Poor nations gain more choices in computing

There is debate on whether developing nations should invest in computers over classrooms and textbooks

Other aid organizations focus more on building classrooms and filling them with books.

Room to Read, a nonprofit from the US, focuses on some of the poorest areas in the world, including rural Nepal and Vietnam.

Founded by a former Microsoft executive, Room to Read works with local communities to build libraries for as little as US$4,000, and schools with several classrooms for around US$20,000 to US$35,000. The group also builds computer labs at a cost of about US$30,000 in some schools, but uneven development within countries means only some areas are suitable for such labs, like big cities with reliable power grids.

Everything the group does is funded by donations.

That an increasing number of companies and organizations are working with developing countries on computing issues is good news for people in poor areas, especially where they have little or no access to electronic devices or the Internet.

But most of these giving efforts are young and must continually refine and improve their efforts, and in some cases, their motivation. They are working in extreme conditions, deserts, jungles and mountains, as well as in villages so poor they can barely afford classrooms, much less electricity or Internet connections.

There are 4 billion people in the world living in poverty today, according to a recent report by the World Resources Institute, a US think tank. Their income levels range from US$3.35 a day in Brazil to US$2.11 in China and US$1.56 in India, the report said.

School systems in such nations have as little as US$20 per year per student to spend. Other issues, such as a lack of school buildings in some communities and difficulty in finding qualified teachers, are even a bigger headache.

The central African country of Rwanda, for example, is promoting computer use in schools in order to create a more technology-oriented economy, and the nation's technology minister says computers can cut certain costs if they last a long time.

"The cost of a computer is lower than five to six textbooks over five to six years," said Romain Murenzi, Rwanda's Minister of Science, Technology and Scientific Research. Textbooks don't last so long in his country because of the dampness in many areas, and wear and tear, he said.

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Dan Nystedt

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