Why the First Mile and not the Last?

Lynnita Paisley and Don Richardson

For many years, people working to enhance telecommunication infrastructure and applications have referred to rural communities as being at the "last mile of connectivity." The concept of the "last mile" carries a lot of negative connotations and compels us to assume the perspective of an urbanite looking down at the rural margins. Titus Moetsabi was the first to turn this statement on its head and help us think instead of rural communities as being at the "first mile of connectivity." This term expresses a more equitable and far less urban-centric view of the challenge of providing everyone with the option of connecting themselves to the rest of the world and all it has to offer.

When Titus stood up and coined the phrase at a "rural connectivity" workshop attended by many Southern African grassroots rural organizations in Harare in February, 1997, there was an audible "ah-ha!" from the participants. Several participants related that during the workshop they had felt depressed about the dismal prospects of ever having basic telephone services made accessible to their friends and families. When Titus turned the "last mile" on its head, he re-energized the group and gave us a fresh way of looking at the challenge. Perhaps it is Titus' experiences as a popular poet and communication for development practitioner that gives him the ability to help us recognize the power behind the words we use to describe technical and developmental realities.

If rural communities are the "first mile," then the real challenge for enhancing rural connectivity lies with the urban-centred governments, businesses and agencies that have for so long ignored or placated the desires of rural people to get connected to the world. The challenge is not technical or financial, but political and ideological. From the vantage point of a rural community in a developing country, getting connected with phone lines, payphones, community telecentres and even Internet services is not a luxury or an "inappropriate" use of technology for development.

For a rural person, getting connected is a means for sharing the wide range of options available to urbanites, a means for making better and more informed decisions, a means for staying in contact with friends and families who migrate to urban areas for work and education, a means for linking their businesses to the trade, transportation and commerce systems of urban areas, and a means for accessing the services (health, education, information, etc.) that enable urban people to improve their lives.

Many urban people, and many of those who make decisions about allocation of development resources, take the privilege of connectivity for granted. Until one has experienced the daily difficulties and knowledge access deficits faced by the "great un-wired" of the world, then one has no business deciding what is, or should be, in their best interests. Those of us who advocate for improved rural tele-communication infrastructure and applications in developing countries are used to hearing urban decision-makers question the drive for rural connectivity. "Shouldn't the recipients of rural development project interventions be getting more appropriate technology?" "Isn't this just another case of pushing Western technology at people who will be overwhelmed or culturally damaged by it?" Rural people in developing countries are quite adept at appropriating Western technologies for their own goals and objectives. Rural people have every right to desire and demand the tools that help improve quality of life, health, prosperity and cultural vibrancy. "Politically correct" stances on the inappropriateness of telecommunication technologies, such as village telephones, as tools for rural development can be frustratingly myopic.

Despite the positive thrust of the "first mile" perspective, there are some dangers in pushing for rural connectivity at any cost. It is possible for any technology to be used inappropriately if the technology is beyond the control and influence of those who would use it. Solutions for rural connectivity are best developed with and for rural people. Rural people must be enabled to participate in making decisions about how and where telecommunication technologies will be put to use. Access to the technologies, and influence on their use, must be equitable across the diverse groupings within rural communities (including gender, class, ethnicity, age and wealth). To be sustainable, rural telecommunication technologies need to be designed with rural people as active participants in strategizing, planning, implementing and evaluating.

The field of "communication for development" has a long legacy of the critical application of technologies, particularly communication technologies, for development. This book is designed to bring together the practitioners, perspectives and lessons-learned from that field to add new understandings and knowledge for the advancement of telecommunication technologies for rural development. Whether we like it or not, these new technologies are rapidly finding their way into some rural communities while other rural communities are being left off the connectivity map indefinitely.

The introductory chapter that follows, by Don Richardson, helps contextualize these two fields of practice, and tries to bridge the gap between communication for development practitioners and telecommunication experts who provide services to rural areas. For some unknown reason, few communication for development practitioners have ever considered tools such as telephones to be of significant value in the technological toolkit of communication for development practice. We have worked for decades with rural community radio, participatory video and print applications, but we have tended to ignore telephones, fax machines and newer telecommunication applications such as the Internet. At the same time, rural telecommunication experts, technicians and engineers, may find that their rural systems are poorly used, poorly maintained and money losing because they have not followed the basic communication for development prescription of peoples' participation in technological choice and development.

In Section 2, we examine the lessons that have been learned from other communication media applications and participatory communication for development practices in the field. Ricardo Ramírez reminds us that sustainability is achieved through the active involvement of multiple stakeholders, each one using and providing information. Communication, the process whereby various participants are linked and can exchange information, is an essential element of sustainable development. Participatory communication, then, is an "enabling" process that allows for the development of relevant technology, the empowerment of local organizations, and the effectiveness of external institutions. In light of this, rural development professionals and telecommunication experts need to develop the capacity to facilitate healthy interaction among stakeholders. This will encourage local groups to become active promoters of development and ensure the sustainability of the process.

In Donald Snowden's paper, Eyes see; ears hear: participatory video in developing countries, we learn from one of the early pioneers of communication for development who applied the principles of participatory communication through the medium of video. Snowden's work in Eastern Canada initiated the "Fogo Process," a process which empowered communities by enabling their members to articulate their problems and ideas for the future. Snowden's experience with the use of communication technology (in this case video) motivated him to write Eyes see; ears hear, a handbook for community facilitators. Viewing information and communication technologies (ICTs) as tools for development, he encourages community workers to develop appropriate skills to use these tools. He places a high priority on being involved with the targeted community and on allowing community members as much control over the process as possible. He believes that learning catalysed by effectively employed ICTs will be embraced by communities and lead to long-term development.

If sustainable development is achieved through a participatory communication approach, then the initial stage of research should reflect the same ideals as the entire process. In the next paper, Chike Anyaegbunam, Paolo Mefalopulos and Titus Moetsabi describe the methodology of participatory rural communication appraisal (PRCA) which has been developed by the SADC Centre of Communication for Development. PRCA enables development workers to involve community members in identifying problems and proposing solutions that will be adopted by the community. Research becomes an interactive process, allowing the community to learn about itself. This ensures that the transforming processes initiated will reflect the realities of the rural community, encouraging the sustainability of the development. The PRCA approach may yield many benefits if used during the initial stages in the development of ICT applications and telecommunication systems, with and for rural communities.

In Radio and video for development, Pat Norrish proposes that the ideals of participatory development, coupled with recent technological revolutions, are changing the way communication media are used, and who uses them. Fresh methods are overturning the traditional "top-down" approach to communication, are encouraging situation specificity, and are involving broadcasting professionals in the community in which they are serving. Although such participatory communication techniques have been used since the 1960s, it is only recently that practitioners have started sharing their experiences to arrive at a common understanding of the principles of participation and communication. The emerging participatory communication approach allows the poor to access communication technology to influence their social and political environment. This is a particularly relevant perspective with regard to advancing telecommunication for rural development.

Neil Ford's use of radio documentaries to promote sustainable, democratic development provides a powerful example of participatory communication at work. His case study, Using state media to promote sustainable, democratic development, demonstrates that by involving ordinary citizens in defining their society's high-risk groups, project facilitators can design relevant programmes. In his experience, giving citizens the opportunity to voice their concerns through state radio initiated discussions and action for change at both the governmental and the grassroots levels. The lessons gained from this successful learning experience can be applied to the use of various ICTs in promoting sustainable development. Ford's analysis of the combination of rural radio documentaries and radio "phone-in" audience participation provides an important example of the marriage of media such as telephones and radio in development initiatives.

In Section 3, we learn more about the tools and applications of telecommunication systems that can be applied to rural development initiatives. Johan Ernberg argues that rural and remote areas need advanced telecommunications and information technology to support their public services, business enterprises, and educational systems. Low-cost technology is available to set up effective rural networks, but lack of awareness of the technology and lack of skills in using it are formidable obstacles to its integration in communities. Community telecentres - centres that make available a range of information and communication technology facilities to people who cannot individually afford such services - can provide rural communities with access to advanced technology and efficient services that are comparable to the services available in urban centres. At the same time the staff of the telecentres can provide training to those unfamiliar with the technology, ensuring that the community members are able to use the services. Innovative methods of involving rural communities in the global village will require the appropriate use of telecommunication tools to overcome the barriers to participation.

The poor telecommunication infrastructure of the African continent prevents its rural inhabitants from accessing the benefits of inexpensive, reliable services. Mike Jensen and Don Richardson suggest that wireless technologies "woven" with land-based infrastructure, satellite systems, cellular phone systems, and point-to-multipoint radio systems may be an effective solution to the technological difficulties of rural African communities. They explore the potential that these "weaves" have to close the gap between rural and urban service levels, and outline some of the problems involved in providing such systems.

Telecommunications is recognized as a major force supporting economic and social development. David Barr shares with us five key principles as a framework for providing rural and remote areas with telecommunication services. Provision of universal access, efficient rural programmes, an appropriate regulatory framework, internal and investment financial resources, and a commercial approach are principles that will lead to profitable and valued telecommunication systems. These systems need to be effectively maintained, expanded and enhanced to secure their continuing commercial viability and community support.

Section 4 moves us from technologies and the design of information and communication systems for rural communities to the "applications" of those technologies and systems within participatory rural development initiatives. Don Richardson looks at the use of the Internet as a tool for rural and agricultural development. Enhanced communication services and accessibility of information are related to social and economic development. In the "global village," the privileged are those with access to information; typically these people reside in urban areas. Rural people, particularly the food-insecure, must be given the opportunity to obtain relevant information, to communicate and to plan their own development efficiently.

The Internet is a flexible, decentralized, information-sharing tool and has the potential to support a variety of rural development endeavours. It offers the possibility of initiating economic development for agricultural producers, expanding the effectiveness of community development programmes, increasing the amount of participatory research conducted, promoting small business enterprises, and improving news media networks. If used as a tool for encouraging two-way communication processes and creating links between people, then it may open up new opportunities for rural people to participate in the global society.

Titus Moetsabi echoes Richardson's perspective and provides a deeper orientation to the participatory communication for development methodologies through which Internet applications can enhance and promote food security. Involving community members in the analysis of problems and respecting their ownership of local decisions will result in development that meets the members' real felt needs. The Internet is a tool that may promote participatory communication, but only if its design and implementation are done in a participatory manner. Communities need to understand the structure of the electronic system and participate in the design of a customized communication programme tailored for their interests, needs, and local culture. Approaching electronic communication development in this way allows communities to be prepared for the significant changes that could result from the ensuing rapid information exchange.

Community telecentres allow populations in rural and remote areas to participate exchanging information. They offer a practical and community-oriented way to bring new information and communication technologies to the service of rural people. Johan Ernberg describes how rural community telecentres can empower communities in the information society. Although the food-insecure may not place high priority on the development of ICTs in their community, access to such technology could prove to be vital to their economic development. Bringing such people into the "information society" requires two things: policies that encourage the growth of the telecommunication and information sector, and the development of efficient, accessible infrastructure.

Community telecentres are effective tools for development when integrated with a larger community development programme that involves all stakeholders. Before telecentres are adopted into national level programmes, developers need to study the impact of the centres on rural and remote areas. Ernberg describes an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) programme aimed at establishing pilot projects in developing regions in order to further explore the issues related to the adoption of telecentres.

It is widely accepted that ICTs may support economic and social development, but a framework to guide the introduction of these technologies to developing regions is absent. In their paper, Applying the lessons of participatory communication and training to rural telecentres, Jon Anderson, L. Van Crowder, David Dion and Wendy Truelove propose a number of ideas that could be included in a set of guidelines for rural telecentres. In choosing the location of a telecentre, issues such as potential demand, its proximity to other institutions, and local infrastructure need to be addressed. A participatory assessment of local needs and skills, as well as an understanding of local communication processes and channels, should determine which services to develop. Community members need to be familiar with the services available to them, be encouraged to implement their own applications, and be involved in all levels of the project's development. Training and support for both community members and staff will be important at every stage of the project. Finally, the process of telecentre development must be monitored and evaluated using participatory methodologies.

Only by sharing experiences will development facilitators be able to avoid the pitfalls of "top-down" technology transfer. It is hoped that professionals will reflect on their own experiences and add to these ideas to arrive at a common set of principles and guidelines for developing rural telecentres.

Participatory jargon is prevalent in communication for development discussions and theories, but using the fashionable terms does not guarantee that development activities reflect participatory ideals. In his paper Training community animators as participatory communication for development practitioners: lessons for rural telecom initiatives, Don Richardson looks at some of the considerations involved in training community animators as participatory communication for development practitioners, and sheds some light on what might be involved in training future generations who will work more and more with rural telecommunication technologies.

If we are to facilitate participatory communication among the communities with whom we work, we must make a conscious effort to practise it ourselves. It is not enough to ask community workers to work within the participatory framework; the training of these workers needs to be participatory. Such training programmes should focus less on technological skill and, using a flexible learner-directed approach, allow learners to develop the relational skills needed to facilitate participation. Giving learners the opportunity to learn by doing ensures that the experience is relevant to future work. Instructors, then, need to be facilitators, participants, and "relators" instead of merely being experts in communication technology.

This kind of approach is illustrated well in Neal Gorenflo's paper on Effective partnering and leadership in rural telecommunications: rural distance learning via video conferencing telecommunication - the Northnet experience. Gorenflo describes the complex organizational dynamics that can challenge facilitators of rural telecommunication initiatives. He describes how creative alliances were forged to create a sustainable and useful network in rural Montana. Facilitating such alliances is not easy, but dedicated rural telecommunication advocates, working with participatory approaches, can help organizations realize substantial cost savings and mutual benefits. One of the unique spin-offs of developing rural telecommunication systems is the way that such projects can catalyse and energize new and dynamic relationships among organizations that previously had little contact with one another.

If rural communication programmes are to stay relevant, they must be closely monitored and evaluated. Scott McConnell points out that current evaluations ignore the impacts that ICTs may have on the rural stakeholder communities. In an attempt to focus on the grassroots level, he proposes an evaluation framework to examine the effects that local NGO connectivity (via the Internet) has on unconnected rural stakeholders. In light of the value of the participatory communication approach to development, the communication process, rather than the end result, should be the target of ICT evaluations. Measuring the effectiveness, efficiency, and impacts of the NGOs' use of the Internet is essential to improving rural networks and developing ICT technologies for the people needing them most - rural stakeholders.

Enabling policies have a key role in encouraging rural telecommunication applications for development. Section 5 explores the issues involved in constructing appropriate policies for rural telecommunication development. Heather Hudson reminds us that, although telecommunication services are increasing worldwide, the beneficiaries of these services are primarily citizens of developed nations or urban residents. Access to telecommunications is severely restricted in developing countries, particularly in rural areas. If it is agreed that universal access to information is crucial for development, then developing nations should adopt the goal of providing service for rural people that is comparable to their urban counterparts. Strategies designed to meet this need to take into account the rapid development of cheap, efficient telecommunication technologies, and the changing policy environment that emphasizes private sector investment. National telecommunication policies must adapt to changing user needs, reflect public interest, and incorporate incentives with sanctions in order to make telecommunication services universally available. Only within a favourable policy environment will these services become accessible to the rural members of developing countries.

Public policies that simply make telecommunication technologies available to rural residents will not guarantee their integration into and use by the communities in which they are deployed. Rural telephone companies have a wealth of experience in promoting the diffusion of telecommunication services in rural areas. Linda Garcia and Neal Gorenflo analyse the "best practices" of these organizations with the intention of arriving at a framework for determining appropriate telecommunication policies that build upon the strengths existing in rural institutions and communities. Communication services that benefit rural communities depend less on efficient technology than on effective implementation strategies. Previously successful implementation strategies have been community-based, rural-specific, and carried out through the cooperation of rural telecommunication providers. Effective state policies will recognize that communication services link people and bind communities together, and will capitalize on the strengths of local rural telecom organizations working in cooperation with one another and with their communities.

The argument that rural telecom services should be developed because of their socio-economic benefits is a common one, but the financial benefits of rural and remote services are assumed to be limited at best. Andrew Dymond argues that socio-economic benefits, financial revenues, and commercial viability are closely linked. Telecommunications is a potentially viable sector in every country, but this potential can only be realized through bold policies designed to attract private investors. Such policies will have the objectives of making rural telecommunication a financially attractive investment, and of making the developed services fully available to their users. The demand for telecommunication services exists, and within an appropriate policy environment this sector can capitalize on that demand to achieve maximum commercial and socio-economic benefits.

ICTs are unique tools capable of encouraging sustainable economic and social development in rural and remote areas. Like any tool, they must be used skilfully in order for their potential to be realized. When integrated into a programme that envisions community participation and information sharing, communication systems become enabling forces for development. Successful implementation of these systems will require communication and development professionals to exchange past experiences and ideas for future directions. As we learn from one another we can move towards a shared framework for advancing telecommunication to support development - towards meeting the challenges of the "first mile".