So yeah, it's obvious that I like computers, and think that this whole "Internet" thing holds some transformative power for development. I really hope the $100 laptop project goes well, but at the end of the day I'm pragmatic, I'd rather have gotten something done that's helpful than talked about something that might be. This of course means that withi 30 years I'll have moved to some remote corner of the world to pursue off-the-grid subsistence farming as an occupation, but that's for later discussion.
It pleases me to see some big inventors focusing their attention on fundamental technologies. The Segway inventor is now putting the finishing touches on a flexible portable whatever-burning generator and a water-purifier that can largely run off the waste heat of the former. Read the full article on this at CNN.
A computer grant has a huge list of prerequisites that aren't thought of by development people behind desks, or grant-givers. As a volunteer, we had tons of companies trying to unload their old 486s and Pentium-Is on us and our schools, and we simply couldn't take them -- the cost of customs on them was more than the schools could pay, and their utility was so incredibly low. Sure, we could get FreeDos or some prehistoric Linux running on them, or maybe Linux Terminal Server if we could source one powerful machine to serve desktops, but these things all required skills that were not easily available locally, especially in deep rural settings. But even a modern, new computer has a lot of requirements. First, for it to last any time at all, in needs some technical expertise setting it up to be safe from the nasty Internet, virii, spy-ware and the like. Second, it has to be in a reasonable environment -- the roof can't leak, there should be some A/C or good fans at least, the dust should be at a minimum, salt air should be kept out, and for security's sake, the windows and doors have to be barred and locked.
Beyond that, you'll still need electricity, and lots of it for the computers and A/C. And, in Jamaica and many developing countries, black and brown outs are common, and even sometimes spikes, so you'll need a UPS, which don't come cheap and need replacing often in that climate.
And, to reap the benefits of the Internet, you'll still need a phone line, dedicated for the Internet. Cable and Wireless, the monopoly land-line company in Jamaica, had a great deal for Jamaican schools -- if you filled out the right form (only available from the Kingston head office) and sent it through the regional Ministry of Ed. office to a specific person within C+W, they would give you free Internet access. Of course, you still had to pay the monthly and per-minute phone charges. We were working with the competitive cell-phone company, digicel, to get cheap or at least flat-rate Internet for particularly rural schools which couldn't even get a land line strung to them.
But beneath all of this, there are fundamental problems of development that are More Important. Clean water, sanitation services (double-ventilated pit latrines will banish every bad thought you've had about pit latrines!), and sufficient food come to mind. A child who's hungry, or sick is not a child that's going to be learning much from anything, even if it has a mouse attached.
The problem here is message. What foundation or agency wants to say "we installed 50 pit latrines" when they could say "We set up a computer lab in a rural community" ? Who will fund pit latrines over computers? Along the same lines, who will fund a project to maintain existing labs, build local capacity, or set up a repair fund over dropping new computers in?
These questions end up going to fundamental morality-of-development-policy issues that I'm not sure have pretty answers.