Uruguay Could Become a Model for Low-Cost Laptop Programs

By Vinod Sreeharsha, on , Briefing

VILLA CARDAL, Uruguay -- The 1,200 inhabitants of this isolated rural town could not care less about a feud between U.S. tech companies Intel and AMD. But recently it began a social experiment that could impact not only its development but also the fortunes of several U.S. corporate giants.

Eight-year-old Nahuel Lema and his 135 classmates at Number 24: Italia, the only primary school here, took home new laptops May 10 thanks to a partnership between the Uruguayan government and One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a United States' non-profit born out of the MIT Media Lab.

Nahuel's mother, Grisela, sat right beside him in his classroom, her face beaming with pride. Born and raised here, she is anything but a techie, never once having used email. Villa Cardal has one main street and no traffic lights. Many here work as farmhands at dairy ranches. The community is in the "paper and pencil era" says fourth grade teacher Hania Villanueva.

Since its inception, OLPC has been hailed and derided for its goal of providing "$100" laptops to the world. The machines lack costly bells and whistles and use open-source software instead of Windows, an increasing popular idea in poor countries.

Threatened, Microsoft and Intel are now developing competing programs. And numerous others are likely to jump on the bandwagon to provide cheap access to technology to developing countries.

Last Sunday's 60 Minutes played up a rift between Intel's Craig Barrett and OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte. Barrett once called the OLPC machine a "gadget."

Negroponte asserted that Intel's real fear is that OLPC machines use chips made by AMD, its' competitor.

But good television drama notwithstanding, one basic question remains unanswered: How does such a laptop program get off the ground? Uruguay may provide the answer. Just over one week into the OLPC pilot, it is serving as a model to other countries and will likely be a key player in determining the program's outcome.

Choosing the community was the first key decision of the Uruguayan National Technology Laboratory (LATU), the government-owned, privately run institution managing the program.

Lower-middle-class Villa Cardal is typically Uruguayan. Homes have electricity and running water, but residents remain beholden to an agricultural economy in an increasingly competitive global commodity market. Economic opportunity is their greatest need.

Ms. Lema says, "I want my son to study everything, and learn as much as he can. I hope he can enter the professional sector."

With only one school in Villa Cardal, all kids can receive laptops, maintaining Uruguay's traditional sense of egalitarianism.

Uruguay is the first OLPC pilot country to provide laptops to an entire school and directly involve the whole community, says David Cavallo, OLPC Americas' director.

Thailand, Nigeria, Libya, and Brazil have already distributed OLPC machines, but in piecemeal fashion. In the two participating Brazilian schools, only some students are covered. And in Sao Paulo they still cannot take home their laptops due to concerns about crime.

In Villa Cardal, students took theirs home on Day 1. School principal Marcelo Galain prefers that, saying, "They have to learn to take care of their laptops. They will value them more."

That approach also increases parent involvement, another challenge to the program. That's one reason Ms. Lema does not fear losing her son to his laptop. She plans to learn the technology with him.

Maria Fojo echoed that sentiment at her home the day after the program launch. "Sure they will play computer games. But also, last night, they already read the instructions on how to take photos [with their laptops]," said the mother of sixth-grade twins, Franco and Lucas. "At least they will now be forced to read. They never read books."

Meanwhile, her boys, seated at their living room table, were buried in their computers, despite having a sunny day-off from school and living across from a soccer field.

Jennifer Espino and her sister, Camila, also sixth graders, were also at home beginning their newfound life as tech-geeks. Jennifer boasted about having failed first grade. Pointing to her laptop, she said, "I was lucky" to still attend this school.

Previously empty of children playing, the streets only came to life when the Espino girls and the Fojo boys were unsure how to download MP3s. They walked to school, hoping to ask a teacher.

Meanwhile the teachers were in the middle of a day-long training by LATU, the reason for the kids' day off.

Anxiety filled the classroom. Traner Pablo Flores said, "I see there are a lot of doubts here." His colleague later added, "Don't' worry if your students end up knowing more than you. That should be your goal."

Hania Villanueva, who looked overwhelmed at the training, said in a phone interview one week later that she is already integrating the laptops into her curriculum, using Internet maps to teach Uruguayan geography and kid-friendly games to teach geometry.

LATU is seeing the teachers through the program, its trainers having made the four-hour round-trip commute from Montevideo every day of the first week.

The Uruguayan government is playing a larger role than other governments in the region. Uruguay joined in December 2006. Brazil entered the program back in 2005 but started only in March of this year. Argentina received OLPC laptops in January, but its local advocate is mired in a Buenos Aires election campaign.

Uruguay views the OLPC concept strategically, having its own aggressive digitalization program for the country. LATU later this month will solicit offers from all sponsors of cheap laptop programs, including Intel, says its director Miguel Brechner.

A top government priority is growth of the country's information technology sector, which already exports more software per capita than any other country in South America. But the sector currently has zero unemployment, and needs trained workers trained in technology.

While Brazilian President Ignacio Lula da Silva and many others see OLPC as a social program that aims to include the poor in the technology revolution, Brechner and Jorge Lepra, the minister of Industry, Energy, and Mining, the program's two champions here, go beyond that. They see OLPC as a way to bolster Uruguay's economic competitiveness.

"They saw how this would be a boost to the economic development of Uruguay faster than anyone . . . and they have been the most effective," says OLPC's Cavallo.

Vinod Sreeharsha is a freelance journalist who has written about Latin America for the Christian Science Monitor, Toronto Globe and Mail, Miami Herald, and Slate. This is his first contribution to World Politics Review.

Image: the OLPC laptop.