The Dangers of Telling a Single Story: Computers for Kids and Bill Gates

Creating solutions for one population base in a society does not mean that the others don’t exist. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a great TED Talk, where she said, “There’s a danger in telling a single story.” She warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

I have three example narratives to explore this through:

  1. When the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program first came out there were a lot of critics. Rather than try and get a bunch of primary school kids on computers, it seemed you could do more good with that money. There were more pressing needs, like clean water and better healthcare.
  2. Kenya is putting one million laptops into the hands of first graders this year, as it was part of the presidential campaign by Uhuru Kenyatta. There are a lot of critics. Rather than getting a bunch of first graders on computers, it seems you could do more with that money (approx $600m). There are more pressing needs, like better teacher pay and facilities.
  3. Google is trying moonshot ideas to get more people connected across the emerging markets, like putting broadband balloons into the air. Bill Gates thinks thinks that rather than getting a bunch of poor people internet connectivity, it seems Google could do more with that money. There are more pressing needs, like solving the problems of malaria and diarrhea in Africa.

There are valid points within each of these three stories, however we know that most decisions have a trade-off in them. Inherent in these examples are two sub-narratives; first, that of short-term versus long-term goals, and second, blanket perceptions of a continent as poor, and all with the same needs.

Short vs Long-term

My critique of the OLPC project is the same as that of the Kenyan primary school computers; that is that I don’t care about them for the same reasons most others do – they’re mostly marketing fluff and you certainly leave a lot of short-term needs in the lurch when you do them. I care about them because anytime you get computers into the hands of millions of children, a simple percentage numbers game tells you that you’ll have a lot more curiosity and exploration, and therefore more interesting stuff happening in 10 years time. Many of the best computer engineers start young, and I’d like to have more quality computer engineers in Africa.

Is there a “right” answer for whether we give kids computers early (or not at all), or spend large amounts of money on seemingly crazy ideas for internet connectivity (or on malaria meds)? Probably not, but we too easily fall into the trap of discussing them as if only a single solution will work.

We need more people to try things that move us beyond the status quo and legacy systems that we see globally for education, healthcare, agriculture, business, money, connectivity, etc. Seemingly crazy have their place too.

The Blanket Perception of Africa as Poor

There are more than poor people in poor parts of the world. The story is not as black and white as Bill Gates paints it, he is creating a false dichotomy when he pits a diarrhetic child against internet connectivity needs. We have a middle-class, we have businesses and we have people progressing faster because of their ability to connect to the rest of the world through the internet.

Paul Collier states it best:

“The dysfunction of Africa has become a part of business folk memory that keeps western multinationals from doing anything, but the Africa of the 80’s and 90’s is not the Africa of today.”

This simplistic narrative is possibly the most frustrating of all, because it’s foisted on Africa by others. It undermines Africa’s ability on the international level to show how it is progressing by boxing us into the old memories of famines in Ethiopia from three decades ago.

Yes, we need solutions for malaria and we need better teacher training (and pay) and school buildings. Yes, we need kids on computers earlier and we need better internet connectivity across the continent. We can explore both without damning the other side for trying.

[Sidenote: I realize that Gates was also digging at Page and Brin for the way that Google.org has shifted focus over the last 5 years. He's statement positions their work as a negative thing, that because they're not focusing on healthcare or education needs for the very poorest countries, that what they're doing is less valuable. Working on connectivity for poor countries is not better, it's not worse, it's different - and I would suggest equally valuable.]

12 thoughts on “The Dangers of Telling a Single Story: Computers for Kids and Bill Gates

  1. Alfred Rowe

    Nice writeup, however I think you misunderstood what Bill Gates was trying to say. Reading your side note I cannot believe you have equated Healthcare to the same value of Internet Connectivity, thats rather sad. Its different I agree but not equally valuable.

    Google’s business is fundamentally internet based so it makes sense when they want the rest of the world to get connected as quickly as possible, thats what Bill was aiming at, Google is primarily looking to increase their market share by throwing money into such an Area.

    Healthcare on the other hand is crucial to everyone be it poor or rich. As you can see most of the advanced countries have wiped out simple healthcare issues like Polio and the likes. So Bill was trying to say if “You are trying to be so generous to the rest of the world, better put it in areas where it helps most people”.

    On the issue of projecting Africa as poor, as much as I don’t like it myself there is nothing that can be done unless Africa starts investing in its own self and getting its priorities right. My country is able to sponsor our National team to a football tournament with 4m USD, pay for TV rights for a Game that is being played in Africa by African’s for 2m Pounds. You come to our Top Government University and they spend forever trying to raise a less than 1m USD to build an accommodation block to house more students. When you take a look from outside of coz you get the picture, we don’t paint a very good picture so people are left with no choice than to give their own interpretations.

    1. Ify

      I agree with Rowe! African Governments needs to invest in priority areas like education and health. However, I disagree that investment in internet technologies is less valuable than investment in health. As a public health professional, I have come to realize that health issues are oftentimes symptoms of a broader structural problem which can be improved through education. The internet can offer that as it helps raise the standard of living of a people through the educational opportunities it offers

  2. Saira Qureshi

    Great post. Was a little shocked myself. I don’t quite see how Gates drew parallels between a for-profit industry based innovation with charity based initiatives.

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  4. Victor Asemota

    I had wanted to classify Bill Gates’ problem as “Messiah Complex” but that would be taking it too far as he has genuinely helped bring awareness to a lot of problems that African governments choose to ignore.

    I believe he was responding to a question that probably touched a nerve as he realizes that he is trying to pay for his past sins with philanthropy while Google is still a thriving business doing good (and evil depending on your side of the coin) for emerging markets. There is always a good and bad side to every action depending on your perspective and those are Bill Gates’ perspectives and they are valid if you look at it solely from his point of view.

    The fact is that those affected in the emerging markets rarely see it from the point of view of Google (sustainable and ethical business) or Bill Gates (philanthropy) they have many needs which need to be met in one way or another and those who decide to assist are welcome.

    An aspect that a lot of philanthropists and those who give aid always forget is sustainability. Another aspect they fail to realize is that the poor do not enjoy being poor and would not want to remain that way if given a choice. The first step to progress is to become self-aware of current situation and the next step is to make a conscious effort to move forward.

    All aid or assistance should be geared towards making people first of all aware then giving them tools to get themselves out of their situation. Education and awareness are critical components of this migration from poverty to sustainability. Even if it takes looking up at a balloon to achieve this, all who do their part are welcome.

  5. Matt Rose

    Bill Gates’ comments struck me as extremely self-absorbed. “They’re not solving the problems I think are important, therefore what they’re doing is worse than useless” to which my response is: “Well, Google is trying to serve the 99.9% of Sub-Saharan Africans who DON’T have malaria”

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