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One Laptop per Child – one big waste of time?

29 Apr

one laptop per child cartoonThe One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative was geared at children in “developing countries” when it was introduced in 2005 as the $100 Laptop. Its key design features were that it required little power and was enclosed to prevent water, sand or dirt damage also giving it a toy-like feel so not to appear too intimidating to a child who has never come across a computer before.

It has made us question what place technology has in global development efforts. Four years on, environmental historian Benjamin Cohen points out some of the ‘snags’ of the $100 laptop, which include:

  • Issues with actual cost (the $100 laptop is no longer called that, because it costs $200?)
  • Political and governmental resistance from countries to whom OLPC seeks to send the laptops. (In two cases, Nigeria and Brazil had been seeking local laptops, not imported, but other countries have presented other kinds of resistance.)
  • Businesses, such as Intel, who would like to make their own inexpensive laptop (the Intel classmate)
  • Grumblings from consumers of wealthy nations (“we want a cheap laptop too!”)
  • Education (what value are laptops when you don’t have pencils? or a teacher?)
  • Countries who have ordered in volume have experienced some measure of delays getting the devices.


See Cohen’s follow-up here.

But India placed an order this week for 250,000 of the OLPC machines for distribution to around 1,500 schools – a U-turn decision after the Indian government publicly rejected it OLPC as “paedagogically suspect” back in 2006, when the Education Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee, wrote:

“We cannot visualize a situation for decades when we can go beyond the pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools.”

Is this a move that reinforces the notion that India is at the forefront of the globalisation process? Either way it will give the boost that OLPC needs, who has lost key members through resignation and been forced to cut staff.


Sex education software in Nigeria

4 Apr

Learning About Living (LAL) is a new media project in Nigerian schools helping young people to combat ignorance on issues around sexual health, HIV and AIDS, maternal morbidity and gender violence, based on the Nigerian Family Life and HIV/AIDS Education (FLHE) curriculum. It has been running for over two years now.

Funding for the Learning about Living pilot is mainly from the West: Oxfam Novib, Netherlands, MacArthur Foundation USA, Butterfly Works and Finalist IT Group, Netherlands so there is likely to be an element of Western influence over the content of the software (which is made to be compatible with Intel classmate laptops and also the One Laptop per Child device.

The idea behind it is that young characters on the computer screen become the ‘peer educators’ in classrooms that you then discuss in class exercises. 

Sensitive topics

One of the main reasons such a learning tool is needed in Nigerian schools is because young people and parents find it difficult to talk about sexual topics openly in Nigerian culture. This could potentially lead to generations of miseducation regarding sexually transmitted infections.

Professor Bene Madunago of the Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) which is also in collaboration with LAL said that even teachers themselves were not comfortable with talking about subjects such as HIV/AIDs.

The programme follows Nigerian culture and it initiates discussions about sex, but it is important that it only accompanies teaching rather than replaces it, as not talking about sexual relationships face-to-face may become the norm and could be a dangerous thing if health education on sensitive subjects was solely dependent on computers that replace human contact.


It is a largely decontralised approach that can seem less orderly to an authoritarian-style teacher for example. so they have to adapt as well as the students.

LAL explores myths

The problem with these programmes is that student assessment and feedback can be fairly limited and bandwidth limitations mean you cannot necessarily develop them any further.

Apart from a short quiz after every section of information, there is not actually a way of monitoring whether students are taking any of the information in.

I went through one of the lessons online on HIV and AIDs. In effect it did feel like I was reading a health leaflet but with some colourful images accompanied, but information was very simple and clear. It also promotes abstinence which can be dangerous if ‘fidelity’ is the only thing you’re relying on for STI prevention, however it does offer advice for young people who don’t choose abstinence.

The interactive test is interesting as it explores the myths surrounding HIV as well as the facts – have a go here.

On the whole it also allows teenagers to ask questions online, discretly which they would never have done out loud in the classroom. The online service has had a good response indicating the need for it. Perhaps there is a need for more consultation with young people and parents to establish their information needs.

Sustainability in Katine

24 Mar

Sustainability is an important issue in international development journalism and one which has been the issue of sceptics of the Guardian’s Katine project. Freelance journalist Eliza Anyangwe questioned whether, despite, being exciting and able to make a difference, a short-term project like this £2.5m initiative is actually a good idea…

“That per capita investment would produce higher agricultural yields, better healthcare, more enrolments in school and better rural governance anywhere in the world. But what happens in the years after the project? Who will be able to afford the high-yield seeds and who will provide books for schools or train teachers? What becomes of the villagers of Katine then?

It makes me wonder if Katine is an example of recklessness or a good project that shares a universal characteristic with other development projects: they tend to leave a bitter aftertaste.”

She suggests “short-sightedness” in development means that issues, such as education and health, will not get the long-term attention they require. She also raised concerns that those trained by the project will move to the Uganda capital, Kampala.

One of my previous posts looked at some of the problems the Guardian faced, especially in working with NGO Amref. Based on that, anything more than three years would seem quite challenging. Project Katine must build foundations that won’t crumble once the project is over.

It depends whether you think you’re being negative when criticising the project. Once the three-years are over you can fear that the “positive results of these projects will soon erode” or can think that some changes are inevitable in a region like Katine, and the positive has not eroded – but is just evolving to suit the needs of that area. The end of the project doesn’t necessarily mean fail.

But Katine may have helped to change attitudes, but without the funding, Anyangwe does have a point.

Read the full piece in the Katine Chronicles Blog.

Soap operas with soul

12 Mar

Development and health campaigns always face the challenge of firstly, getting their message out to target audiences, and then sustaining that message. But what if there was a method where you could educate people indirectly?

The UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID) helps fund soap operas, dubbed ‘edutainment’ in developing countries in Africa and South Asia.


Makutano Junction is a Kenyan-produced soap also shown in Uganda and Tanzania featuring a fictional village. Every episode, broadcast in English, is watched by around seven million Kenyans, of which 50% of television owners live in rural areas.

Described as “stories that touch your heart and maybe teach you something new” DFID say “hard hitting and realistic storylines” are what makes them have the success and popularity of British soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street from even the remotest of villages.

Storylines educate on topics including contraception, challenging corruption, malaria prevention through bednets, HIV and AIDS and giving women a voice in politics.

The soaps aim to kick off local conversation about some of the most serious health and development challenges that face the Global South.

In India, the series Jasoos Vijay aims to prevent AIDS and also change attitudes on the virus and HIV. Watched by 70 million Indians, figures show the mass audiences DFID have access to. There have also been moves to go beyond English and Hindi speakers, and the show is broadcast in Hindi and seven other regional languages. Throughout the fictional storylines are small intermissions, where experts give information on HIV prevention. It is vital as 5 million Indians are infected with HIV and AIDS and the social stigma of infection remains a factor in its spreading.


But Bollywood churns out more films than America, that are often based in imperialist ideals, where there are echos of Ritzer’s ‘Mcdonaldisation’ paradigm a lot of glamour involved in the clothes, music, houses and storylines – some of which are not relevant to audiences besides escapism and entertainment. It does make you wonder whether Bollywood should play an increasing role in ‘edutainment’.

Makutano Junction

Makutano Junction

Soap operas on the radio reach an even bigger audience than on the television. The Story Story radio programme is set in a Nigerian Marketplace and is recorded on location. Broadcast in English on 57 federal, state and independent partner stations as well as on the BBC World Service, which has also delivered extensive radio training to professionals in Nigeria. Versions have also been produced in the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba languages.

South Africa’s TV soap Soul City regularly reaches 16m people and has been running for over 15 years. It was originally set up by NGOs in 1994, but regular test screenings by producers to ensure they are real and relevant storylines to the audiences watching, where HIV prevention messages are central to its storylines.

It has been so successful that they are introducing a transition in to Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and encompassing radio shows, information booklets and a spin-off show for young children (Soul Buddyz). One episode which focused on domestic abuse brought in 180,000 calls to a women’s helpline while the programme was on air.

Makutano Junction offers weekly comic leaflets

Makutano Junction offers weekly comic leaflets


Matthew Krouse, arts editor of the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, has been following Soul City since the beginning and praises it for steering away from Western television exported to South Africa, despite being sceptical at first:

“We’re saturated with crap American TV at the moment, this never-never land of beautiful people and unrealistic lives. But here we have a gritty, realistic soap with a powerful message. It’s something we can really be proud of.”

These soaps are fairly sanctimonious and preachy and don’t necessarily offer a means to put this new thinking into practice. There is the danger that the messages are so indirect that they just blend into the notion of entertainment. Viewers and listeners are also very passive, so it does echo a top-down model.

There is still the problem that these messages cannot reach those who cannot afford to purchase television sets or radios.

However entertainment is an important strategy for development and it does seem practical for regions that have an aural tradition.

NGOs: The African Children’s Education Trust

5 Mar

Take a look at my interview from 2008 with David Stables , who runs an NGO from a tiny council flat not far from where I live in Leicester.

David Stables says NGOs must work within ways that are suitable for Africa

David Stables says NGOs must work within ways that are suitable for Africa

The African Children’s Education Trust (A-CET) is an NGO that takes a more participative approach with an “Ethiopians are the best people to help Ethiopia” attitude.

A-CET brings full-time education and training to thousands of land-mine victims, AIDS orphans and street children, of which 20% are disabled.

They particularly focus on vulnerable children, because culture and tradition still condemns them to exploitation and begging in many areas of Northeast Africa.

It has retained its independence through relying on private voluntary donations, receiving no lottery, corporate or government funding and has minimal overheads with no professional fund raising or consultancy fees, which enables 90% of donations to go directly to the children.

What steers this NGO towards a more horizontal approach to development is that it works in partnership with the Ethiopian Youth Educational Support (EYES), which is run by previous students of the trust. It’s been going for over a decade with this approach which I believe is quite progressive thinking for small NGO emerging in the 1990s.

You can watch their quick video here and catch my interview here – it’s from last year but would be an interesting case study to compare with more familiar NGOs.

The Guardian on Katine: Can it start with a village?

28 Feb

The Guardian’s ‘it starts with a village’ project in Katine, a rural sub-county in Uganda with a 25,000 population is halfway through its three-year duration.

The Guardian describes it as more than fundraising and tracks every stage on the website and through blogs and multimedia – successes and failures included, they claim. It is the only project in mainstream media that offers this level of transparency.


It has been working in partnership with NGO Farm Africa, Amref, Panos and is sponsored by Barclays. It does however make you question if it is a vehicle for corporate interests of the institutions who sponsor it. In 2007, Barclays already had around 180,000 market traders in Ghana linked into a micro-banking programme based on a traditional saving scheme run by local collectors. 

Poroject Katine has also been scrutinised because it only last for three-years – would it be a case of Western organisations putting in their penny’s worth (£2.5m worth to be exact) and then just leaving a region like Katine holding the baby once they’ve got all their stories – how sustainable will it be?

Can media do development?

Last month POLIS held a seminar to discuss whether the media can actually do development. Following this, Charlie Beckett said “the brutal answer from our seminar was ‘no, but it was worth trying’”…

It was clear from the evidence given by the Amref and Guardian staff at the seminar that this was an exhilarating, exhausting and ultimately unsatisfactory experience. They have another 18 months to go and everyone has learned lessons, much has been achieved, – but there was no sense that either party want to or could repeat the project.

amref quoteThe Guardian’s keenness to introduce new media technologies and take a participative, bottom-up approach was inevitably going to face some barriers as AMREF director Grace Mukasa voiced: “There is an oral tradition in rural Africa. You have to remember that these people may not be literate and may not have seen a computer before so it is hard to expect them to blog.”

Amref also said that coping with the expectations of the Guardian and working under the media spotlight was challenging. They were accused of not opening up to the media in the early stages.

Journalists Sarah Bosely and John Vidal also admitted that they had censored themselves, which is an ethical dilemma that many development journalists face. How well can you balance your duty as a journalist to report the truth without undermining a good project?

These ethical issues and pressures to support the project were also faced by Weekly Observer journalist Richard Kavuma, employed by the Guardian to cover Katine.

He said many Ugandan journalists saw it as “the poor of the North giving to the rich of the South” that would only benefit elites, but that other Ugandan media are increasingly reporting human realities that are often “unsexy” issues, giving people on the ground more of a voice.

And with the Guardian’s resources so heavily on Katine, does it compromise their coverage of other development stories? You can however take the view that covering one country intensely and in detail is much more effective than skimming over a number of them.

Archives of material

The Guardian has benefited from more traffic on the website, but of course any media organisation seeks this when covering development. But Katine is not just covering the development – it is executing the development with Amref. The Guardian admitted that they wanted to test to potential of their website and its ability to ‘crowd-source’ public knowledge around an issue.

The effort put in is evidently not for just online traffic however – Katine is an ambitious venture because it does not provide news grabbing headlines. It is ‘slow’ moving documenting everyday lives of a village which differs to sexier stories involving war, famine, AIDS or through the prism of a rock star celebrity – so it is unlikely to evoke revolutionary change. But it does provide a ‘human face’ rather than masses of statistics.

It has recorded a mass of useful information, video, blog and images and has made great attempts at development on a participatory level. It is an interesting experiment for the media and someone had to make the first dalliance..

New Media

See the Guardian’s use of new media technologies in development communication in this short video.

Independent moderator Rick Davies is monitoring the project and you can view his August 2008 report from his second visit here and Amref’s response here.

Projet Radio Madagascar: A ‘new’ model of development?

27 Feb
listening group
Radio is a widespread form of communication in Africa and was one of the first main technologies to be used for development communication in the continent.
Projet Radio on the island of Madagascar is a contemporary example of instigating ‘modern’ social change in rural communities using radio communication based in the Global South. These development projects have introduced a level of participatory involvement, distinguishing themselves from the modernisation development attempts of the early twentieth century – but how much are people on the ground actually involved? Is the West still using techniques that development communication supposedly moved away from decades ago?


Madagascar, which gained independence from French colonial rule in 1960, has not yet achieved any of its UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and is “off track” on gender equality and maternal heath. The island has a literacy rate of about 69%, but only 25% in rural areas so radio is a practical media technology.

projet radio statsSet up in 1999 as part of the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT), Project Radio broadcasts programmes which are distributed through working with 38 local stations, covering agriculture, healthcare, education and AIDS.

Indigenous communities assist Western journalists’ research though ‘listening groups’ enabling locals to share their experiences and establish their needs.

Culture barriers

Radios are given free to village ‘responsibles’ who head the groups, 68% of which are women. This empowerment gives women control over radio access. But this promotion of gender equality was also a practical decision because women are more likely to be in the village during daytime hours.

The Madagascan culture and tradition caused problems in the project’s early days according to director, Yvonne Orengo, who said listening groups could be “quite problematic due to the hierarchies and male dominance in the villages”.

Language is also a culture barrier when imposing Western models of journalism, but Projet Radio embraced the aural culture of the otherwise isolated Tulear and Fianarantsoa provinces before it launched its service and broadcasts in ‘easy to understand’ dialects like Antandroy and Antanosy.

Programmes giving advice on HIV and AIDS prevention also have to battle with the traditional Malagasy belief that such illnesses are caused by spirit possession, so horizontal contact with people on the ground floor is crucial.

Western model

The ALT is registered charity in England and although it does have a Malagasy branch, it is run from the UK and works with the notion that education can be “a single alleviating factor in a family’s ability to overcome the effects of poverty”. It has made positive contributions towards Madagascar’s MDGs and its participatory intention to empower indigenous populations cannot be denied.

Funded from various sources, including the European Commission, UNICEF and the British and American embassies, it enforces the idea that this is a Western ‘approved’ project working very much within what resonates the former ‘Modernisation’ model.

The format and content of the devised radio programmes is largely determined by Western partners and local radio stations, which also control the production and airing of principally ‘solution-orientated’ broadcasts.

NGOs and partners provide equipment to local radio stations on the condition that their programmes are broadcast and out outreach workers are trained to make programmes promoting their specialist topics, rather than training the radio broadcasters to produce programmes on unfamiliar subjects which makes us question To what extent are the programme themes actually taken from what people have said on the ground and what partners involved feel it should be.

More participation?

Projet Radio production studio in Ambovombe

Projet Radio production studio in Ambovombe

Most production members involved in the programmes are Malagasy, so local cultural nuances are identified and understood, but with a lack of producers who are actually trained journalists (Evans, 2002) and only 5% of listening groups actually involved in actual recordings, the participation element of ‘village voices’ can be minimal.

In some respects, Projet Radio is an evolved development initiative and can be seen as taking a participative and empowering approach, but it also shows that modernisation approaches are still present. With its practicalities, radio also comes with limitations – would ‘Projet Online’ allow for a wider perspective?