A former classmate asked me to explain what I was up to, and I wrote back:
The greatest problem in economics is valuing anything that doesn't have a price. Nobody knows where to start. What is the Return on Investment for a newborn baby? What is the business case for destroying the world? Current financial practice is to discount everything at some assumed interest rate. If you do that, you can't ever invest in your grandchildren, or in particular donate to your alma mater.
For those who regard the survival of their own family, their various in-groups, their country, the species, the planet, as non-negotiable imperatives, this question of setting a valuation doesn't arise. But now we are outside the mainstream of economic, political, legal, and every other kind of thought, which has completely accepted the total bottom-line focus as the only imperative for corporations, and is trying to do the same for real people. Well, so be it. We will be laughed at, and then fought, and then we will win, as Gandhi told us. (And then the others will claim that it was their idea all along. Eh.)
Anyway, children are fun, and fascinating to the inquiring mind. It has been said that the proper study of mankind is man, but it's really the study of children that has been moving us forward in the last century or so since William James first lectured on educational psychology, and more so after Jean Piaget took up serious research into child development. All GUI software going back to the Apple Lisa and Macintosh is a minor side effect of the Xerox Dynabook research project to design computer software for children (Smalltalk), a project that is now coming to fruition, and that promises to end poverty.
Here is a bare outline of the work yet to be done.
We have the first-generation children's laptops, and design of the second generation (target price $75) is under way. We have a usable suite of Sugar software, including the Etoys version of Smalltalk, but we have only scratched the surface of what is possible. Think of World War I biplanes vs. any modern jet aircraft. In particular, we have searchable, hyperlinked PDFs and other static electronic versions of textbooks, but no textbooks redesigned to use other available software throughout. There is plenty of prototype material in software such as Macsyma/Maxima, Mathematica, Dr Geo, and Matlab to use in any such design exercise, and some work using SciPy and other appropriate Python libraries.
Schools need electricity and Internet connections in order to use the laptops most effectively. Depending on weather, terrain, and other factors, we can look at any renewable power source: solar, wind, water, any kind of biomass, animal, or child power. In some places all of the existing systems are problematic for technical or economic reasons, and we are trying to invent further alternatives. I am recruiting for a project to convert the Playpump playground merry-go-round from a water pump to an electric generator. We believe that such units could be placed in the poorest and most remote village schools using microfinance, with loans to be paid back by selling surplus electricity in the community.
WiMax wireless (IEEE 802.16) has a much greater range and bandwidth than WiFi. Combined with point-to-point links from towns to villages, WiMax can easily provide Internet for 90-95% of a country's population. It costs about $10 per person to install complete systems, with an expected life measured in decades. Pakistan was among the first to order such a system installed nationwide. The relatively few locations out of reach of such systems will need satellite dishes, and in some countries new satellite operators willing to break the current oligopoly pricing club.
The OLPC XO has immediate benefits in any developing nation. The laptops are cheaper than textbooks, particularly when you think of providing even a tiny fraction of the information on the Net locally. School attendance is up in schools with XOs, and math and reading scores are (anecdotally) showing improvements in some countries. This is before we get to the real innovations in educational software and the new classroom teaching and learning methods that they enable.
But we need research on program results and best practices, and in particular we need to know how these educational opportunities will or will not translate into better jobs for graduates, and the creation of new companies able to hire many more graduates. This will depend on the local business climate, corruption, regulation, infrastructure, terms of trade, etc. That means that someone has to tackle teaching the children how to get together around the world and start sustainable international businesses together. That's the primary Earth Treasury mission, but we tackle anything that gets in the way.
There are opportunities, and some data for e-commerce, outsourcing, local IT services, and much more, but it has not been put together and reduced to a plausible ROI and "business plan" that will tell governments how they might afford the full program, and what specifically to do to have the greatest chances for success. Global aid programs need to be restructured to focus on these opportunities, and away from the typical top-down development projects. We will of course need to continue emergency food and disaster recovery aid, and aid for building out and delivering health services, for as long as emergencies and disasters and pandemics continue, but I would argue that almost all other aid should be redirected to education, local electricity generation, and Internet until we have all children enrolled and connected. Except possibly for Myanmar and North Korea, which aren't having any under the current regimes.
Then what? Well, if all goes well, education and jobs will deal with all of the Millennium Development Goals, ending poverty, hunger, treatable and preventable diseases, and creating a fair amount of co-operation on political and social development. We will reach the last and least of the low-wage nations, and have the opportunity to bring them up to world standards for pay, working conditions, safety, human rights, and the environment. At that point, the anti-immigration debates will lose their economic focus, and have to rely on simple intolerance.
So a lot of us need to get together to make sure that all goes as well as possible. Then:
"We have normality. I repeat, we have normality. Anything you still can't cope with is therefore your own problem." Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy