The global development discourse is marked by contrasts. A few of the notable contrasts are prosperity against poverty, knowledge against ignorance and globalization against marginalization. The two reinforcing clusters are seen as globalization, knowledge and prosperity and marginalization, ignorance and poverty. Increasingly knowledge is considered to be essential to escape both poverty and social marginalization. As ESCAP has stated, “Knowledge is becoming the key resource.” Addressing the Second Global Knowledge Conference (GK II) the President of the World Bank stated that the world had moved to a revolution, which is built on knowledge, on technology and on information. “Knowledge, if it is properly transferred, if it is made available to all, gives the greatest opportunity for people to advance themselves and to progress in the fight against poverty.” The information and communication technology is an important interface to transfer knowledge and technical expertise and living skills. The interface potential of information technology should be assessed, applied and monitored within the current context of development achievements and failures.
According to the UNDP administrator, “The challenge of information technology is seen both as an enormously important opportunity and an expensive distraction from solving basic problems… There is still debate about technology, when really the debate should be about culture and modality. There are 900 million adults in the world who are illiterate. How are they going to confront this new technology?”
Rural women and girls constitute a large part of the global illiterate population. According to ESCAP, “In the knowledge society education is central to personal, organizational and national wellbeing. Educational attainments on a lifelong basis are becoming correlated with high monetary and social value.” Education for all is still an unfulfilled global goal. In the Asia-Pacific region, for rural women and girls access and achievement in education as a means to improve wellbeing and livelihood are still unattained opportunities. It is highly probable that an information and communication technology (ICT) divide could widen the urban-rural disparity in education and access to contemporary knowledge to shape their livelihood strategies in a world that is characterized by increasing economic integration. Rural women and girls would be further isolated in the knowledge society.
The mandate of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is to create equal opportunities to rural women and men in their access and use of technology for agriculture and rural development. Traditionally, FAO has supported information diffusion programmes through national agricultural education and extension systems. But, influenced by the ambivalent national priorities to reach rural women and by institutional constraints including allocation of meagre resources and lack of implementing expertise, the outcome has been uneven. Historically, FAO has encouraged innovation to expand rural access to new technology, including use of communication technology such as video and radio. Within the current context marked by opportunities and threats posed by ICT in disseminating information and distributing the key resource of knowledge, and the increasing urban-rural disparity in education and contemporary learning, FAO seeks to facilitate innovative partnerships and modalities to expand learning opportunities among rural women and girls. Such a course of action is built on the evidence that education and information provide women with access to knowledge for empowerment.
The agricultural education system and distance-learning system at all levels (formal and non-formal, primary, secondary, tertiary, technical/vocational and lifelong education), recognizing the needs of rural women and girls, should aim for impact-oriented collaborations. A key partnership should be forged to promote rural access to education and contemporary learning through effective collaboration among the key institutions that focus on agricultural education and distance learning. In Asia, FAO could facilitate productive associations among the existing educational systems that focus on formal and non-formal education. The dominant educational systems that could be targeted to serve the rural clients, particularly rural women and girls, are national agricultural education and extension systems and open-university systems. The agricultural educational system was founded on the idea of applying science and technology to promote food production. The open-university system was seen as an institutional response to meet the accelerating demand for higher education in countries where population growth was high, particularly among the youth, and where there was a lack of resources to develop in-situ traditional universities. But if the two systems have served different clients, it has been due mostly to historical reasons and to institutional mandates. The agricultural educational system focused predominantly on the educational needs of rural learners whereas the open-university system served predominantly adult urban and rural learners in formal education. Yet, both systems serve the national objectives of human capital development; they operate on parallel paths and serve different groups of learners. Their paths do not often cross; when they do, it does not necessarily lead to systematic cooperation resulting in a sustained partnership to serve rural clients. The partnerships between the two educational systems could accelerate educational access for the rural population, particularly for rural women and girls to achieve empowerment through information and knowledge.