India's rejection of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative will not surprise anyone who's been following the unfortunate progress of MIT's Media Labs outside the United States.
As with MIT Media Lab Europe, which set up shop in Dublin in 2000 only to close its shutters in 2005, MIT Media Lab Asia (Mumbai, 2001-5) attracted government funding, criticism and then the bum's rush. According to one Indian researcher who talked to us, the bad feelings left behind are still strong enough to render Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder and lead wolf on OPLC, persona non grata within the subcontinent — and guarantee the rejection of any project with his name attached.
MIT said there had been differences between it and the Indian government about how Media Lab Asia was to have been run. If its performance was anything like that of its Dublin sister organisation, that's not surprising. The Irish public auditor found that after five years and nearly 50 million euros, most of which was public money, the place had produced just 24 scientific papers and 12 useless patents. While it was running, MIT Media Lab Europe "refused to tell ministers how many people it employed, what they were paid, or to provide audited accounts", according to the Sunday Times, but it did manage to award them substantial severance payments when time ran out.
That's not much of a calling card when you're trying to persuade a country to spend millions on a project that has yet to teach one fact to one child. There are plenty of large technology organisations that are making an impact in the developing world with, frankly, much better track records of operating with governments, NGOs and individuals in the field. HP and Intel are good examples: both focus on working in ways appropriate to the skills, infrastructure and systems already in place. There are places where technology can make a world of difference, and others where it is best left out.
The countries considering the purchase of OLPC will be investing a sum equal to a considerable proportion of their education budgets. No doubt, they have been beneficiaries of very enthusiastic lobbying from the OLPC project and its many friends. It would be in no way harmful were they to check out the legacy of Negroponte's previous adventures abroad, or talk to others who are working in similar areas but are not attached to the project. For an experiment of this size and expense, one with the potential to set education agendas for millions, due diligence is required. As they say in the adverts, past performance is no guarantee of future results — but sometimes, it can be most educational.