Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce OLPC using poor kids as guinea pigs

OLPC using poor kids as guinea pigs

With children in the US faring poorly in their studies, why is it that so-called ground-breaking projects like the One Laptop Per Child program were not first implemented in their country of origin?

After all, doesn't charity begin at home? (just Google for "american children doing poorly in reading and math" and spend the next six months reading).

There's a very good reason why the originators of this scheme, did not opt to experiment in their own backyard.

As a detailed survey of the OLPC project in Peru has shown, the program does nothing positive for children's education. For poor countries with limited budgets, it is an expensive waste of time.

Imagine the backlash OLPC would have faced if it had tried these experiments in constructionist learning in a suburb of Washington DC and the truth had come out as it has in Peru. The media would have been all over them, every TV network from CNN downwards would have exposed the truth about the operations, and the OLPC would have been forced to shut down.

Indeed, that would have been the experience if the OLPC had tried to implement its program in any major city of a developed country - which is why indigenous children have been the testing ground for OLPC Australia. Far away from the harsh glare of the 24-hour news cycle, people can do what they like and not be found out.

A mature educational system is exactly where these things should be tested - if it goes awry, there will be sufficient resources to go to a backup plan or return to the path being followed before the OLPC program was begun. The fallout would rightly be that the OLPC program would lose all its credibility.

Those who run OLPC obviously know this. So do those who are volunteers - and that includes every single person who, in the face of the overwhelming evidence from Peru, continues to contribute to the project , be it even a single line of code.

That is why the OLPC project has chosen to toy with the lives of poor children in developing countries. After all, South America has long been the playground for the US for other experiments - remember the economic shocks in the days of Pinochet and Galtieri? - just as long as they benefit the land of the brave and free. As the OLPC project obviously does.

Now nobody can duck for cover - the results from Peru show that many children have lost years of their lives being guinea pigs to satisfy unproven Western concepts, years that they could have better spent learning through tried and trusted methods.

The OLPC is very good at avoiding scrutiny - in Australia, it only approaches outlets which will give it uncritical coverage. Having secured the patronage of Rupert Murdoch's The Australian, most of its mainstream coverage is in that august publication.

Deployments have been going on since February 2007 and it is amazing that more formal evaluations like that in Peru have not been carried out when the target is the most vulnerable part of society - primary school children, mostly in poor countries. But I guess they are expendable - what good ole Donald Rumsfeld called collateral damage.

Why should poor countries continue to waste their taxpayers' money on the OLPC? Even if the laptops are sponsored, why should these countries offer up their next generation as guinea pigs for Western experiments which have not been tested in the US?

Poor countries can institute learning programs which are more in keeping with their own culture and mores, programs that make a qualitative difference to their citizens of tomorrow. They should not be forced to pay out big sums to satisfy the curiosity of Westerners.

American involvement in the developing world - and indeed in the developed world - has rarely done any good. It is driven by one motive: to improve things in the mother country. The OLPC is another misconceived effort, one that is appropriating a substantial amount of the funds that poor countries set aside for educating their children.

It is high time for any person of conscience associated with the project to do some serious thinking, instead of closing their eyes and ears to the fact that they are involved in a project that is living off the most vulnerable in our world: poor children in developing and Third World countries.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.