Everybody talks about the digital divide. At the usual level, the divide is expressed in terms of the gap in on-line access: Only 407 million of the world's 6.2 billion people have access.
But in essence, the issue-in development terms-is not really about infrastructure. It is about access to information, which is, in itself, a raw material for knowledge. It is about knowledge to empower and to change. And that is really about content that is local, meaningful and relevant to the knowledge required for personal and social transformation. A world of 500 television channels and instant access to millions of WEB sites can only make sense for the poor, who must make do on less than a dollar a day, if it means finding a way out of the grip of poverty.
A challenge is how to use the assembled experience in farm radio, rural broadcasting, and development communications to create new strategies and build new alliances that can work in the current ICT environment. Creating networks between those involved in community radio and farm radio broadcasting with other development information providers, like IPS, and with development NGOs would seem to be one such challenge to answer.
Everybody talks about the digital divide. At the usual level, the divide is expressed in terms of the gap in on-line access: Only 407 million of the world's 6.2 billion people have access. That's only 6.5 percent-a pretty exclusive minority. What's worse, nearly 70 percent of this privileged few are in North America and Western Europe while only one percent live in African. And some 50 percent of these are towns and cities in South Africa.
Everybody says such inequities are unacceptable. And there is no shortage of ideas to build more infrastructures in developing countries and thereby increase access. As Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) get better and cheaper chances are that capacity will be enhanced and more people in developing countries will have access.
It is widely acknowledged that the right mix of national legislation and investment regimes, coupled with development co-operation, should be in place to create more communication infrastructure in developing countries. But it is also increasingly clear that this alone will neither solve the problem of the digital divide nor put the technologies in the service of development.
For starters, information-rich nations, as well as individuals and groups within those societies will continue to benefit from new innovation. So, by the time the information-poor begin to get the hang of dial-up connections, broad-band high-speed connection would be the norm for the information-rich, so they may even be further apart than they are now.
But in essence, the issue-in development terms-is not really about infrastructure. It is about access to information which is, in itself, a raw material for knowledge. It is about knowledge to empower and to change. And that is really about content that is local, meaningful and relevant to the knowledge required for personal and social transformation. A world of 500 television channels and instant access to millions of web sites can only make sense for the poor, who must make do on less than a dollar a day, if it means finding a way out of the grip of poverty.
The new technologies are capable of creating new communications tools at the community level-whether these be community radio, telecentres, or other combinations of broadcasting with the Internet. These have the potential to reach, serve, involve and improve the lives of whole communities in developing countries by supporting education, health, food security, good governance, democratisation, and economic development broadly.
A challenge for this workshop, that has brought together experts from North America, Europe, Africa and elsewhere, is how to use the assembled experience in farm radio, rural broadcasting, and development communications to create new strategies and build new alliances that can work in the current ICT environment.
Creating networks between those involved in community radio and farm radio broadcasting with other development information providers, like IPS, and with development NGOs would seem to be one such challenge to answer.
Riding the wave of rapid decolonisation in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in the early 1960s, most newly independent developing countries established national broadcasting systems that were as natural as the flag and the national airline. Some were created as new entities while others grew out of older systems that pre-dated independence.
Although there were wide variations in legal structures and governance, the basic mission was the public service model, which meant, inter-alia, state-ownership, public funding and programming that sought to reflect local culture and promote national development. Again, experience varied from place to place but in many-perhaps, most-instances the reality was less than the promise. State ownership was too often equated with government control and development information meant the unchallenged government viewpoint. And there was universal underfunding so that quality programming and staff development suffered.
Our experience in Jamaica may be illustrative of at least one trend. The Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation was established in 1959 with the advice of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which provided the first General Manager. With the CBC's well-established track record in farm broadcasting, it was not surprising that this type of programming was introduced at the very outset on radio. There was even the positive spin-off that the private radio station, which predated JBC, introduced a bit of serious information programming in response to competition from the public sector.
In the 1970s, with financial support from UNESCO and US-AID, the JBC created three regional community radio stations linked specifically to rural development projects, rooted in agriculture. Independent surveys showed that the stations were not only successful in terms of project information but in general community news and cultural activities. But since they were project-funded, sustainability became an issue after the project funding ended.
By the 1980s, however, the three stations were sold as part of a first wave of privatisation that was to end in 1997 with the sale of the entire JBC to one of its local competitors. Hence, from an environment of one public and one private entity in the 1960s, by the end of the decade of the 90s there were eight private radio stations, three private television stations and dozens of private cable operators relaying foreign programming. The state withdrew from broadcasting entirely.
While the details may vary with place and particular circumstance the reality of liberalisation and deregulation and new technologies have altered public broadcasting fundamentally. Many former state monopoly broadcasters have to face competition, from domestic and international broadcasters, for audience, relevance and advertising funds. Forced to win in the ratings in order to survive, entertainment is the driving force behind programming and infotainment dominates what used to be news.
The good news is that the new situation has also created opportunities and space that were impossible in an environment of state monopoly. Unsurprisingly, at least four community radio stations have emerged in Jamaica since the state quit broadcasting.
At about the same time that public broadcasting was peaking in newly independent nations, Inter Press Service, IPS, was created in 1964 - first as a bridge between Latin America and Europe and later, more broadly, as North-South information bridge. Hence IPS was specifically aimed at reducing the imbalance in international news flows by providing opportunities for new actors and new voices.
Structured as an International Association of Journalists the main goal of IPS is "to contribute to development by promoting free communication and a professional flow of information to reinforce technical and economic co-operation among developing countries''.
Given its origin and perspective, IPS-in its daily work-pays close attention to global themes such as the gap between industrialised and developing countries, the effects and consequences of growing imbalances in the global economy, flows of trade and terms of investment, rural development, environmental protection, gender issues and women's rights, health and education, human rights and democracy.
The main instrument for the daily work is IPS World Service, comprised of global stories in English and Spanish, created by a network of journalists in over 100 countries.
Some 1,200 media and other subscribers receive the IPS service worldwide in the principal language services and other languages including Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish. Selected information is also offered on a weekly or fortnightly basis in other languages including Bahasa Indonesia, Bengali, Finnish, Hindi, Nepali, Tamil, Thai, Urdu and Japanese.
A survey of clients and users of the IPS World Service in 2000 revealed that the service directly reached:
In addition to the global news agency, IPS has also had an enviable record of facilitating, through its professional and technical resources, experience and know how, the development of a variety of communications venues and instruments of a global scale and particularly in the South. IPS is uniquely placed to channel communications, exchanges and contacts between organisations with similar values and objectives.
Two examples of relevance to this Workshop illustrate this kind of collaboration. One is from Latin America and the other is from Africa.
Agencia Informativa Púlsar, is a Spanish-language radio news and information agency based in Ecuador. Founded in 1996, it distributes its material via email and the web. It has grown from eight subscribers and now reaches several hundred radio stations some 2,500 other subscribers in more than 50 countries.
Form the very beginning, IPS has been one of its main sources of information . From IPS and various newspapers on the Internet and other sources, the news is rewritten in radio style and from the perspective of Latin American civil society. The service has improved over the years to include audio clips.
More recently, IPS has collaborated with Pulsar in an environment project, which is supported by UNEP and UNDP. The project, called Tierramerica, involves production by IPS Latin America of a weekly page of environment news and commentary, which is carried as an insert in various newspapers in the region.
A 5-minute audio version of the Tierramerica page is sent to Pulsar each week for distribution to some 300 community and commercial radio stations.
SABANEWS is an editorial product produced jointly by the Southern African Broadcasting Association (SABA) and Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa. SABA is the umbrella body for public broadcasters in the SADC region, which aims to improve professionalism, promote democracy, human rights and bring the people in sub-region together. IPS Africa was contracted by SABA to manage and run the service.
SABANEWS was established in March 1995 as a clearinghouse for news produced by the SABA member public radio stations. Its main aim is to reach broader audiences with independent, current information about processes and events taking place in the region. The project was borne out of a need for news focusing on Africa, produced from an African perspective. More importantly however, was not only the need to enable journalists to move away from national coverage but to also deal with issues of democracy and governance at a regional level. It began as a pilot project sponsored by the Frederick Ebert Stiftung (FES).
The first phase of the project focused on improving the content, outreach and efficiency of SABANEWS by installing up-to-date communications equipment in all participating radio stations as well as enlisting the commitment of all public broadcasting stations within the SADC region to participate in this project.
The second phase, which lasted twelve months between 1999 and 2000, focused on strengthening the editorial quality of SABANEWS, through a training programme for journalists and editors (especially female) to enhance their competency to deal with issues of democracy and governance at a regional level. Gender and human rights were an important component of this training.
Since its inception, the project witnessed an increased flow of information on human rights and democracy in the southern African region and beyond. Everyday, SABANEWS moves more than 30 stories covering a variety of human rights and democracy issues. It reaches more than 180 million listeners across the SADC region, some in very remote areas, enabling them to access information on human rights democracy and governance, to which they had limited or no access before.
Other achievements of the project in pursuit of good governance and democracy include the following:
SABANEWS recognises that the media marginalises some groups at community level (predominantly women, youth and children). During its second phase, the project forged strong linkages with regional community broadcast media to increase the voices and perspectives of actors at community level in the SABANEWS feed.
A monitoring and evaluation exercise of radio stations participating in the project revealed an increase in use of the SABANEWS feed by 12.8 percent. Most of the stations make use of the entire SABA feed in a daily basis demonstrating an increased importance attached to regional news and a growing tolerance for human rights and governance stories by public broadcasters. Because of the good quality of the stories, some stations are incorporating parts of the service in their magazine programmes.
The impact of the project has infiltrated other regions in Africa, especially in West Africa. Radio stations in this region have requested a replication of the service.
Recently the project has expanded its news sources to cover community radio stations as well.
Community radio stations often provide news that is often marginalised by the mainstream media and also bring in voices of actors at the community level.
Apart form the editorial component, the project also has a training component where senior editors from the various broadcasting are attached to the editing centre in Harare for training in regionalising news content, gender training as well as technical training, with a specific focus on more efficient use of the internet as research tool in news production.
The importance of community radio in empowering the voices of local community members is reflected in an experience which the IPS Regional Director for Africa, Farai Samhunju recently had in South Africa where she was evaluating a community radio station in the Orange Free State (Radio BBT).
This was the first black community radio station in this province. It penetrated the communities much more than SABC (South Africa Broadcasting Corporation) could do for example.
She recalled an announcement on the station that the local member of Parliament would be visiting the community to take questions on his stewardship-an event which drew thousands of citizens wanting to ask him questions about the various election promises.
If history and the evidence of declining resources for development are useful guides to the future then we can safely conclude that the transfer of knowledge for development in Africa will not come from rapid construction of ICT infrastructure on the continent
Technology is important, but it is not reasonable to expect massive increases soon in availability of computers, satellite links, more bandwidth, more plain old telephones.
Nor will the needed knowledge explosion come from any new enlightenment by old-style government broadcasting entities with their history of over-promise and under-performance. Hence, the need is for new alliances.
Given its history and experience, IPS can be instrumental in providing the information and analysis to shape the agriculture and rural development content of the new and emerging community radio stations. We can be helpful in the training of rural radio broadcasters, especially in information gathering and processing and in building and managing databases.
From the perspective of the international community, there needs to be a commitment to be there for the long run. Community radio, arm radio like all other emerging media seeking to operate in the new ICT environments will face challenges of sustainability.
But precisely because these stations are often helping to implement official national policies for universal access to information and communication they should therefore receive both national and international support. Their sustainability should not be tied to exclusively to commercial viability but to their capacity to provide information to create knowledge for empowerment at the community level. (END)
IPS World Desk
Mexico City, Mexico
February 19, 2001
Note: Claude Robinson, Editor-in-Chief, IPS was Director General, Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation from 1990-97.