Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption


The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Contrast

My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs.  However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book.  It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers.  This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.

Rogers

There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty.  The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”.  As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid  to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.

The interests underlying connecting the next billion

The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people.  Instead it is mainly driven by:

  • private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
  • national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control  “their” citizens;
  • UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
  • NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.

These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised.  The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services.  But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?

Reasons not to be online…

Masai welcomeI recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills.  He, wisely, remained unconvinced.  For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.

For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:

  • they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by  profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
  • they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
  • there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
  • they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
  • they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
  • their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
  • they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence  their thoughts and senses of well-being;
  • they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
  • they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).

To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.

The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…

One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband.  Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.

Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards.  This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new.  With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best.  Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk.  Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate.  In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.

If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies.  The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.

Development in the interests of the poor

children 2ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet.  It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs.  This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation.  The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10.  Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.

 

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Reflections on “corruption”…


I have long argued that people tend to use the word “corruption” mainly to describe cultural practices that differ from those with which they are familiar.  It is a term that is almost always used negatively. Re-reading Transparency International‘s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index has very much reinforced this view, but in a way that I suspect will not be expected by those who read what follows!

Corruption TI

I have huge admiration and respect for the work of Transparency International. The map above shows the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 177 countries in the world.  In brief, it indicates that 69% of countries have a score of less than 50%, indicating a serious corruption problem.

However, what stands out most to me about this map is that it is very largely the countries of northern Europe, northern America, and Australasia that are perceived as being least corrupt.  The yellow “holiness” is so marked against the “evil” red of corruption that swathes most of the rest of the world!

Corruption according to Transparency International can be defined  “Generally speaking as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Corruption can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs”.

Three ideas seem particularly pertinent in this context:

  1. The notion of corruption is intimately tied up with the nature of capitalism.  Put simply, the apparently least corrupt countries according to this definition are generally the most advanced capitalist countries.  This suggests that it serves capitalist interests to try to reduce “corruption” as much as possible. It is interesting to ponder why this might be.  One reason may be that reducing the abuse of entrusted power for private gain actually reduces the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.  However, it is difficult to see how this might happen, and it seems in stark contrast to a fundamental characteristic of capitalism which is that it is actually designed to ensure the maximum possible private gain for the capitalists.  I guess the reality may be that limiting or preventing private gain from entrusted power actually enables the market (i.e. the principles of capitalism) to flourish as effectively as possible.  By extension a reduction of all entrusted power (i.e. limiting the power of the state) could be seen to enhance the power of the market, and therefore increase the potential for private gain of those who do not hold political power.  Hence, keeping the power of the state as small as possible, and ensuring that it functions in a way that does not lead to private gain for the holders of power in the state, will ensure that the maximum surplus profit is available to the leaders of global corporations and their shareholders.
  2. However, it is very clear that there is also corruption in the leading capitalist states.  The countries shaded yellow on the above map may be perceived as being less corrupt than others, but corruption still abounds in them!  Hence, there is huge hypocrisy when leaders (and indeed others) in the “yellow” countries accuse those in the “red” countries of being corrupt.  Those in the banking sector, for example, who pay themselves and their staff huge salaries are surely also using their positions of power for private gain?  The amount of money spent in US Presidential elections is also an indication of the way in which “money speaks”: Obama thus raised $715,677,692 in the 2012 elections, and Romney raised $446,135,997.  Together, this sum of money was worth more than the GDP of 25 countries in 2012 (according to UN figures).  One needs huge amounts of money to be elected President of the US, and those who contribute this money expect the policies that the President introduces to benefit them – for private gain.  Likewise, in the UK in 2012, Michael Meacher in a letter to the Guardian newspaper noted that “that the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare”.  Is not this also a form of corruption?
  3. Corruption is seen differently in countries where rampant capitalism and private financial gain may not be seen as the most important priorities.  According to the Transparency International report, most countries in the world are perceived as having a serious corruption problem.  This poses an interesting question: might their systems of priorities actually in some ways be better?  If they were not, why do these systems persist?  For a person living in a culture where ties to family and tribe are more important than individual private financial gain, it must seem very wrong not to give employment opportunities to members of one’s family, regardless of actual ability. Likewise, where personal loyalty matters more than direct monetary return, supporting a friend to achieve their particular job aspirations would seem much more appropriate than ensuring that there is a “fair” competence based application process.  Giving gifts to reciprocate for generous hospitality is merely a different way of redistributing and sharing financial benefits.  Moreover, much of what passes for probity in the “yellow” countries actually tends to be a smokescreen for traditional modes of “corruption”.  The appointments process is invariably biased through friendship ties – not least through the reference system and the use of headhunters – and is never purely competence based.  Likewise, the UK’s honours system is still very largely determined by personal friendship networks, rather than necessarily by ability or contribution to the common good.

In short, I am more than ever convinced that “corruption” is simply a pejorative term that people use to describe political, social and economic systems that are  different from their own.  In a world dominated by capitalist interests, it is scarcely surprising that less-advanced capitalist economies are perceived as being more corrupt than those where the search for individual gain and success is highest.  Yet this very focus on individual gain in capitalist societies is itself fundamentally “corrupt”, since it detracts from the communal good which, at least for me, is ultimately far more valuable.  I suggest that we may have much more to learn from the mutually supportive social and cultural networks that underlie such “corrupt” regimes, than we do from the economic interests that determine definitions of probity in the capitalist heartland. However, this is because I believe that the common good is far more important than private individual gain.

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Commonwealth Professional Fellowship Round 3 2013 just announced


Professional Fellows smallThe Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK has just announced the latest round of its exciting Professional Fellowships programme which is designed to enable citizens of ‘developing’ Commonwealth countries to spend time gaining relevant professional experiences in UK organisations.  Any UK organisations can apply to host people for the scheme (for between 1 and 6 months duration), and any interested individuals are recommended to contact organisations that have previously hosted such fellowships, or that might be interested in hosting them in the future, to see whether they would be willing to nominate them.  Individuals cannot apply directly to the Commission for these awards.  The closing date for organisations to submit nominations is 7th October 2013 for Fellows to start between January and December 2014.

Details of the scheme from the Commission’s website are given below:

Commonwealth Professional Fellowships

Commonwealth Professional Fellowships support mid-career professionals from developing Commonwealth countries to spend a period of time with a UK host organisation working in their field for a programme of professional development. Fellowships are typically three months but can be between one and six months in length, and can include limited time for attendance at short courses or conferences, as well as visits to other organisations.

Programmes must have demonstrable development impact in the Fellow’s home country and the Fellow must be able to show how the knowledge and skills they will gain during the Fellowship will be disseminated after their return home.

Organisations in any sector in the UK can apply to host a Professional Fellowship. A broad selection have done so over the 12 years since the scheme was established. Organisations previously selected to host Professional Fellows

Prospective host organisations might find it helpful to read about previously successful programmes:

Key features of Professional Fellowships

  • Applications must come from an organisation in the UK willing to set up a programme and host the Fellow(s), or have the agreement of a separate organisation in the UK to act as the host (if the latter is the case, a letter will need to be supplied at the time of application to confirm the agreement).
  • Organisations wishing to nominate a Fellow or Fellows will need to set up a suitable programme and identify the Fellow(s) themselves. A programme can include time spent within their own organisation, learning from colleagues in a structured manner and undertaking project work which meets their learning objectives, as well as time spent at other organisations within the UK and at conferences and a limited time on short courses.
  • Funding can be given for programmes of between one and six months (though typically for three months). Justification is required for awards of more than three months.
  • Applications are sought for programmes within the broadly defined fields of agriculture/fisheries/forestry, economic growth, education, engineering/science/technology, environment, governance, and public health.
  • Organisations can apply to host up to six Fellows in one year.
  • Fellows must be Commonwealth citizens, refugees, or British protected persons and must be permanently resident in a developing Commonwealth country.
  • Fellows must normally have at least five years’ relevant work experience in the field within which they wish to undertake the Fellowship.
  • A Commonwealth Professional Fellowship covers the living expenses for the Fellow as well as a return airfare to the UK. It also provides £800 funding support to the host organisation, with a budget of up to £3,000 available for attendance at conferences, on short courses, and other eligible costs.
  • Commonwealth Professional Fellowships are not for academic study or research of any sort. However, academics can be nominated for programmes of professional development in academic management.

Commonwealth Professional Fellowships 2013 prospectus – includes full details of the scheme and terms and conditions

2013 (Round 3) Professional Fellowships – information for prospective nominators/hosts

2013 (Round 3) Professional Fellowships – information for candidates

 

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Digital Wars by Charles Arthur – excellent new book


Rarely do I use my blog to write book reviews, but rarely do I enjoy books as much as Charles Arthur’s new Digital Wars: Apple, Google, Microsoft and the battle for the Internet.  Not only is this highly informative, but it is extremely well written. I used every spare moment – in other words take offs and landings on recent flights, when laptops have to be switched off – to read it!  He somehow manages to craft an exciting thriller out of what could have been written in a very arid and boring way – the recent history of Apple, Google and Microsoft.  This really excellent book builds on Arthur’s journalistic work over the last 25 years, and combines deep insights about the evolution of these companies with fascinating interviews with people who have been involved from the inside in their evolution.

Digital Wars begins with accounts of some of the key personalities involved – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  His story then kicks off with Steve Ballmer’s elevation to CEO at Microsoft, and the aftermath of the Antitrust trial, which Arthur sees as having had an enormous effect on the company.  At a rapid pace, the book is then structured around four themes:

  • development and control of “search” – seen primarily as a conflict between Google and Microsoft
  • the innovative shaping of a digital music industry, in which Apple outplayed Microsoft
  • the creation of smartphones
  • the emergence of tablets

This book is a “must read” for anyone who really wants to understand some of the changes that have taken place in the ICT industry over the last 15 years.  In some ways, the book can be read as being about the demise of Microsoft, and the rise of Google to be the lead player in search, and Apple the dominant force in digital music (iTunes) and top-end telephony (iPhone).  However, it is much more than this.  Arthur manages to weave into the text fascinating insights into leadership, the ways through which small individual decisions – both good and bad – can shape the future of whole corporations, and the ebb and flow of recent corporate takeovers.

Do get hold of a copy and read it.  There is much to be learnt about the past from Digital Wars to help us shape the future.

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AGFUND Prize for Youth Empowerment Projects


Noted below is the call from the Arab Gulf Programme for Development for the AGFUND Prize 2011 focusing on Empowering Youth through Entrepreneurship and Job Opportunities.  This is a very worthwhile initiative, and I would encourage people working in this area to apply.


“FOR UN AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS, NGOS, GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES AND INDIVIDUALS
AGFUND ANNOUNCES THE OPENING OF NOMINATIONS FOR ITS PRIZE ON
YOUTH EMPOWERMENT PROJECTS
May 31st is the deadline


The Arab Gulf Programme for Development (AGFUND) has opened the door for nominations for the AGFUND International Prize for Pioneering Human Development Projects. It invites the United Nations, international, and regional organizations as well as NGOs, ministries, public institutions, universities, and research centres worldwide to submit their nominations for the Prize amounting to $500 000 in its four Categories. The theme of the prize for the year 2011 is ‘Empowering Youth through Entrepreneurship and Job Opportunities.’ subdivided to match the four categories of the Prize are as follows:

  • First Category:The role of international organizations in supporting the developing countries’ national policies and programs for empowering youth through entrepreneurships and job opportunities. (For projects implemented by UN, international or regional organizations)
  • Second Category: NGOs-led efforts to empowering youth through entrepreneurships and job opportunities. (For projects implemented by national NGOs).
  • Third Category: The governmental bodies’ efforts in adoption of pioneering entrepreneurships for empowering youth and increasing their job opportunities. (For projects by government ministries and public institutions).
  • Fourth Category: Individual-led efforts to empowering youth through entrepreneurships and job opportunities. (For projects initiated, sponsored and/or implemented by individuals).


The Communications Department is receiving nominations at the address of the Arab Gulf Programme for Development: Riyadh 11415, P.O. Box 18371, KSA; or the email address prize@agfund.org
<mailto:prize@agfund.org> . For more information and for downloading the nomination form, please visit the AGFUND website http://www.agfund.org <http://www.agfund.org/> . Nomination forms will be accepted until May 31st, 2011.

The projects submitted for the Prize are evaluated with high objectivity and transparency by juries chosen every year with regard to the experience and specialization relevant to the Prize theme. The number of projects which have won the Prize since its inception in 1999 amounts to 38 projects, implemented by UN and international organizations as well as NGOs and individuals. More than one hundred developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe have benefited from the prize.

The Prize Committee is composed a number of distinguished world personalities representing the world’s geographical regions. The Committee convenes annually to discuss the evaluation results of the nominated projects and to choose the winning projects. Prizes are presented in a ceremony to which representatives of the winning organizations, specialists and experts in the field of development, celebrities interested in development issues, and media representatives are invited.”

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ICTs and Urban Micro-enterprises in Mumbai


P.Vigneswara Ilvarasan and Mark Levy have just made available the final report from their exciting and innovative IDRC funded research on the use of ICTs by urban micro-enterprises in Mumbai, employing fewer than 20 hired workers.  This is one of the most important analyses of ICTs and entrepreneurs that I have recently read.  The methodology is much more rigorous than that of most research in the field of ICT4D, which means that considerable credence can be placed on the reliability of the results. Some 329 male owners or managers of micro-enterprises, and 231 female owners were interviewed between April and June 2009, and a further 102 men and women were surveyed in September and November 2009.

Whilst I might have some quibbles over definitions – surely in general usage, the term micro-enterprise is used to refer to much smaller units than those employing 20 people – this is a really excellent piece of research that deserves widespread citation.  Its key findings are:

  • “Nearly everyone who owned or managed a microenterprise—regardless of sex—had a mobile phone.
  • Many female and male microentrepreneurs who owned or managed microenterprises and who used a mobile for business communication reported that the year-over-year income of their business had risen.
  • Urban microentrepreneurs experience different levels of economic growth depending on how they use their mobiles for business communication.
  • The positive impact of mobile phones on microenterprises might emerge only after two years of use. Microentrepreneurs who owned a mobile for two years or less saw some growth in business income; those who had begun to use their mobile more than two years earlier experienced even greater income growth.
  • Levels of PC ownership and usage at home and work were low.
  • Few microentrepreneurs frequented Internet cafés for business purposes.
  • Only small numbers used their mobiles for the full range of business-enhancing activities.
  • Consideration of a microentrepreneur’s full repertoire of ICT use showed a positive relationship with microenterprise growth, especially when other factors such as gender and motivation were also taken into account.
  • Compared to women-owned microenterprises, microenterprises owned or managed by men had much greater increases in business income, although female owned microenterprises also experience some growth
  • The more positive a female microentrepreneur felt about her status and power because of her business, the more she was motivated to use ICTs in support of her business.
  • The more that a woman entrepreneur used mobile phones, workplace computers, etc., the more her microenterprise grew, especially businesses in the trade sector of the informal economy.”

Thanks Vignesh and Mark for enriching us with this important study.

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OLPC and the East African Community


A report today by the BBC highlights that a new partnership has been established between One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and the East African Community (EAC) to deliver 30 million laptops in the region by 2015.  As the report goes on to say, the EAC first needs to raise cash for the laptops!  It also comments that “OLPC has had difficulty selling its computers and its alternative vision of education around the world”.

I find such announcements hugely worrying. There have been sufficient critiques published on the OLPC model for governments, donors, and all those involved in education to be aware of the fundamental difficulties associated with its roll out (see for example Bob Kozma‘s comments in 2007, David Hollow‘s 2009 account of their introduction in Ethiopia, Scott Kipp‘s comments in 2009, and Ivan Krstic’s devastating critique of the concept and its implementation at the UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning Fifth International Seminar in 2008).

Let me here highlight what I see as being some of the most important issues:

  1. Cost – 30 million laptops at $200 each amounts to $6,000 million.  Might this money not be more effectively spent in other ways, such as providing teachers in East Africa with better training, or even simply remunerating them better so that they do not have to do several jobs at once in order to support their families?
  2. Pedagogic model – is there one? OLPC has claimed to be an educational initiative, but a fundamental problem with most OLPC roll outs has been that they have not been integrated into the existing educational structures.  In the worst instances, the laptops have been given to children but not to their teachers.  The tensions that this causes are immense.
  3. Lack of Content – the OLPC vision is  “To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning”. The problem is that there is very little available learning content suitably designed and integrated with the curricula in the countries where the laptops are being introduced.  Simply expecting young people to be able to learn by connecting to the internet is like throwing someone into the sea and expecting them to swim.
  4. Monitoring and Evaluation – there have been too few rigorous monitoring and evaluation studies to be able to say with any certainty what the impact of these computers might be in Africa.  Surely, we should undertake high quality studies of the educational impact before spending such huge amounts of money on rolling them out?
  5. Who gets them? This is a real issue.  In many instances, the choice about where the computers are given reflects social, economic and political interests.  The sampling strategy for the roll outs needs to be thought through extremely carefully, and not just left to some enthusiastic youth volunteers (as in the OLPCorps programme – the selection of participants for which is itself highly problematic and controversial). If XO computers do have a beneficial effect, then why should only some young people (in most cases those who are already privileged in some way) benefit from them?  Will they go to the poorest and most marginalised, those who most need help in isolated rural areas?  Ethiopia alone has an estimated 9 million children out of school.  Will they receive laptops?
  6. External technology-led initiatives – most of the evidence suggests that top-down, externally-driven and technology-led initiatives are much less successful than initiatives that are explicitly designed and tailored to the needs and aspirations of the people for whom they are intended.  It is crucial that we begin with the educational needs of people in East Africa, and then identify the most cost-effective way of delivering on them. As Bob Kozma says, “Is this an education project or merely a laptop project?”.
  7. Sustainability – what happens when the first batch of computers breaks down, or becomes outdated?  Let’s be generous, and estimate that each might last five years.  Can East Africa afford another $6,000 million in five years time?  What will happen to the debris of the old computers?  How will their materials be recycled, or will they just be dumped?
  8. The technology?  There are some great things about the technical achievements in creating the OLPC XO laptops – but anecdotal evidence suggests that actually it is not quite as good and effective as is often claimed.  In particular, there have been numerous issues with the mesh networking and connectivity when actually rolled out into the rural village conditions of Africa.

So, I ask again, why does there remain such euphoria about the OLPC initiative?  Surely, the East African Community has better things to spend its money on?  If only it could find the funds to support good education effectively, that would be a start! Nicholas Negroponte is a charismatic and enthusiastic champion of OLPC, but is it not time that he recognises that his vision is fundamentally flawed? African governments have better things to do than to be beguiled into spending their limited resources on such a delusional concept.

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