Harnessing Consumerism to Get Laptops to Needy Kids

Once again, an organization is seeking to harness the power of North American consumerism, instead of altruism, to do some good in the world.

Here’s the story, from Technology Review: Looking for a spark, developing-world laptop project to let donors buy 2, keep 1

I’ve blogged a couple of times about the $100 Laptop project, which aims to put cheap, durable laptops in the hands of millions of kids in the developing world. (So far the goal of sellling for $100 hasn’t been reached. But the current price-tag though is a very respectable $188.)

The original business model was this: Sell the laptops for $100. Sell them ONLY to governments in the developing world (not to gadget freaks in the developed world), and in particular to governments willing to order at least a million of the things. Nice idea: focusing on bulk sales allows you to source parts cheaply. Trouble is, not enough governments went for it.

The solution? Tap into the curiosity — and wealth — of North American consumers. The project is now going to allow North American consumers to buy the devices for $400 a pair, with one computer going to the purchaser and the other going to a kid in a developing country.

This reminds me a lot of the much-debated Product Red project, which asked consumers to pay a premium for a wide range of consumer products, with the additional profits going to help women and children in Africa suffering from HIV/AIDS. I blogged about that project here.

I wonder if the people who criticized Product Red are going to criticize this new move by the Laptop project folks. The basic idea is the same: take the fact that North Americans love to buy stuff, and use that to do some good in the world. Their (misguided) complaint ought to be the same, I would think: “consumerism is the problem, not the solution.” And my response will be the same: where altruism proves insufficient, why not tap into more reliable motives?

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