OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone

Caught in a Ponzi scheme by Katie R
June 16, 2009, 1:44 am
Filed under: Rants and Raves

Well, maybe not exactly a Ponzi scheme…

Tuesday launched the new Center for Laptops and Learning here in Rwanda as well the initiation of the OLPCorps team. The launch included a day-long conference with all the pomp and circumstance that one might hope for to both maximize publicity and garner support from potential investors: OLPC country representatives from places where the government was supporting the project (Uruguay, Rwanda and Haiti); government officials from African countries (those that support the project, those whose motivations are purely political and a little misogynistic); Rwandan students who toted around and presented their XOs; even the president of Rwanda made an appearance (who seems to be a pretty legitimate champion for development and education for his country). Nicholas Negroponte, the CEO and a zealous champion of OLPC, was also there. The day, while defined by a packed schedule, consisted mainly of politicians fluffing themselves. Here are the key points that Katie and I took away from the session.

One laptop per child… not possible with 100 laptops given to the OLPCorps teams. It’s just not. So what is really the objective of OLPCorps?

Here’s where the Ponsi scheme part comes in… According to Negroponte, OLPCorps was designed with the main objective of, not improving educational opportunities for kids as I originally thought (or was led to believe), but instead igniting a grassroots movement in our respective African countries that inspires community members to call on their governments to join the OLPC bandwagon. In other words, Corps teams deploy 100 laptops to 100 children in a community with much more than 100 children. The community is exposed to the greatness of the XO laptop, those who don’t have laptops want them, and so the community puts pressure on the government to reform the education system, and spend 75% (this figure was an example given by one of the government officials at the conference) of the education budget on a bulk purchase of XO laptops for the country. So instead of improving education in our deployment communities (this would be only a minor objective/possible side effect of the program), OLPCorps teams are supposed to spark jealousy within the community, thus igniting the so called grassroots movement. Brilliant? Or an underhanded way of going behind the governments’ back?

Now, I don’t know exactly how grassroots movements ignite, but if this method were possible (i.e., citizens in several African countries calling upon their government to provide a useful tool), wouldn’t that have happened already with, for example, food, clean water, health care, or roads???

So that’s why there’s no plan for sustainability on OLPCorps side (i.e., tech support, more laptops/Corps teams next year in the same spots- do they really expect us to fundraise $18,000 to deploy 100 more laptops to our site??)… OLPCorps deployments are not supposed to be sustainable. They’re not even supposed to be successful on their own.

A final gem of the day, provided by Negroponte, was his response to a question about evaluation of laptop education projects, in order to provide some evidence-based recommendations for future deployments and to help convince governments who are considering XOs but might still be on the fence. “Laptops are like electricity,” Negroponte argues. “You don’t need to prove electricity.” Really Nick?


7 Comments so far
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Oh well, I was wrong then. I thought OLPCorps was a PR event, a kind of complex photo op to raise interest among donors in the US, yet I still had hope that the grassroots element would help local deployments, at least the very few that would connect with the XO/Sugar community at large so we could all work together. The grassrots/community thing got killed March 8th, and now this… Anyway, it would seem you got it right. Alas, there won’t be even that many jealous neighbors, once the fact that XOs serve no (practical) purpose becomes plain and the bush takes over… Hope you and your team the very best, hope you do prove me wrong when your deployment actually is relevant for something. Thank you for sharing, do keep us posted.

Comment by Yama Ploskonka

Hi Yama, I’d just like to point out that we think that the XOs themselves actually are practical and useful tools for kids. And I don’t think the grassroots/community part is quite dead yet, it’s just disappointing the way Negroponte is approaching the project…

Comment by Katie Robinette

I am sad that my first thoughts on OLPCorps seem to be proven by your post: http://www.olpcnews.com/people/volunteers/olpc_launches_olpcorps_africa.html

But while the leadership may be out of touch, I do hope you make the best of it and find the results that you desire to achieve.

Comment by Wayan

Hi Wayan,
Thanks for following our blog. I don’t know if this post proves all of your thoughts on OLPCorps, and after finishing the training in Kigali with the OLPCorps staff (which does not include Negroponte), I must admit that my team and I quite disagree with the majority of your voiced opinions on the project. After our initial reaction to Negroponte’s distasteful remarks last week, we had the pleasure of spending the rest of our time in Kigali interacting with the group of competent and driven young leaders that make up the OLPCorps staff (see OLPCorps Redeemed). We definitely felt a disconnect between Negroponte’s take on OLPCorps and the staff in Kigali’s take on OLPCorps. This led us to a sort of cognitive dissonance in forming our own take on the project, which we have managed to resolve and which I’d like to emphasize here. In reflecting upon our experiences with the project so far, we feel that it is much more accurate to draw a clear distinction between our thoughts on Negroponte and our thoughts on OLPCorps. I still don’t agree with and am not defending Negroponte’s remarks last week about his idea of the objectives of the project, not to mention some of his other verbal missteps (see Like little girls are passionate about…). However, as we set off to Sierra Leone with the preparations and encouragement provided by the OLPCorps staff these past 10 days, I am not ready to give up on OLPCorps just yet.

Comment by Katie Robinette


I’m gald that you and the OLPCorps team can see beyond Negroponte, but its disappointing to hear of his goals – he is the lead of OLPC after all.

And yes, make the best of your experience. While I think the OLPCorps program could be better designed to have longer/greater impact, SJ’s point below is very true: this is life changing for you and the communities you’ll be working in.

Or as I remember from my Peace Corps days: have impact in spite of headquarters

Comment by Wayan

From my perspective, improving education in the communities touched is central to the success of every corps project. It is true that 100 laptops in a community of thousands of children has only an incremental effect on the entire community – but for the school and families involved, it is life-changing.

The requisite local NGO connections for OLPCorps teams are there to lay the ground for sustainability. This isn’t the same as guaranteeing an annual influx of laptops and implementers, but it should help in gaining more support in the future. And in the end sustainability means local ownership and means of support, not a stream of funds and educators from other countries.

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