Distinguished guests and participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is indeed a great pleasure and honour to be here with you this morning to address the expert meeting on rural information networks in Asia and the Pacific: innovative practices and future directions. I first of all welcome all of you, on behalf of FAO and on my own behalf, to the meeting which is being hosted at the Asian Institute of Technology, a fitting location for an expert meeting on information and communication technologies for rural development.
I note with appreciation the attendance by many participants from countries from both Asia and the Pacific sub-region, experts and representatives from regional and international organizations including UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning, and University of the South Pacific here at this meeting. I would like to extend FAO’s gratitude to each and all of you for your interest in and availability to attend the meeting organized by the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a terrible shame that today’s world of affluence has 850 million undernourished people and 1.2 billion people living on less than one dollar a day. FAO’s 2005 report The State of Food Insecurity in the World again stressed that hunger and malnutrition are among the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, disease and mortality of millions of people in developing countries.
Around 75 percent of the world’s poor and 1 billion of the world’s illiterate people live in rural areas in poor countries. Rural areas, in addition, are home to the vast majority of the 100 million children who do not attend school.
The glaring inequalities between urban and rural people present major obstacles to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and our ambitions for a world free of hunger. Inequality and marginalization of rural people deprive individuals of their potential and reduce the contribution to overall development of a substantial segment of society. As a consequence, poverty and inequalities give rise to malnutrition and undernourishment, gender inequities, high rates of infant mortality and vulnerability, diseases and greater exposure to HIV/AIDS, retarded physical and intellectual development and low labor productivity.
Information and knowledge are vital in the fight against hunger and rural poverty. Yet in the absence of specific policies with adequately funded programmes and support for careful planning, innovations and new technologies can exacerbate urban-rural socio-economic inequalities, creating further knowledge gap. This dilemma must be urgently addressed in a direct and cohesive manner. In this context, FAO, at the first World Summit on the Information Society held in Geneva in 2003, introduced a new strategic framework for “Bridging the Rural Digital Divide to Reduce Food Insecurity and Poverty”. This is not an isolated programme, but part of the larger development context within which FAO and other stakeholders are working 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 component 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 by large live in rural areas and the institutions who serve them – from the world’s information resources. Many developing countries still do not benefit substantively from the introduction and use of new ICT, and as a result the already extreme gap between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor men and women within countries is seen further exacerbated. However, opportunities and successful cases do exist. In China where FAO has worked with the government to document successful applications of ICT in rural development, farmers’ associations have formed to bring economies of scale to the collection, management and dissemination of locally relevant information. This has resulted in improved livelihoods. In Fuyu County, for example, corn growers were able to realize a 140% increase in the market value of their product by having access to and understanding market information.
The digital divide is indeed 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. The rural digital divide exists due to the lack of infrastructure and connectivity, ineffective communication and exchange of information, the lack of human capacity and the acute scarcity of financial resources. However, the Organization also recognizes that technology-oriented approaches to problem solving in development often give insufficient consideration to how and why technologies improve livelihoods. In reality, solutions that simply connect people to each other cannot solve complex institutional and policy issues. In addition, failure to properly address the issue of accessibility to technologies can worsen existing inequalities. Our analysis indicates that successful approaches have given serious consideration to the socio-economic and cultural environment in which the technologies are applied, the local context, gender-sensitivity, and capacity for individuals and institutions to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by ICT.
Ladies and gentlemen,
FAO is increasingly recognized as a knowledge organization, and thus sharing its experiences and best practices have recently been reaffirmed as essential roles – in particular in the field of ICT for development where new technologies and applications are developing very rapidly, but without a significant body of experiences or benchmarking.
The FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific has worked actively over the past few years to collect and analyze case studies with partners in China, India, and Thailand as well as reviewed and disseminated work of partner institutions. These case studies have identified key issues in the application of ICT for rural development, issues that are cross cutting and can be applied to many technical interventions in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, etc. I hope that the experiences gained and lessons learned from these countries will be of use to other countries.
Indeed as the importance of ICT becomes more apparent, our stakeholder and partners are calling on FAO and other international organizations to further promote the use of ICT for development.
I would like to specifically mention that FAO, at its 27th Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific in 2004, was urged to work with member countries and other partners to identify and share information on “best practices” and methods for making use of new information communication technologies. Later that same year, Pacific Heads of Agriculture and Forestry meeting recommended that initiatives should be undertaken to explore opportunities for widening the access of ICT and information resources of relevance to sustainable resource management. At the recently concluded fifth meeting of the high-level group on Education for All organized by UNESCO in Beijing from 28 to 30 November, the heads of states, ministers, top officials of multilateral and bilateral agencies and leaders of NGOs, issued the final communiqué, which among others, committed to further promoting education for rural people and applications of ICTs.
I have noticed that each of you is an expert in one facet or another of the complex field of rural information networks and you all recognize the important role ICT can play in improving rural livelihoods and advancing rural development. As such, you have all agreed to come together and begin the process of identifying innovative practices in the uses of ICT for development, developing normative reports on these practices and disseminating the learning so that it will benefit an ever growing population, and sowing the seeds for future collaboration and partnership in this complex field.
In the context of your deliberations, therefore, the specific challenges faced by the developing countries in the introduction and use of ICT and issues related to growth of existing networks, creating a regional and an international community of practice of ICT for rural development is essential to successfully bridging the rural digital divide for fighting against hunger. I should like to emphasize that rural community networks play a large role in sharing experiences, and developing and disseminating tools, methodologies and training materials. We should therefore harness this resource. For precisely these reasons we are gathering here in Bangkok.
In your capacity as national representatives, technical experts and representatives from regional and international institutions, I should like to urge you to actively participate in the deliberations of this meeting. In addition to consultations on matters of importance to your countries, you should critically examine how information and communication for development can be effectively reviewed and applied to improve the plight of resource-poor farmers. Your recommendations ultimately will play a key role in defining the future directions for ICT applications in rural development in Asia-Pacific and suggest ways for their implementation, including collaboration and project development amongst the institutions and governments represented here.
I am confident that you will achieve the objectives of this meeting and substantially contribute to further the positive impact of ICT applications in the region.
In conclusion, I should like to reiterate that FAO will continue to work closely with member countries and partners such as UNESCO, UNESCAP, USP and other partners – including civil society, NGOs and the private sector – to address issues related to ICT for development in the fight against hunger and poverty. I wish you a successful meeting and a pleasant stay here at AIT.