is the non-profit model inherently a problem? the case of the $100 laptop

The Verge has a neat article on the history of “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC). If you remember, it was a project unveiled in 2005 by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte. The idea was simple – why can’t we make a small laptop that was so cheap it could be given to millions upon millions of poor children? As you may have surmised, the OLPC project never took off.

The article then goes into all the problems with the project. For example, when it was shown to the public, they only had a mock up – there was no real planning behind it. Heck, there wasn’t even a working prototype. Another problem: finding hardware suppliers is not an easy thing. In fact, the difference between victory and defeat in the hardware world is often the ability to find good and cheap suppliers. Furthermore, the OLPC was internally divided in terms of vision and strategy. To this general story, I have one additional comment: It may be the case that making cheap laptops is an example of a task that non-profits are unsuited for. In this case, hardware manufacturing.

Consider the following. In the thirteen years since the OLPC project was announced, for-profit manufacturers have actually managed to make a very good $200 Chromebook lap top (about $160 in 2005 currency). Let’s assume that you had $10 million dollars to spend in 2017. You could either (a) burn it on hardware development or (b) buy about 50,000 Chrome laptops and give them away for free. Which would you choose? If you cared about direct benefit, you’d probably go with (b). If you responded by saying that OLPC had planned to have a crank to make electricity, I would ask you if a child that poor really needs a laptop and not basic nutrition or medicine.

I am not against philanthropy but I am against wasting tons of money. The for-profit sector seems to have solved the cheap laptop problem and it makes sense why this is the case. There is competition, incentive, and deep technical expertise. In contrast, the non-profit world might specialize in giving away stuff for free. The OLPC case shows why this might be a wise division of labor.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 18, 2018 at 6:32 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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