home seemed barren, so she bought them something to brighten it up. The parents, when she gave it to them, reacted almost angrily. They knew how much the item cost, and what they could have done with that much money. They saw the gift, though well-meant, as a waste... for indoor decorations had never been part of their culture, where the rooms of a house are for sleeping and the real life takes place in the courtyard. My friend had not yet learned that. She didn't yet know enough either about how the people lived or about their gift-giving tradition (gifts are usually simply of money, of food, or of service) to “give” appropriately.

Before Christmas, my girlfriend picked out a letter to Santa from the Post Office in Manhattan. It requested clothing for four children. We bought things in the requested sizes and delivered them, staying for half an hour, drinking juice and chatting. There was no awkwardness, though the mother spoke very little English; the items had been requested (and the request had been the family's idea) and we were merely providing what was asked.. Still, we were not simply the unquestioning deliverers: All of the articles of clothing were things we and the family would all agree were needed by the children.

OLPC, on the other hand, may really be a gift not asked for and not wanted.

My problem with the OLPC project has nothing to do with the technology itself, though I do question the advisability of making a version of anything specifically to be used to “give” to poor people. Sure, there should be cheap computers, but make them cheap and useful for everyone, with no distinction between the one I might buy and the one you might give away. That aside, my real problem with OLPC is that the “need” it addresses is not one expressed by the people it is meant to “help.” It is a “need” discovered in the think tanks and universities of the developed world.

Furthermore, OLPC is constructed as a “mass” product, one design being “effective” in all cultural situations on all continents. But cultures are as different as individuals, and products “for” them need to take into account the particulars of each situation. Cell phones and other products already incorporate cultural differences. Why not OLPC?

The supporters of OLPC assume that anyone would want the product. Why not? They want it themselves and are delighted as they play with the commercial version that has recently become available. But, were they to look beyond their own desires, they might find it is not quite so wanted everywhere. Unlike a cell phone, this laptop, though very small, is not easily hidden. Though its $200 price tag may seem small to us, it is not, everywhere. Ownership of such an item brings with it responsibilities—ones that a particular individual may not want to take on.

There are other reasons why people in certain areas might not want the laptops, seeing them not as “help” but as items tying them in to a monetary economy. Perhaps political reasons will keep them from wanting the laptops. Whatever. The decision should be theirs to make, not ours to assume.

Even if a product can be made that fits specific needs and is wanted by the people of that culture, one really does have to spend time with the people of the culture on crafting the product so that it will actually be used. So that it won't become just another in a long series of doorstops (assuming its in a culture with doors). In development situations, what the aid worker brings is knowledge of the technology and of the developed world. What she or he does not have going in is an understanding of how the technology might meld with the particular culture. That takes time, and takes being on the ground.

To succeed, such a product cannot be introduced massively. It needs to expand as its use by people in the particular culture expands. The OLPC is meant as a classroom product. Yet it won't work well if simply distributed to schools. Giving one (after determining that people want it, after customizing it to the particular culture) to each classroom rather than to each student, then assessing—with the teachers, the parents, and the school's administrators—its impact before introducing more... constantly watching what is done with the laptop, constantly listening to all the people involved... that's how to make something like this work.

If, again, it is wanted.

In most places of extreme poverty, there's no infrastructure for making something like OLPC work, and it really would not be wanted. It would be received with the attitude of the family my Peace Corps friend visited.

A student of mine recently visited the “campo” in the Dominican Republic where her father had grown up. She describes the local school:

the windows and doors were broken and the paint was chipping off. When I went inside it looked even worse. The classrooms were crowded. There weren't enough desks and the blackboards were so small. I even heard some of the kids saying that they were going to get to school early the next day just to get to one of the few desks that are in good condition. Some of the kids had no shoes on and their uniforms looked faded and some of them even had outgrown their uniforms.

No computers will solve the problems of that school.

In fact, they could hurt. How would the computers be protected? Few schools in impoverished areas have any security at all. Collateral damage to the schools coming with theft could destroy what little there is of them in the first place. Would , instead, they be distributed to the students to take home? “Home,” in areas of poverty, is no place of security. And what would the student's responsibility be if the laptop were stolen? Just give her another, and you may simply be starting a conduit onto the black market. Make him pay, and you might bankrupt the family.

More important than the OLPC project itself is the larger attitude towards development that its proponents express. Having spoken (until recently) only to those with development experience about development issues, I was shocked to find how naïve the majority of even well-educated Americans are about it. Most of us assume that the arrival of goods and food and tools—along with the people to “teach” how to use them—is all that is needed for successful development. We tend to forget that poor people are not stupid or unable, but are generally in traps they haven't ways out of. They may have moved to a city, having heard of plentiful jobs—only to find nothing for them and no one wanting them. They may have farmed the same land for generations, but now desertification is overtaking their fields, forcing them to buy fertilizer (among other things) that once they didn't need, pushing them over the line from sustainability to poverty. For the worker, what is needed is an economy that provides both work and a sense of a future with work. For the farmer, what is needed is means of improving efficiency without increasing debt. In both cases, needs extend well beyond what a laptop can do.

Development works, if its projects are designed on the ground and within a stable political situation (though that's another topic for another time). It does not help, however, to have people from far away, no matter how well-meaning, deciding what is needed.

It also doesn't help to institute projects that require extensive outside funding. The problems of corruption, for one thing, can hinder this project just as they have so many others—and these problems are as real as they are pernicious, sometimes making the project more damaging than helpful. But that, too, is another topic for another time.

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