Slashdot: “Peace Corps Online has published an article by a volunteer who taught computers in West Africa for two years who recommends that the White House’s Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI) abandon the Western paradigm of ‘a computer on every desk’ and borrow a lesson from telephony in third-world countries.”
Trying to provide a computer for the majority of families in a developing country would almost certainly be a non-sustainable effort.
Instead, the DFI should look to an existing model that has already been proven to work for another kind of expensive technology: the telephone. A residential telephone line is a luxury item in West Africa, and as a result, the so-called “communication center” has flourished even in the smallest of towns. These centers are nothing more than small shops that include at least one telephone (usually a fax machine, as well) and offer pay-per-minute telephone service to many who could not otherwise afford it. More than just payphones, these centers are private businesses that generate profit for their owners while sharing among the whole community the high cost of telecommunication.
With so many of these businesses already in place, the DFI could “leverage existing infrastructure” by promoting the use of computers at communication centers. Indeed, some centers located in the cities have already installed a computer or two, but the smaller centers, especially those in more rural areas, are still struggling to upgrade their services with computer technology. DFI could play a role here by providing computer training, installation support, and perhaps some type of financing to help local entrepreneurs overcome the steep cost of computer hardware. It could also promote open-source software, such as Linux and OpenOffice, as a cheaper alternative to commercial software packages costing hundreds of dollars each.
The idea seems similar to the TeleInfoCentres concept I have discussed in my “Transforming Rural India” essay.