On First-Order Thinking, or Not Really Thinking at All

Last week, the eLearning Africa News Portal hosted an editorial by David Hollow, a founding director of Jigsaw Consult in England, reading in part

One to one computing in Ethiopia

Estimating that the laptops might last five years, this equates to a subsequent annual follow on cost of 297 million USD (total cost of ownership of each laptop multiplied by 1/8th of national enrolment). In the first year, this would constitute 214% of the national primary education budget. Therefore, to provide a laptop for every child in primary school, it would be necessary to spend no money on teacher salaries, textbooks, electricity, infrastructure or any other educational resources for over two years.

In contrast, the price of a textbook in Ethiopia is 0.5 USD (c. 8 ETB). Textbooks are in short supply, and many children attending school cannot access any. Providing every primary school child in Ethiopia with a full set of textbooks would cost 38 million USD. Assuming that the books and laptops would have comparable durability, then providing every child in primary school with a textbook for every subject would require approximately 1.5% of the money required for every child to have a laptop.

This is an excellent example of what I call first-order thinking, that is, considering immediate consequences of an action, but not the consequences of those consequences. Here we see a purely short-term cost analysis with no consideration of benefits, that is, of the value of ending poverty and of achieving the other goals of the program. In particular, to assume that XOs and textbooks have similar durability, as though that is the only criterion for evaluation, is to reduce the discussion to triviality, even absurdity.

It is true, and beyond sad, that Ethiopia can afford neither textbooks nor OLPC XOs out of its current budget, particularly when you know, as some of us do, that Ethiopia is mired in the worst kind of rote memorization teaching, and that XOs plus teacher training can break the country out of this pattern. See, for example, EduVision: “Ethiopia Implementation Report Sept-Dec 2007” February 2008

But to say that XOs are inappropriate for Ethiopia because of the current budget limitations is to ignore the Return on Investment for both textbooks and XOs. Education has a higher ROI than any other legal activity in purely monetary terms, while ending poverty is in fact priceless.

Where can Ethiopia raise 300 million USD annually? I don’t know, but I consider it shameful that other nations have not offered to fund an adequate education for all Ethiopian children, indeed for all children. A complete OLPC program would come to something like $50 billion annually for the entire billion or so children around the world, with current technology. Not quite peanuts, but far less than governments have pledged for decades, with no follow through. What is lacking, therefore, is not money, in a 60 trillion USD global economy, but political will.

I have a strong suspicion that organizing Ethiopia’s coffee trade better could make all the difference for funding (via increased tax revenues on increased trade) a wide range of government programs in education, health, and much more. Ethiopia grows some of the finest coffee in the world, particularly its Yergacheffes, and has essentially no international branding.

Be that as it may, I invite you to consider Bangladesh, which has digitized all of its textbooks and is preparing to build its own school computer, the Doel. I believe that Bangladesh has made a different economic and financial analysis than David Hollow has, taking a few more factors into account. You might want to ask them about it, and also Peru, Uruguay, Rwanda and other countries that have given every one of their children an XO, or are planning to as soon as possible.


About mokurai

Generalist; End poverty at a profit for all
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