Down To Business: When It Comes To Cheap PCs, Don't Count On The Bureaucrats - InformationWeek

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Rob Preston
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Down To Business: When It Comes To Cheap PCs, Don't Count On The Bureaucrats

If governments have shown they are good at one thing, it's debating and stalling controversial public policy initiatives that don't show immediate returns. Time for countries to plan for the long haul.

The latest round of World Trade Organization talks collapsed last month as government negotiators, doing the bidding for industry lobbies at home, refused to budge on agriculture subsidies and other protectionist policies widely considered a drag on the global economy. It's more politically expedient to appease the special interests, of course, than to strive for the far greater good: raising universal living standards.

Closer to the IT industry, Indian education secretary Sudeep Banerjee made the news last month for opposing Indian government funding of One Laptop Per Child, calling the MIT-led program, which aims to supply $100 computers to schoolchildren in developing countries, technically immature and potentially "detrimental to the growth of creative and analytical abilities of the child." The money would be better spent, the secretary said, on classrooms and teachers rather than "fancy tools."

Chalk up two more for the shortsighted bureaucrats.

No question certain producers in certain countries are better off today because their governments shield them from foreign competition or shell out hundreds of billions of dollars to subsidize their goods--but too bad for the billions of consumers and taxpayers who must pay for that largess. And no question Indian children need schools and teachers--but too bad their nation's education czar sees creative development and digital literacy as mutually exclusive.

Let's examine the Indian rhetoric. To characterize computers as "fancy tools" reveals a level of technology ignorance that renders moot the question of whether funds are available. It's the old "my generation learned just fine without computers" mentality. At the risk of siding with those who never met a government program they didn't like, we must admonish Mr. Banerjee and his ilk for failing to understand that the computer is indeed an engine for workforce literacy and commercial empowerment. Today's and tomorrow's professional jobs, whether in programming, engineering, banking, or manufacturing, require people to think in the digital realm, not just be trained on computers like they were IBM Selectrics.

When it comes to setting aside funds for development, you can always take the argument to the next extreme. Taken at face value, getting computers into kids' hands isn't as important as ensuring that they get a basic education, much less that they get three squares a day, a roof over their heads, and running water and electricity. But a more literate populace (digital and otherwise) makes for a more employable, higher-wage workforce over the long run, which helps finance basic infrastructure and improve overall living conditions.

Those "fancy tools" are key to bringing developing countries and the underclasses of the developed world into the global knowledge economy. The problem for the bureaucrats (and thus their constituents) is that the results won't necessarily show up next fiscal year or even in the culmination of the next five-year plan. For that reason, don't expect cheap-PC programs that require government funding--or most initiatives that demand bureaucratic vision and courage--to go very far.

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