Laptops for the hungry

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One of the problems faced by the poorest countries in the world is that of child labour. Children who ought to be at school getting an education are out working because there is no other way for their families to earn enough to make ends meet. The hours are often very long (10 or 12 hours a day) and the conditionsabominable. There are children as young as ten years old in Bangladesh, for instance, sitting outside for ten hours a day breaking old bricks (the broken bits of brick are used in a cheap form of concrete).

Aside from this, there is the even more widespread problem of access to clean water and the provision of good sanitation - something that over a billion people still don't have.

This is the world in which the United Nations announced in 2005 that it was setting a goal according to which every child in the developing world would have a laptop by 2015. A company had designed a very simple androbust laptop that would be powered by a wind-up mechanism so it could be used in areas that don't yet have electricity, and assuming at least 100 million would be ordered, the final price tag would be no more than 100 dollars. The plan is for governments and charities to buy these laptops and distribute them to children in the poorest areas of the world.

It is not yet clear what software will be installed on the laptops, but it will surely include one or two games. Those children in Bangladesh will be delighted to know that after a long day breaking bricks they can relax with their laptops playing their favourite computer game.

When hearing announcements like this it is not easy to avoid being cynical. Of course it would be great if everyone had a computer and access to the internet, but is it right to make that a priority now when so many children are currently deprived of the most basic education? And when so many children are falling ill and dying from water-borne diseases isn't it much more urgent that this problem be sorted out?

It is hard to believe that there isn't some kind of hidden agenda. At a time when the New World Order (or the New American Century, as it has also been called) is becoming the focus for a violent reaction from other social groups perhaps the laptops and their software can subtly persuade the youngest and poorest kids in the world that the West is unquestionably the best.

One of the snags with the plan concerns what families are likely to do with the laptops. The hundred dollar price tag is equivalent to an adult wage for three months in many cases. These families are much more likely to try and sell the computer and get money to buy grain or fertilizer or food, than to let their kids play with it in the evenings while the rest of the family sits listening to their stomachs rumbling.


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