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Asia is a leader in providing cutting-edge expertise to drive the global information technology industry. Yet, with the exception of a few countries, it also is the home of unmitigated poverty, overpopulation and a persistent gender gap in education and literacy. The Asia-Pacific region shows great diversity in gender-related indicators and differential gains in the advancement of women and girls. But a consistent concern shared among all the countries is one of stark urban-rural disparity in development gains, particularly in education. The rural female children face greater disadvantages than rural male children do. While prevailing social attitudes and cultural norms could explain the disparity prevalent in the communities and within the household, it is necessary to acknowledge the issue of imbalances in the allocation of national resources to serve the rural sector.

As the current trend moves towards greater emphasis on ICT-driven development and on shaping a knowledge society, it is time to pause and consider the modalities to achieve equitable allocation of ICT resources to serve the agriculture and rural communities. The scope of ICT is very broad and could have far-reaching impact — both enabling and disabling. As in every resource-allocation process, the pragmatic approach should be one of maximizing the enabling impact for most and minimizing the adverse impact — the max-min principle. A commitment in applying this max-min principle is that it should apply the rules of equality and equity. The objective should be to maximize the enabling impact among those who are often overlooked as clients for development service and inputs, namely rural communities, populations in remote locations and rural women and girls. The initial global assessment on ICT and gender impact by the United Nations University for New Technologies shows that ICT-driven economic opportunities have favoured women who are generally well-educated and from higher income groups. It states that women with little or no education, especially older women, are losing out. A class and rural divide is also an artefact of the persisting gap in educational attainment among rural populations, with distinct gender bias against women and girls. So, education for rural development and food security could be the levelling force to achieve growth with equity.

Hence, the primary concern in this consultation is about expanding access for rural women and girls to education, information and technology knowledge so as to improve their social and economic circumstances. The focus is on distance-learning resources as the means to achieve the objective of accelerating the advancement of rural women and girls through innovative educational programmes. The potential for hastening the access to learning is improved through the greater availability of ICT resources. This consultation will explore the opportunities and constraints to employ the distance-learning resources to reduce the social and physical distance which isolates rural women and girls and which impairs their access to leaning opportunities. The consultation can review the application of ICT as a potential tool to provide distance education in order to reduce the knowledge and information gap among rural women and girls. Technology is not the master, but a potential tool for development. The focus is on rural human resource development. The quality and relevance of educational resources and learning achievement among rural clients comes first. Appropriate ICT will facilitate the national efforts made to achieve faster and timely educational delivery and to improve the learning process.

Distance-learning programmes targeting rural women could be planned with a dual approach. First, a one-step rural distance-education approach that targets and reaches rural women and girls directly. Second, a two-step approach to improve the capacity of the development workers and service providers who work with rural clients. Both approaches would contribute to capacity building and improve access to information among rural women and girls. They would require balanced programmes and equitable allocation of resources.

The primary focus is to examine distance-leaning resources as potential development tools for accelerating the educational advancement of rural women and girls in order to improve their livelihood strategies and participation (economic and social) and thus achieve welfare gains among rural households. The expert consultation explored the interface for effective collaboration between the agricultural educational system and the distance-learning system at all levels in order to use the resources under the command of two parallel educational systems for the advancement of rural populations, particularly rural women and girls.

The RAP consultation offered a forum to review and recommend a regional strategy to apply distance-education and distance-learning programmes to serve the rural learners with special consideration for inclusiveness of rural women and girls. The consultation contributed to a review of the FAO technical approach to distance learning that would be gender-responsive and women-inclusive. The consultation provided an opportunity to understand differences and commonalities in distance-education programmes from the countries in the region.

As set in the Asia-Pacific regional milieu, FAO objectives in this inter-service technical initiative are to achieve the following principles:

  1. Clarify key concepts and practices of distance education as they relate to FAO.

  2. Build a strategic vision for FAO to apply distance education to the achievement of its mandate.

  3. Recommend interventions (e.g. capacity-building, policy advocacy, network facilitation, information dissemination) through which FAO might become a catalyst for developing effective distance-education and distance-learning programmes to serve the people engaged in agricultural and rural development efforts in low-income, food-deficit countries.

  4. Identify operational principles and guidelines for an FAO approach to distance education.

  5. Provide a foundation for assessing needs, consulting, and nurturing relationships among partners with whom FAO would work in the area of distance education.

  6. Identify potential policy and programme frameworks for developing partnerships between agricultural educational systems and distance-learning systems at all levels to improve rural access to education for food security and rural development.

  7. Identify field-level strategies to apply distance-learning resources to accelerate advancement of rural women and girls to improve their livelihood and wellbeing.

This expert consultation may be broadly defined to include the following aspects of distance-education and distance-learning resources:

  1. Distance-education/learning and/or open-university systems' organizational structure, human resources, institutional infrastructure/learning centres network, outreach potential (urban/rural) and mandate;

  2. Distance-education/learning and/or open-university systems' current policy and programme commitments for reaching rural learners;

  3. Distance-education/learning methodologies applied effectively to reach rural women and girls (formal and non-formal education; ICT used and mentor support provided to rural learners);

  4. Content in the distance-education/learning programmes that will serve rural women's access to technical knowledge and information to improve their livelihood strategies (including non-formal education and primary education support).

The recommendations from the participants to the consultation addressed the following issue areas:

  1. Content for distance-education/learning programmes for rural women and girls;

  2. Potential policy and programme frameworks for developing a partnership between agricultural educational systems and open-university systems to improve rural access to education;

  3. Field-level strategies to apply distance-learning resources to accelerate advancement of rural women and girls to improve their livelihood and wellbeing;

  4. Institutional partnerships within the Asia-Pacific region to develop programmes applying distance education to accelerate rural development and food security with specific emphasis on rural women and girls;

  5. A strategic agenda for FAO to apply distance-education/learning modalities to the achievement of its mandate; and

  6. Identification of key areas of action for the next three years that will include the next work-plan period (2001) and next biennial work-plan period (2002–2003).

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