Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Hiroyuki Konuma

FAO Regional Representative for Asia-Pacific

He Changchui
Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific
delivered at the

AFITA/WCCA 2004 Conference
(Asian Federation of Information Technology in Agriculture and World Congress on Computers in Agriculture)

Four Seasons Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand
10 August 2004

Dr. Fedro Zazueta (Programme Committee Chairperson)
Dr. Royol Chitradon (Director, Hydro Agro Informatics Institute)
Mr Yukol Limlamthong (Director-General, Department of Livestock Development)
Prof. Mario Tabucanon (AIT Provost)
Distinguished participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning,

On behalf of the FAO Director-General, Jacques Diouf and on my own behalf, I wish to welcome you all to this important conference focusing on information sharing and the application of information management and technologies for agricultural development.

I congratulate the organizers on their choice of the theme for this conference. Information and knowledge are crucial in the fight against hunger and poverty. Yet without careful planning new technologies threaten to exacerbate the knowledge gap. This dilemma must be urgently addressed in a direct, systematic and cohesive manner.

Thailand has made substantial progress in the application of information management and technology to agriculture and rural development. In a variety of applications and projects, ranging from satellite imagery to production statistics, from Field Server technology to rural wireless broadband access, from the model “Village that Learns” to mobilizing rural youth with ICTs, Thailand has gained a wealth of experience, capacity and expertise in this field. The keen interest and personal involvement of Thailand’s Royal Family have been crucial elements in these achievements. The organization of this conference in Thailand would indeed serve as a unique forum for promoting regional cooperation on information development and applications and for fostering partnerships in bridging the digital divide.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, more than 80 low-income food-deficit countries in the world suffer from chronic food deficits and there are 842 million undernourished people in the world. By 2030, the world’s population is likely to increase by more than 40 percent to 8.3 billion and, accompanied by dietary changes, world demand for cereal grains will increase by 52 percent. Concerned with the situation, the world leaders present at the World Food Summit adopted the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action, affirming global commitment to eliminate hunger and malnutrition, and to achieve sustainable food security for all people. Towards this end, the Summit called for halving the number of hungry people in the world by 2015. This global commitment was further reaffirmed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) following the Millennium Summit in 2000. MDG-1 calls for eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, and MDG-8 focuses on building a global partnership for development, which includes making the benefits of new information and communication technologies available to all.

FAO and Information in Action

“Information is vital in the fight against hunger”, noted the FAO Director-General. The first article of FAO’s Constitution mandates the Organization to “collect, analyze, interpret, and disseminate information relating to food, nutrition and agriculture”. FAO has accumulated more than 50 years of information capital and is one of the largest agricultural knowledge resources in existence. The Organization is committed to “improving decision-making through the provision of information and assessments and fostering of knowledge management for food and agriculture”.

In 1986 FAO established the World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) as its corporate framework for agricultural information management and dissemination. The WAICENT framework integrates and harmonizes standards, tools and procedures for the efficient and effective management and dissemination of high-quality technical information, including relevant and reliable statistics, texts, maps, and multimedia resources. Today WAICENT guides the information work of the Organization in two particularly important tasks: bettering access to FAO's information resources and promoting partnerships with other agricultural information networks; and assisting FAO Member Nations in building their own capacity to manage and utilize food and agricultural information for sustainable development.

The importance of knowledge resources and the role of FAO WAICENT in the fight against hunger was supported and reinforced during the World Food Summit held in 1999, where the Summit’s Plan of Action highlighted information and knowledge development as one of the priority areas in achieving food security.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me now concentrate on…

Bridging the Rural Digital Divide Framework

At the World Summit on the Information Society held last November, FAO introduced a new strategic framework for “Bridging the Rural Digital Divide to Reduce Food Insecurity and Poverty”. This framework provides a broader development context in which enable FAO and other stakeholders to work together to reduce poverty and food insecurity. Bridging the rural digital divide is a critical part of the actions necessary to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and is an integral part of poverty reduction strategies, the UN ICT task force, the Digital Opportunities Task force, and the World Food Summit Plan of Action.

An information gap or “digital divide” separates those most in need – particularly the poor and hungry who live in rural areas and the institutions who serve them – from the world’s information resources. The introduction and use of new ICTs have exacerbated the already extreme differences between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor men and women within the poorer countries. To give just one example, in 2003 sixty percent of the population of the Republic of Korea used the Internet, whereas only four percent of the population in Indonesia and less than half a percent of the population in Bangladesh used the Internet.

The digital divide is more alarming in the context of rural communities, which face further marginalization and widening information gaps when compared to communities in urban or peri-urban areas. Moreover, unless due attention is given to gender, these new technologies could very well further institutionalize existing inequalities. The above points underline the necessity for a specific approach designed to address and redress the rural digital divide.

The FAO framework for Bridging the Rural Digital Divide has three components: (1) information content, (2) innovative mechanisms and processes, and (3) human networks.

It responds to a real gap, not yet addressed in a cohesive way by the international development community, and is concerned not only with improving infrastructure and connectivity, but with providing a multi-faceted response to problems of ineffective knowledge exchange and management of content, lack of human resources and institutional capacity, and limited financial resources.

Digital Information Content

An example of digital content is geospatial data. Advances in remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) technology have led to a dramatic expansion in the availability of geographic information – from satellite imagery and geo-reference spatial databases to interactive maps overlapping socio-economic and natural resource data. Yet access to this information remains limited. To help put this information in the hands of those who need it FAO has developed GeoNetwork, a spatial information management system that provides Internet access to a wide range of geographically referenced data from a variety of sources. GeoNetwork is unique in that it is designed specifically to help developing countries improve their capacity to manage spatial information. Its use of free, open-source software minimizes costs to users.

Another example of digital content is multi-lingualism. The reduction of language barriers is a critical step in the successful dissemination of information. As demonstrated in one of yesterday’s workshops, FAO and partner organizations such as Kasetsart University are developing multilingual vocabularies and translation systems for agricultural documents. Multi-lingualism is a potent means for disseminating information particularly to the grass-roots level.

Innovative Mechanisms and Processes

To address the problem of the so-called “last mile missing link” in the digital age, there is a need to put appropriate policies and programmes in place and to develop innovative mechanisms and participatory processes for information dissemination. Dissemination of case studies and good practices for ICT development in the region is vital to fostering the adoption of practical and successful methods. Recently FAO collaborated with the Information Center of the Ministry of Agriculture in China on a study of information systems in rural China. The result is a publication outlining three conceptual models for successfully bridging the rural digital divide, models which we hope to further explore, validate and share with other countries.

Human Networks

The development of international communities of practice for ICT development and applications is essential to the success of the strategic framework for bridging the rural digital divide. Community networks of people, which are a powerful extension tool, play a large role in sharing experiences, and developing and disseminating tools, methodologies and training materials.

One network, the International Information System for the Agricultural Sciences and Technology, or AGRIS, is a cooperative system established in 1974, in which 240 national, international and intergovernmental organisations in participating countries facilitate information exchange and bring together world literature dealing with all aspects of agriculture and related subjects.

The development and adoption of a new AGRIS strategy in 2000 focused on expanding the cooperative’s information management capacity and human networks. This has found strong leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. In Thailand, the traditional AGRIS Centre at Kasetsart University has developed new tools and methodologies and used these to expand from a single AGRIS centre to facilitating and building capacity for a true national AGRIS network of organisations within the country.

In the Philippines, an existing professional network of agricultural information specialists joined forces with the national government and international organisations such as IRRI and FAO, to collect, preserve and disseminate the vast output of national agricultural literature in a way previously unimagined. This new network, the Philippine Agricultural Libraries and Information Services Network, or PhilAgriNet, is now in the process of creating and maintaining an electronic database of Philippine technical agricultural literature and to link this with agricultural scientists world wide.

A key contribution to the international community of practice is the Information Management Resource Kit (IMARK) developed by FAO. IMARK is an e-learning initiative, developed as a team effort with partner organizations including agricultural universities and research institutes, aimed at improving agricultural information management. Working with regional partners like the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and SEAMEO-SEARCA, as well as with national organizations including PhilAgriNet in the Philippines and ICAR in India, FAO is helping to build national capacity in a network of individuals and organisations specialising in agricultural information management.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The three dimensions (digital content, innovative mechanism and process, and human network) I just described reflect the main issues in bridging the rural digital divide in agricultural and rural development. I propose the following solutions to address these issues:

a)  Agriculture is the 21st century is an information based sector. The digital divide in agriculture is far more than a technical development issue. It is recommended that the ongoing agriculture sector policy review should also include an ICT dimension analyzing the gaps in applications, particularly in rural societies.

b)  There should be a national policy and strategic framework on ICT for agriculture as part of the national development plan. The strategies should include a specific programme of action with clear measurements to monitor its implementation and time-bound outputs.

c)  ICT in agriculture is a multi-faceted issue, and an adequate solution will not be found if the agricultural sector acts alone. There is a need to build a national alliance to jointly provide solutions. Such an alliance should not only involve the Ministry of Agriculture, but also the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Telecommunication and Information, and the Ministry of Finance and Planning as well. The private industry and NGOs also have essential role to play in this endeavour.

d)  International organizations such as the co-sponsors of this conference will continue to play an important role in promoting national capacity building and information sharing, through a regional network and global partnership approach.

While gathered here this week you will not only share experiences and learn from each other, but will renew existing partnerships and establish new ones in support of ICT development for the eradication of poverty and hunger.

I wish to extend a special greeting to leaders from communities in Thailand who are actively implementing ICT programmes in their villages and towns. FAO is pleased to see you here and looks forward to hearing your views. I wish to extend a special thanks to the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center and the Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute for their tireless efforts in organizing this conference and for inviting me to deliver this keynote address.

I wish all of you a successful conference.

Thank you.