15 December 2007

A recent report by The Wall Street Journal reminded us of the once-touted Davos pet project: a laptop for every child. It wasn't really a farfetched idea. The creator, Nicholas Negroponte, is a well-established, seriously-intentioned MIT Professor on leave with an earnest intention of bridging the technology divide.

Only doubts were raised at the inflated presentation. Not by Professor Negroponte of course, but by the Davos regular gimmick-makers. When Angelina Jolie or Sharon Stone open their eyes widely and spread their necks deliciously to gasp at a newfound gem of wisdom, who is Bill Gates to differ? When Bono, inspired by our own Jeffrey Sachs, poses or pauses for effect, Intel operatives don't stand a chance.

But as the once elated now slightly dejected MIT Professor found out, the hot air in a Davos meeting soon dissipates with the cold facts outside. Bill Gates does have many more windows -- to open or close --than Ms. Jolie, and Intel can decrease its software prices more competitively without seeking advance authorization from Bono.

With $2 million in funding from Google and News Corp, Professor Negroponte was able to deliver on his venture. Well, the cost by now is $180 rather than $100; but then who's perfect? He discovered, however, how slippery our fragile world is -- particularly as you follow up on pledges made with cameras rolling. The Nigerian President who grandly offered to buy one million machines at the gasping of Sharon Stone has totally disappeared from the scene. His successor is a shy austere man, more inclined to buy a book by Ibrahim Gambari. The Libyans who had promised $1.2 million in purchases have, as usual, changed their mind (it is not related, but why do you think those Darfur rebels, formerly "sons of Libya," refused to attend the latest conference in Sarte? Just a question -- unrelated of course!).

Former Secretary General Kofi Annan -- another Davos devotee -- was so impressed at the time that he brought Professor Negroponte to jointly demonstrate with him a working prototype at the Tunis summit. It was the main event, with U.N. TV zooming more, of course, on the impressed face of our action-oriented, forward-looking, twenty-first century-seeking leader. However, not only is Mr. Annan gone but he has announced the focus of his future plans: the greening of Africa, mainly funded by none other than by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. That window is certainly closed.

All is not lost, however. In fact, having faced his reality checks, Professor Negroponte should be in better shape to proceed professionally and advance cautiously. His dedicated team of 20 should provide inspiring support. Competition should only sharpen his focus. He will certainly find true financial benefactors, not necessarily seeking the limelight, but aiming at better quality of life for under-privileged societies. He will continue to struggle with his own computer as much as he would with the cut-throat competition.

Good intentions never fade away. A non-profit venture in a crucial area of today's world, a project aiming at better understanding among cultures, should always find its way ahead. Professor Negroponte should not give up, particularly after these disappointments. He and his team will get their way, despite current frustrations. We are confident that he will make his impact and we wish him every success.