One Laptop Per Child teams up with United Nations lead agency

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) association is changing strategy: It has joined forces with the United Nations’ lead agency for information technology to further spread its green low-cost laptops to school kids in developing nations around the world.

The partnership shows OLPC is diverging from its original strategy of working directly with governments in order to push its mission forward. OLPC started out as a non-profit focused on creating a US$100 laptop PC to distribute to kids in developing nations to keep them from falling behind the information technology revolution.

The original idea was for governments to order OLPC’s XO laptops by the millions, thereby driving down the cost per unit through volume discounts on parts and assembly.

It hasn’t worked out quite as hoped.

The laptop is twice as expensive as originally planned, and it turns out, many countries want to order a limited number of them to run trials first. Other nations find them far too expensive no matter what the price.

The result is that despite early hopes for the distribution of millions of XO laptops to school children everywhere, there are only about 400,000 or 500,000 in use today.

“In the final analysis, even US$200 per laptop, which is hugely inexpensive for the technology you get, is just too much,” said Matt Keller, OLPC’s director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Enter the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency with the ambitious global goal of connecting everyone to information technology and communications by the year 2015.

OLPC and the ITU plan to combine efforts to spread XO laptops to kids around the world, including promotional efforts, sharing contacts in government, industry, non-governmental organizations and others, and even finding ways to raise funds to drive down the cost of the laptops to zero for the poorest countries in the world.

“Our mission is to spread information and communication technology (ICT) around the world. For the least developed parts of the world, the missing link is now available: affordable laptops,” said Sami Al Basheer, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.

“The most important element of this mission is education,” he added.

There are a number of countries around the world suffering from a lack of funds for such devices.

In Afghanistan, for example, a country left with little infrastructure after 35 years of nearly constant warfare, first with the Soviet Union and then civil war, the idea of using technology such as the XO laptop is a stretch.

Consider this: until 2002, Afghans had to travel to Pakistan or other neighboring countries just to make a phone call, according to Amirzai Sangin, Minister of Communications and Information Technology in Afghanistan.

The U.S. and other members of the coalition with troops in Afghanistan have been generous with funds and building projects, said Sangin, “but you have to consider everything else that we have to allocate money for.”

“Two hundred dollars per laptop is a lot of money,” he said.

The country is trying to build a national army and school system, provide health care for the first time in many areas, electricity, and infrastructure such as roads and bridges that the Taliban keep blowing up. At the same time, the Afghan government is spending money to develop industries such as agriculture and mining to bring in much needed tax revenue for the central government.

With six million school aged children, Afghanistan worries more about school buildings, books and finding qualified teachers, than providing laptops.

There has been some technological progress in Afghanistan.

Around 6.5 million people, a quarter of the population, now carry mobile phones.

In fact, one of the largest mobile phone service providers in the country, Roshan, has signed on to work with OLPC to promote the XO.

But for Afghanistan, like other desperately poor countries in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, putting one laptop in the hands of every school child is no easy task.

That’s why OLPC is revamping its efforts to work directly with international organizations such as the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to further its mission. These groups can help provide the contacts and funding necessary to more broadly distribute the XO.

“We want to get countries the ability to get these laptops, whatever it takes,” said Keller.

Groups such as the ITU put OLPC in contact with key people in governments around the world. Other partners, such as Microsoft, which shares the same mission of spreading technology to poor areas around the world, can be counted on for technology support as well as project funds.

OLPC also hopes to attract more contributors later this year with its Give One, Get One program run in tandem with Keller believes OLPC may be able to sell twice as many laptops through as when OLPC ran the online program itself.

OLPC hopes donors of all sizes will be attracted to its cause. Although OLPC has succeeded in finding partners in many areas, there’s more work to be done with foundations and other charitable organizations.

Every new connection potentially means another XO laptop will end up in the hands of a school child, somewhere.

“From what we’ve seen we think this laptop can make it,” said Al Basheer. “It can spread around the world easily because of the quality and the low cost.”

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