I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the term, “appropriate technology.” The term became a buzz word a while back in the realm of development and foreign aid. The principal behind it being that developing countries should be given technology that will mesh with their lifestyle and current state of development. Proponents of the theory would argue against giving undeveloped areas medical or educational aid which relied too heavily on electricity or consistent access to technology. This could include anything from x-ray machines to computer based learning tools.
Several years ago during a service project in India I saw remote villages that had benefited greatly from low tech borehole wells. The wells have no electronic parts and can be easily fixed with basic hand tools. They represent a project that would fall under the classification appropriate technology. Projects like this, and those that focus on soil reclamation and improved farming practices have provided significant improvement in peoples lives in a sustainable fashion. In the same village where I had seen the boreholes, I also saw the remnants of a failed electrification project. Several years back a centralized solar system had been installed to power basic electronic devices such as radios and lamps. After 6 months the battery had died, and without access to new acid or the electronics knowledge necessary, the equipment had been dismantled and was being used decoratively in the chief’s house. Ironically, I was visiting the village with a team from college who were installing a solar lighting system. At the time I secretly wondered whether our equipment would eventually be used aesthetically, but the time and effort I had invested in the project made it easy to ignore such thoughts. A year later I heard rumors that the solar systems were still in use, but to subsequent news I have not been privy. Overall, the experience lead me to question the practicality of technological projects in remote areas.
After returning home I began reading about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement. The organization was started by an MIT professor who wanted to bring computing to the children of the 3rd world. His idea was that by building a rugged laptop aimed at children, you would create a tech savvy population ready to utilize the technology necessary for development. The website featured many idyllic photos of children typing away on custom green laptops in the shadow of thatched mud huts. Aside from wanting to play with the laptops, which were admittedly pretty cool, I was skeptical. I simply could not imagine the laptops succeeding in places like the village I had visited in India. I thought the project was bound to confirm that those boring appropriate technology people were right.
Fast forward several years to today. I start the day as normal. This means waking up to no power and no water. That fine, I am prepared for this now and quickly wash down the bread I had baked the night before with the water I had presciently set aside. I journey to school where, in the half hour before classes start, I quickly outline my lectures for the day. In form 1 we are starting acids and bases, this means two things: first, an excursion to the supply room, and second, that I will end the day with acid burns from lack of protective equipment. Although the school is woefully ill equipped for labs, a smattering of grants and donations over the years has left the school with some surprising equipment. Recently, during an afternoon of snooping, I found a cabinet full of chemicals (most improperly labeled), a brand new electronic scale (without batteries), and a water deionizer (wrong type of plug). Luckily for me, though unfortunate for the students, the stash remains untouched, locked away in a room which the other teachers seem nervous to enter for fear they might break something. My sense of entitlement, fostered by a childhood and adolescent in America, leaves me with no such trepidation, and I frequently hunt down the keys and go searching for something to spice up my next lesson.
I have made it a goal to do at least one lab per class per week. Sometimes the lab is basic; last week I rigged up a water-alcohol solution over a candle to illustrate the principals of distillation. After some of the stunts I pulled in COOL Science (a science outreach club at Colorado College), the stuff I do now seems down right lamb. Amazingly though, the students are always a great audience. During the distillation demo I actually got cheers when the water started to boil. I know these kids cook at home so boiling water shouldn’t be too exciting. Perhaps it is because these kids never get demos at school. Except for a sedimentation demo I once saw a teacher do (he ingeniously used sand and a coke bottle), I have never seen another teacher do a demo. This is a shame, since with some improvising and a little ingenuity our basic supplies can make some passable educational demos.
Today I was hoping to find anything labeled acid or base, and if I’m lucky, something with a chemical formula and a stated concentration. I was in the back of the room, trying to hold my breath because I had just accidentally kicked a box full of unlabeled white powder, when I saw a box of with a green cord protruding. Through a crack in the box I saw a green bevel and I was filled with disbelief. Yes!; it was a box with 15 pristine OLPC green laptops. The first thing I did, after doing a kick ass acid-base demo with color changing indicators, was spend the day playing with the laptops.
The laptops got some things very right and some things very wrong. A linux variant is used which is smart, since due to the proliferation of pirated software in Malawi, every computer expends half its energy following the instructions of viruses and spyware. Another smart idea is the mesh network, which automatically creates an adhoc network between all OLPC laptops in range. This is great for doing activities and lessons between the computers. A feature which allows two people to work on the same document is quite fun. Jes and I’s collaboration quickly digressed into an exchange of dirty words that ended with a small food fight. Still, I think the feature holds promise for those who show a little more maturity. The biggest drawback of the laptops is that they are designed for primary school aged children. This is a problem for two reasons. First, young children in Malawi rank slightly above a goat in the social order, so are very unlikely to ever get their hands on the laptop. Second, the games and applications that come preloaded are of limited practical use for the secondary students or adults who are likely to have access to the laptop.
Access is the key issue here. I found the laptops buried in a supply room and judging from the dust on the box, they had been there for a while. I conspicuity took two laptops to the teacher room and started running loud attention grabbing programs. Within minutes every teacher was huddled behind my desk, taking excitedly about the laptops. Most teachers had never seen the laptops before and expressed disbelief that I had found them in the supply room. This is nothing new, I often hear the head science teacher exclaim, “oh, we had that did we,” when I return from the supply room with some scientific contraption. Some veteran teachers (teachers who have been here more than 1 year), recalled with nostalgia when the laptops had arrived, but seemed unaware they still existed. Apparently after a short foray, they were stored away for safe keeping with every other useful item the school owns.
A week has passed now, and I have dutifully charge two laptops every night and delivered them to the teacher’s room every morning. After years of doing fundraising projects, I have a pet peeve for donor dollars going to waste. Someone shelled out a lot of money for the laptops, and until now, they might have invested in Chrysler for all the good it’s doing. Slowly the teachers have been cracking the green lids of the laptops and trying them out. Throughout the week, several teachers have asked whether they could take the laptops home. I made it clear that the computers did not belong to me, and encouraged them to check one out from the school. This is something the teachers are entirely free to do, but the moment I suggest entering the stockroom their interest fades. I don’t get it; the administration does nothing to discourage teachers from using supplies. The principal even mentioned she wished the teachers would better utilize the resources we do have. I got the first sign that my plan was working today when the computer teacher asked if he could use the laptops in class to illustrate networking. Because they don’t have MS Office he can’t use them in his normal lessons, so it might just be Jes and I for a while.
I took the laptops into my form 1 classes today as a treat for completing their physical science course work. After a stampede to the front of the room, the students were putting the term childproof to the test. I hadn’t until today appreciated the vocabulary that has evolved with the assimilation of the computer into everyday life. A quick instruction to use the mouse left kids furtively looking to the corners of the room for rodents. An instruction to click a button had half the class pushing on the screen. One kid sat in front of the computer, hands folded in his lab, giving verbal commands to no avail. Big cheers erupted when the students realized that moving their finger on the front of the laptop moved the curser. I honestly think moving the curser around would have amused most the class for the entire period. Needless to say the laptops were a big hit. I don’t think they can ever be used for education purposes, but as an introduction to computers use they are invaluable.
At the end of the day I am still asking myself if the computers are worth the money spent on them. The cost of the laptops was about $2300, enough to pay the tuition for 23 students for a year. Jes and I plan on using them occasionally, but I suspect that after we leave they will be relegated back to the stockroom. The computer teacher may use them to illustrate networking, but without commercial software, he can’t use them regularly in his classes. I am afraid that in the case of MCV the tech project has failed. In many ways the OPLC laptops at MCV illustrate why high-tech projects are so risky. The computer required charging, a difficult proposition with intermittent power, no converters, few plugs, and no power strips. The laptop design also failed to accommodate the population to which they were given. These inconveniences, combined with a lack of prerequisite computer knowledge, doomed the project and wasted thousands of dollars. This example would seem to demonstrate why appropriate technology should be embraced and high-tech projects dismissed. However, living in Malawi I have been exposed to a perspective which also should be given credence.
Please, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Malawian. If someone gave you a choice between a textbook and a laptop, what would you choose? The answer is simple, you would choose the laptop. It is more interesting, more novel, and unequivocally cooler. The Malawians’ choice, and their motivations, would be the same. Malawians want they same things as you or I. They want a developed economy, cars, computers, and advanced medical care.
The problem with appropriate technology is that you are giving people what they need, without advancing them towards a lifestyle that they want. You are making a judgment about what is best for the person. I think that Malawians should have a voice in the aid they receive. It is not the place of the 1st world to tell the 3rd that they should be happy with better crop yield and fresh water while forgoing the technological amenities we enjoy. In developed countries, I have noticed a tendency to idealize rural or village life. In magazines like Natural Geographic, large vibrant pictures of thatched huts and traditional garb convey a quant lifestyle. The subsistence lifestyle may be quaint, but it also has some very serious drawbacks. If people want to continue living traditionally, let them. However, those who desire a more modern life should also be supported.
A developed lifestyle doesn’t come from bore-hole wells; it comes from more radical investments in technology. Without crazy projects like OLPC, a computer movement will never begin, and people will be trapped in a way of life with inherent disadvantages. A perfect example is illustrated in the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. In Peru’s peasant populations, Paul Farmer treated multi-drug resistant tuberculosis with state-of-the-art medication, often spending tens of thousands of dollars per patient. At the time, the therapy was considered too expensive and impossible without access to 1st world medical facilities. Nearly all of Farmer’s patients responded to treatment, creating a paradigm shift in the field of tuberculosis care. The expensive drugs were certified for 3rd world application causing use to rise and prices to plummet. Farmer took a large risk and it paid off big. A similar but smaller risk was taken with the laptops at MCV. In the case of the laptops no benefit was realized, which begs the question, should the risk have been taken. It is impossible to answer such as question because one never knows what the outcome will be. All that is known for certain is that if enough projects are attempted, eventually one will succeed.
This is not an argument for high tech aid any more than it is an argument for appropriate technology. I personally think the two models of assistance need to go hand in hand. Dollar for dollar, the low tech stuff will always work better. I still believe the basics: food, water, health, and shelter need to come first. I am still skeptical of projects like OLPC. However, I also realize that the lifestyles people want will never transpire without higher risk projects. I believe that hardnosed pragmatism needs to be tempered with an acknowledgement of what people want from their lives. If people want development, and they do, the higher risk ventures are needed. Many projects like OLPC’s and Farmer’s will fail, but sometimes they will succeed, and when they do, they will do more to advance people’s quality of life than appropriate technology ever could.