UNDP has been supporting the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) for Development since the early 1990s. As a direct follow-up to the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, UNDP was requested to implement key areas of Agenda 21 which included a critical information sharing component. UNDP decided to implement this part of the Agenda using the then newly emerging ICTs. By the end of the Millennium, UNDP was supporting over 200 ICT for Development (ICTD) in over 100 developing countries. These efforts were complemented by dedicated regional and global ICTD programmes which fostered knowledge sharing and capacity development.
UNDP ICTD efforts included a wide variety of areas such as access to ICTs (telecenters), e-content, e-health, telemedicine, schoolnets, e-learning, distance learning and e-education. In late 1990s, UNDP partner with non-profit associations to explore the shipment of second hand computers to public schools in developing countries. Until very recently UNDP has been supporting these initiatives and has accumulated massive expertise and knowledge in this area of work, too.
II. Development, education and ICTs
There is nor debate that education is one of the key areas that national governments need to address to foster better human development. The Millennium Declaration reaffirmed this importance by setting MDG 2 which focuses on primary education. ICTs, on the other hand, are part of MDG 8 and are in fact seen only from the perspective of access -and not as a tool to deploy new solutions to tackle old problems.
When it comes to education, it is possible to find similar approaches. On the one hand, if we only focus on access, then this translates into providing the tools and means to foster such access -such as computers and similar e-tools. On the other hand, if we focus on providing educational content and fostering curriculum development, access alone is not the most important factor.
A typical example is the approach taken by most schoolnet programmes. Deploying computers into classrooms does not automatically address the issue of education (literacy, improved academic performance, integration of new materials into existing curriculum, etc.). But it does introduce a new series of issues that for many poor public schools in developing countries can be tantalizing.
III. Issues and challenges
Shipping 2nd hand computers to developing countries has become a booming business in the last 10 years or so. But 10 years in the ICT field is a long time as technologies change on a constant basis and costs are reduced in both nominal and real terms for example. Below we describe some of the key issues and challenges that projects such as this face.
Shipping used computers from industrialized countries bring forward critical logistical issues that the recipient country must be aware of. To minimize costs, shippers send merchandise in large containers which can thus accommodate a large number of units. So for example one container can contain say 400 desktop computers and monitors. Host country officials must be ready to pick up the container, clear customs, secure transportation of the units and find a location to store it before distributing to schools. This has both direct and indirect costs for the recipient that are usually not included in the final price quoted by used-computer shippers.
2. Management and maintenance of shipment
Once the computers are stored in a safe and secure location, the units need to be in inventory (capturing for example serial numbers, type of CPU, etc.). In addition, each unit and monitor needs to be tested to make sure they have arrived in usable conditions. In some shipment that UNDP support, up to 20% of monitors delivered were unusable for example. If the units are shipping without an operating system (which is usually the case for Windows based machines due lo licensing issues), this needs to be installed. So in addition to the extra costs for management, local technical expertise must be available to make sure the unit are usable.
Once the computers are ready for distribution, recipient schools must be ready to take in the units. There are a range of issues here which include: offices space, furniture (desk and chairs), network cables and hubs, air conditioning, security, management of computer room, AC access (see below for more on this), etc. This must this be planned well-before hand. And once again, here we find that schools must allocate resources and even cash to be able to absorb the units. Most public schools in poor or marginalized areas in developing countries are not in a position to do this in the short-term.
3. Management within Schools
Public schools that absorb the new equipment also need to allocate human resources to manage the computer rooms on a permanent basis. Since schools do not have the resources to recruit new people in the short-run, existing staff (teachers or administration) will need to be allocated. On the technical side, schools need to either recruit an in-house expert or outsource technical maintenance to a third party. A few used computer shippers can help identify local support but if the distribution of the shipped units is over a wide geographical area, support might no be adequate. It is thus not surprising to find computers which have been broken for months in a few schools.
4. Electricity and Energy
Most public schools do not have access to electricity. And then they do, prices per kilowatt can be very high (up to $ .75/kw. in some countries). Then option of using solar panels is available in many countries but the installation costs are still high. And this poses the moral hazard of deploying electricity and energy sources only for the locations where the computers will be deployed thus by-passing other critical locations (hospitals, etc.) and the overall population
5. Overall Costs
The cost (to the shipper) of shipping used-computers to developing countries has fallen from $95 in 2001 to $ 50 nowadays – a fall of almost 50%. In the meanwhile, the prices of desktop computers have seen a drop of over 2000% in the same period of time. One can easily purchase a powerful desktop computer for $300. At the same time, many computer companies have established local business that now sell units in local markets. A local market run by local entrepreneurs has also developed to both maintain computers and developed customized applications in local languages. In many country situations, the cost of shipping and using a 2nd hand computer can be higher than buying a brand new unit in the local market.
6. Evolution of Technology
The last 5 years or so have seen a dramatic shift in the ICT paradigm. One is the advent of the so-called netbooks (small powerful laptops) which can be bought for less than $300 -thus matching or even beating the price of desktops for the first time in history). Secondly, the rapid emergence and widespread use of mobile technologies and SMS which could also be used for educational purposes. Ownership costs of either of these new devises is usually lower than that of 2nd hand computers
This is perhaps the most well-known criticism of shipping used computers to developing countries. One the one hand, the issue of e-waste is directly transferred from developed to developing countries. In addition, most developing countries have no policies on e-waste nor have the resources to effectively dispose of the units once their lifetime ends. However, this line of reasoning also applies to new computers in developing countries and thus should be taken from a broader perspective. Finally, develop countries and companies should be aware of this and thus make e-waste policies part of their process of replacing computers, etc.
8. Policy and Development
From UNDP’s point of view, this is the critical challenge. Many developing countries already have long term educational policies that are in the process of being implemented. It is thus important to support national and local governments in reaching these targets which, needless to say, are related to the achievement of the MDGs. Quite a few of the educational policies do not really envisaged the strategic use of ICTs to reach the established outcomes. In these cases, ICT promoters must be able to show the benefits and potential impact that the new technologies can have in the educational process. And certainly, buying and deploying computer alone will not do the trick.
The larger and critical issue is to be able to show that the use of ICTs in schools can: empower teachers too; assist in better lesson and curriculum development; improve the quality of education and trigger higher academic levels; foster the use of local languages; reduce the cost of educational materials by providing digital ones; and enhance school administration and management using the new technologies. Public school systems in developing countries have limited access to resources (human and financial) and thus need to set their priorities right from the start. And for many using computers in schools is not the answer if we only focus on access and use of the technologies
IV. Moving Forward
In this day and age, it seems that shipping 2nd hand computers to poor countries is not the best option available. Although this might work in some cases, better alternative do exist nowadays such as netbooks and low cost brand new computers available in local markets -not to mention the wireless revolution. Nevertheless, from the perspective of education, there is still need to demonstrate that using ICTs in schools lead to better academic performance, improved curriculum and over improvement in the quality of education.