"... the greatest potential of the technology lies in enabling us to do new things. This applies particularly to the people-centred approach to rural development. It calls for a review of priorities and goals by FAO. As many of the social prerequisites of sustainable development have fallen between rather than within any one of the traditional mandates of the UN technical agencies, new cooperative programmes are called for to focus on these needs - using technology, the Internet, the World Wide Web ... "
Bernard Woods. "Ceres", The FAO Review 1, No. 158, March-April 1996.

"Access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) implies access to channels and modes of communication that are not bound by language, culture or distance. New forms of social organisation and of productive activity emerge which, if nurtured, could become transformational factors as important as the technology itself: "
International Development Research Centre 2. July 1996.

"While I recognise the fact that there is a huge gap in terms of the information systems and technology in developing countries there however is a great need for the developing countries to get into the information society with lots of vigour because there is no way our countries can develop without taking cognisance of or participating in the information highway. "
Jennifer Sibanda, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. 17 May 1996.
ISAD Conference Archives, Canadian International Development Agency's Internet-based Informal Survey/
Discussion on Information and Communication Technologies for Sustainable Development 3, 17 March to 30 April, 1996.

Communication for development and the global Internet: conceptual approach

The purpose of this paper is to promote expansion of Internet services in support of rural and agricultural development. It presents a vision of an integrated approach that can lead to the growth of vibrant rural and agricultural communication networks across nations, regions and the globe. An integrated approach recognizes that rural people can benefit from communication networks that enable information to flow to and from rural communities and agricultural organizations. An integrated approach also fosters communication among the many intermediary organizations that work for rural and agricultural development. Thus, the paper focuses both on establishing rural access to the Internet as well as on creating communication networks that help all stakeholders involved in rural and agricultural development to better communicate with one another.

The Internet is not a panacea for rural and agricultural development, but it does bring new information resources and can open up new communication channels for rural communities and agricultural organizations. It offers a means for bridging the gaps between development professionals, rural people and agricultural producers through the initiation of interaction and dialogue. It can foster new alliances and interpersonal networks together with lateral and cross-sector links between organizations. Most importantly, it can support mechanisms that enable the bottom-up articulation and sharing of information on needs and local knowledge. Primary benefits include increased efficiency in the use of development resources, less duplication of activities, reduced communication costs and global access to information and human resources. None of these benefits are guaranteed by the technology of the Internet. Instead, they are realized when people work together to make the most of a decentralized and accessible communication tool.

There has been a rapid increase in the use of the Internet in developing countries (Richardson, 1996a). With regard to rural and agricultural development and the Internet, organizations that support the betterment of rural populations and improvements in agriculture have important roles to play. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), is playing an important role in assisting the establishment and growth of Internet services for rural communities and for agricultural development. In partnership with local stakeholders and other development agencies, organizations like FAO can help rural communities and agricultural organizations realize the benefits of improved communication and access to information.

Benefits of rural Internet access and improved horizontal communication

Enormous benefits await rural communities and agricultural organizations when communication improves between the non-governmental organizations, government services, private sector entities and educational institutes that support rural and agricultural development. By sharing information about their activities in the fields of agriculture, rural development, forestry, fisheries, health, nutrition, and education, these agencies can better serve rural people and farmers. They can make use of "lessons learned," determine and use "best practices," and coordinate information about particular regions or successful development approaches. At the same time, rural communities and agricultural organizations can benefit equally from improved vertical channels of communication that enable rural stakeholders and farmers to communicate with decision-makers and others concerned with development.

An integrated approach to the expansion of Internet services will promote the necessary (but often neglected) horizontal communication between agencies linked to rural and agricultural development. At the same time, an integrated approach will provide the tools to enable rural people and farmers to enter directly into new vertical communication relationships with external agencies. Improving horizontal communication can improve the quality and relevance of information resources and and physical resources available to rural people. Improving vertical communication between rural people, farmers and decision-makers can improve the quality of decisions that affect rural communities and agricultural organizations. An integrated approach provides for vertical communication by establishing rural Internet access sites, and by enhancing horizontal communication between such entities as agricultural colleges, agricultural input and equipment suppliers, government extension services, rural development organizations, health care agencies, and agricultural research and documentation centres.

Improved horizontal communication can also include existing media services that serve rural stakeholders. For example, throughout the developing world, rural radio and, increasingly, television broadcast services, are important information delivery mechanisms. Their services improve significantly through the exchange of information and news by way of the Internet. African news items are commonly circulated among African news agencies via the Internet. Rural African radio stations are able to take advantage of Internet services to provide extension and rural development information from qualified research sources from around the world (cf. the Developing Countries Farm Radio Networks).

Internet services, in conjunction with existing and more widely used communication media such as rural radio, will enable the broadest enhancement of information and communication resources for rural people. For example, national or regional agricultural market information systems or extension information systems hosted on the Internet can be excellent information sources for the staff of rural radio stations throughout a region or nation. Using information on current market prices broadcast by rural radio stations (including national variations and international figures), farmers can negotiate better prices from local buyers.

Improved horizontal communication and improved information resources can improve the quality of the decisions and interventions that impact upon rural people. At the same time, these improvements can enhance rural peoples' direct participation in development. Establishing rural Internet access sites and facilities in concert with efforts to enhance horizontal communication networks among the agencies involved in rural and agricultural development is the essence of the integrated approach highlighted in this paper.

A recent survey or rural Internet users in North America (Mayhew and Richardson, 1996) highlights the value of Internet access as perceived by current rural users. Rural Internet users indicate that the Internet provides them with a very convenient method for quickly accessing a large volume of information without being impeded by geographic barriers. They further report finding significant information value from the Internet in the form of new ideas, discussion groups, access to expert advice, continuing education resources, increased global understanding and cultural awareness, and information that helps make them better and more informed citizens. Additionally, they report social benefits including new opportunities to overcome geographic isolation, increased social interaction, opportunities to organize and advocate for social change, equalization of urban/rural disparities and new links between urban and rural communities. Agribusiness users highlight the Internet's value in enabling them to expand their markets to global audiences and to establish national and global business networks and alliances that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Elements for sustainability and success

Current evidence suggests that to achieve sustainability and success, Internet projects for rural and agricultural development must begin with the real needs of the local community of users. Project planners should be aware of the user needs of rural and agricultural producers, such as those identified in the above survey. This requires an approach that catalyzes local participation, supports information and communication needs assessments, creates awareness of potential Internet uses, helps build communities of users, and facilitates locally managed, self-supporting communication and information networks. It also requires attention to capacity building and institutional strengthening for the intermediary agencies that serve rural populations (i.e. NGOs, extension services, health care agencies, various government bodies, and the private sector) so that they can make the most appropriate and creative use of Internet tools.

At the policy level, the success of Internet projects in development requires dialogue with national telecommunication agencies to help transform and liberalize the monopolistic telecommunication service environments common in developing countries. Monopolistic services tend to stifle the technological innovation, infrastructure investment and price improvements that often come with competition. Many analysts indicate that where telecommunication reforms have occurred, telecommunication services have "expanded and improved at a faster pace, productivity has increased, new services have become available, and in some cases, international capital markets have been tapped effectively" (Saunders, Warford and Wellenius, 1994).

Understanding communities of Internet users and building capacity for local management of communication and information sharing applications lies at the heart of the integrated approach suggested here. FAO, through its Electronic Information Systems (EIS) Working Group, is in the process of developing an integrated rural Internet approach that begins with the needs of people in rural and agricultural communities. This approach is based on FAO's 25 year experience with a "communication for development" methodology.

A communication for development methodology typically begins with partnerships with local people and organizations to assist them in developing local communication processes by using tools such as community radio and small format video. Within pilot projects in Chile (FAO), Mexico (FAO) and Southern Africa (FAO and IDRC), this methodology is being used with rural stakeholders and agricultural producer organizations to assist in developing user managed Internet communication systems. At the same time, these initiatives work in concert with projects to create national agricultural information and communication networks that strengthen information sharing both horizontally and vertically. Such integrated approaches are achieving important economic and social benefits for rural users, while enabling national agencies to realize significant interorganizational efficiencies.

Communication for development methodologies deserve wider understanding. They are linked to participatory development methodologies and resemble basic computer systems analysis approaches which should start with the needs of computer users. Communication for development methodologies do, however, provide development planners with a conceptual approach that puts rural people, rural organizations farmers and agricultural organizations in positions where they can help direct communication and information network development (FAO, 1990a). Communication for development methodologies can be important factors in achieving sustainable development:

"People oriented development can only realize its full potential if rural people are involved and motivated and if information and knowledge is shared. Communication caters to the human dimensions of development: it establishes a dialogue with rural people, involves them in the planning of their own development, provides information as a basis for social change and conveys the knowledge and skills required to improve the quality of their life. Communication methodologies and tools can help overcome the barriers of illiteracy, language, intercultural differences and physical isolation. "
(FAO, 1996a)

This paper outlines the elements of an integrated communication for development approach applied to the Internet and rural and agricultural development, together with recommendations for a strategy and activities, and a summary of Internet activities in developing countries. The key recommendation is that development agencies adopt an Internet and development strategy focused on enhancing communication and information sharing, both vertically and horizontally. Specifically, communication can improve between and among rural communities and agricultural organizations and with the intermediary agencies that serve those communities and organizations with advice, project support, research, extension, and training. The cornerstone of this strategy is capacity building activities for rural and agricultural organizations to catalyze and enhance locally managed Internet use, tools and resources.

Collaboration among agencies supporting Internet and development initiatives can achieve important "multiplier" effects as agencies harmonize their efforts while ensuring that they serve their particular constituencies. Ideally, development agencies, in partnership with stakeholders, could make full use of Internet tools such as the World Wide Web and interactive discussion tools to assist in the harmonization of Internet and development efforts (e.g. the Canadian International Development Agency's recent Internet and development discussion forum, or the Bellanet initiative).

All stakeholders must encourage development agencies to engage in collaborative efforts that lead to activities and projects focused on rural and agricultural development. Collaborative activities that enhance understanding of the Internet's role in development are important for all stakeholders, including development planners. Through sponsoring workshops, publishing case studies, producing audiovisual resources, catalyzing policy dialogue and providing forums for creative discussion of Internet and development strategies, development agencies can ensure that the Internet becomes an appropriate development tool.

A vision with cautions and a call for "champions"

"The source of cyberspace's obsessive appeal isn't technology or information but people. In fact, it is really an interpersonal medium in which information plays a supporting role... Cybercitizens aren't introverts engaged in the solitary pursuit of arcane knowledge, but real people interacting with other real people around common interests and concerns. A request for advice, a cry for help, an invitation to play: desires like these and their satisfaction are at the very heart of the online revolution today. "
Rick Smolan. 1996. 24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave.

This paper presents an optimistic vision. It is a vision based on two key critical assumptions. First, achieving an integrated rural Internet development approach in a given nation or region requires the collaborative participation of a variety of agencies, organizations and government services. At the best of times, such collaborative participation is difficult to achieve for any endeavor.

An integrated rural Internet development approach also requires leadership among individuals who can put aside considerations of institutional competition. Such leaders must demonstrate, through action, their belief in the value of information sharing over information hoarding, and their dedication to rural and agricultural development. Achieving the vision presented in this paper requires us to assume that organizational collaboration is possible and that the leaders of rural and agricultural Internet initiatives are committed to participatory communication and information sharing. This is not always the case.

Lessons learned in North American rural and agricultural Internet development initiatives point to the fact that effective projects begin with the leadership of individual champions who are predisposed to collaborative and participatory development. Their leadership often compels less enthusiastic leaders to join with Internet initiatives. Identifying and supporting such champions is the key to facilitating sustainable and effective projects. Without enthusiastic champions, most Internet projects will fail. It is not enough for development planners to build wonderful network systems and provide people with computers and modems. Potential users must identify with a vision for beneficial applications, and they are most likely to respond to the visions of enthusiastic peers and colleagues.

Canada's "Open Government" project, for example, began in 1993 with the goal of providing government information through the Internet. The project used an integrated approach to horizontal networking among government ministries. At the same time, it focused on promoting community, private sector and educational access to the Internet in order to generate vertical demand for services from the grassroots.

This vast project was initially led by only three young civil servants with a small budget and the support of a handful of high level government champions. In its early stages the project met with a great deal of resistance across many ministries. Despite resistance, the project staff worked diligently to identify and empower institutional champions, most of whom were located at relatively low levels within the Government. Within two years, almost every Government ministry had at least one champion working to place useful information on the Internet and strengthen links between ministries and with the public.

In 1995, approximately 12 percent of Canadian adults had used the Internet (Leitch, 1996). As the public became more adept at accessing available Government information, they began to demand more resources, while often providing vocal praise for the initiatives underway. Before long, a momentum had developed that could no longer be resisted by reluctant bureaucrats, and eventually the provision of government information on the Internet became a matter of public policy. Parallel federal and provincial government efforts to strengthen community, private sector and educational access to the Internet helped push further demands for government information, along with mechanisms for engaging the government in new forms of electronic dialogue. By July of 1996, almost 30 percent of Canadian adults (one of the highest usage rates in the world) had used the Internet. This remarkable doubling of use is attributed to greater access: at work, through community Internet services, and through community centres and libraries (ibid.). Government supported information resources are among the most popular Internet sites used by Canadians.

The lesson to be learned from the Open Government experience is that open and collaborative electronic information systems require dedicated champions. Elaborate project plans and large budgets do not ensure that people engage in collaborative communication and information sharing. Champions can be identified by looking toward those agencies and staff members who already evidence a predisposition to information sharing, dialogue and people's participation. Once identified, they must be encouraged, provided with recognition and be given access to technical and human resource support.

Despite the positive Canadian success described above, the percentage of rural Canadian adults who have used the Internet is less than 15 percent, or less than half the national average. Rural communities represent the "last mile of connectivity" in both developing countries and developed countries. Rural communities around the world tend to be under serviced in their access to the various technologies, Internet services and telecommunication connections that help transmit those services. In Canada, poor Internet access relates directly to a poor rural telecommunication infrastructure. This situation is the result of antiquated telephone lines in many rural areas combined with a general policy myopia about the needs and desires of rural people. Several developing countries have better rural telecommunication systems than many parts of rural Canada.

This situation is changing quickly, and the Internet is the catalyst. Rural peoples' desires to use the Internet are resulting in unprecedented and vocal demands for rural telecommunication improvements (Richardson, 1997). In Canada, strong rural Internet champions are emerging from agricultural producer organizations rural economic development agencies, health care groups and educational bodies. Their advocacy efforts are quickly leading to change and to government and private sector support for rural telecommunication enhancement and Internet support services. For example, a group of a dozen rural Internet advocates, supported by farmer organizations were successful in persuading a major private sector telecommunication company to spend over $Can 200 000 000 to upgrade rural telephone services in two major provinces. In the last eighteen months, over 50 rural and agricultural producer organizations in the province of Ontario alone have joined the Internet community by establishing electronic information resources.

Similar scenarios are being played out in developing countries as desires for Internet service open peoples' eyes to the quality of their telecommunication systems. The Internet has sparked an unprecedented interest in telecommunication infrastructure among people who previously had little interest in telephone wires. A decade ago telephone systems could only be expected to carry voice conversations between two people. Now they are expected to move vast libraries of information, photographs, music and even video while enabling dozens of people to communicate with one another at the same time. Where once we could tolerate static and interference during a telephone call over poor rural telephone lines, we tend to become quickly frustrated by the very same lines when they are responsible for limiting our access to information and multiple communication channels.

The demand for telecommunication improvement tends to be most acute among those who are most marginalized from information resources and communication services: rural people, rural organizations and farmers' groups. People who once had very little interest in telecommunication infrastructure are now learning what they need to know to advocate for the communication and information tools they desire. In some cases, rural people and farmers take it upon themselves to create their "homegrown" services when established telecommunication bodies do not meet the demand. Evidence of this can be found throughout the developing world. Examples include the entrepreneurial farmers in Zambia who are working to create a rural telecommunication infrastructure based on new digital wireless and fiber optic technologies, and farmers in northern Mexico who have created an Internet service to enable producer organizations to better communicate and access market information.

This paper challenges development agencies to coordinate their activities to assist rural stakeholders in completing the "last mile of connectivity." Obviously, the challenges to rural Internet development in developing countries are greater than those in rural regions of North America. However, the benefits of rural Internet use and access are equal, if not greater.