At the end of his piece OLPC backlash continues, Chris Dawson asks his readers to "... explain how we can rationalize the opportunity costs of XO rollouts in OLPC’s target markets?" It's a very good question with lots of complex answers, as evidenced by some interesting replies from those in the third world who have benefited greatly by their government's efforts to connect them to the "information superhighway".
John Dvorak's rant aside, if we put the discussion in the context of giving starving children a computer and expecting anything to come of it, the point is made. You can't justify giving a starving kid a laptop. But does the OLPC project really take food out of the mouths of starving children in order to give them a computer? No, it does not!
There are foundations all over the world distributing food and medical supplies to those in need. Besides, delivering food to the people of sub-Saharan is not all that simple ...
Many of you don't remember the "USA for Africa" project (United Support of Artists for Africa) from the middle 1980's -- though you may remember the music! It was a worthy cause for certain but a cause which was in many respects a dismal failure. Why? Because the promoters spent the money on food (which was the point) but did not consider how that food was going to be delivered to the people who needed it most. (For instance, those Africans not living near cities and towns where there were airports, and warehouses, and trucks, and roads.) Much of the food bought from that effort ended up rotting on the tarmac in African airports because there were no arrangements made to get the food to those who were starving. The assumption was that the government of the recipient nation would take care of that.
Times have changed and those professional organizations who distribute food and medical supplies have met a lot of those challenges -- in large part because of the awareness created by "USA for Africa" -- despite its failures.
From the start, Nicholas Negroponte has put the OLPC project in the context of those children of the third world who are not starving. The images he creates are of schoolchildren living in jungle huts, without electricity, without textbooks, but nevertheless near a functioning village with a school and presumably with some kind of wireless access to the Internet. The greatest strength of the OLPC model is that even a lame computer like the XO can store hundreds of textbooks, great literature, and images from around the world. It can easily be argued that in a severely humid environment, such as a rain forest, a weatherized laptop is far more suitable than a library full of books printed on paper.
Now whether one-laptop-per-child makes more sense than one desktop for many children is an entirely different question but the value of bringing information to schoolchildren and their teachers is clear and is indeed the twenty-first century version of teaching a man to fish ...