Many of the rural communication concepts and strategies we have described in this case study have been among the most innovative that have been applied anywhere in the world. There were many successes and, had economic difficulties not been so extreme, even more would have been achieved.
The mere fact that the communication activities survived at all in such harsh circumstances is in itself remarkable. And those working in communication continued to develop new ideas and approaches as and when circumstances permitted.
The volume of production of communication and education materials, and their use with rural audiences and with development technicians, was also a remarkable achievement. It has not been equated by any other development programme anywhere.
The idea of basing communication work on existing or induced networks around a given development programme or problem, and strengthening the networks by feeding information into them, was yet another original approach that had not been thought of or tried before.
The decentralisation of the Communication System also succeeded in the sense that Regional Communication Units were successfully established.
Creating capacity for communication within rural communities to identify communication networks and needs and to make use of video materials and sound systems was a pioneering initiative.
In the transfer of irrigation systems to their users, communication was central to the process and permeated all aspects of the work. In effect, it became fully institutionalised. The materials produced promoted dialogue at all levels, and each farmers' association was able to take its own decisions. Such an integral function for communication in a development action by a governmental institution is rarely achieved.
The most significant failure of the Communication System was the inability to transfer the Regional Units to farmers' organisations. Economic circumstances certainly militated against this. The idea may well have been correct, but the timing of the attempt proved to be wrong.
There were also failures in management in the Communication System. In fact, the importance of management seems to have been largely overlooked. This became more serious as PRODERITH and its Communication System were decentralized with the expansion into the second phase for the management challenges and problems then became much greater. The different tasks in a decentralised system required different types of management skills at the various levels of responsibility in the chain. These challenges were never properly addressed. That management was not accorded the importance it deserved is just one possible cause of this; another is that the strong and very capable personalities, both international and national, who were in decision-making positions for many years may perhaps have unwittingly prevented adequate growth in management skills among the various levels of staff.
The way the introduction of social science expertise into the Communication System was attempted, through the recruitment of traditional social scientists as a separate discipline, seems to have been mistaken. Any social science support that was needed could perhaps have been obtained by continuing the working arrangements with FLACSO. Alternatively, the social scientists recruited could have been trained in communication and integrated into the communication team. Their social science knowledge could then have become an important resource in all the communication work. The IMTA decision to create separate Sub-Divisions of Communication and of Social Participation compounded the problems.
A question of concern for the future of communication is to what extent the participatory attitudes and working concepts applied during PRODERITH have survived more widely in the agricultural and rural development sector in Mexico.
It was the successes under PRODERITH in involving rural people, through communication and through well-trained field staff, that led to the statement by the Director General of the CNA, quoted in the previous section, to the effect that nothing would be built in the future without consulting the proposed beneficiaries [Emphasis added by the authors].
Such a statement, from someone so important in Mexico, seemed to represent a break-through in official thinking. However, in Yucatan in September 1995, we were involved in a discussion with farmers about a new irrigation system that was being installed by the CNA in their ejido. Work was proceeding in those very days during which our discussion took place.
The farmers told us that they had been pleading with the CNA for many years to install a small irrigation scheme, and they had finally agreed to do so. However, the CNA engineer never discussed his plans for the scheme with the community, and when the work began, it became clear that it could not function as a gravity system. This was because an existing road would bisect it, and there were also problems with levering. In all probability, the farmers would have to irrigate with hosepipes, a time-consuming and expensive operation.
Perhaps there was no economically viable alternative for constructing the scheme, but the point for concern is that there was no consultation process with its future users. It seems that the old superior attitudes of many technical people towards peasants die very hard: give them the slightest chance to resurge and they come slinking in through the back door again. Or, as someone in Mexico commented, "Those who knew PRODERITH first-hand appreciate the importance of communication and participation for decision-making about development actions, but many other technical people involved in agricultural development today just do not understand this".
The issue of participatory approaches with peasants assumes particular importance in the crisis now affecting them. It is estimated that infrastructure installed under PRODERITH II increased the area of land in Mexico's tropics that could be cultivated successfully by more than 50 percent. But, as we have seen, the human resource development, and the other inputs for integrated rural development, were relatively weak under PRODERITH II. It seems that a possible PRODERITH III is in the pipeline, and its central function would be to build human and organisational capacity among peasants so that they could make optimum use of that new infrastructure and lands, thereby increasing production and improving their living standards. Participatory approaches would be essential for that.
It is often said that Mexico is re-invented every six years. There is some truth in this comment because each new president makes major institutional changes. Such changes have affected the Rural Communication System and in 1995 it was placed in an institutional predicament. The following outline will explain it:
The last of these changes means that the Central Communication Unit in IMTA is now located in an organisation and Secretariat that has little to do with agricultural and rural development. However, the Communication System was created for this sector and has successfully worked in it; and it is a sector that continues to have major needs in communication for development.
Understandably, in its new circumstances, IMTA has no particular interest in continuing with its past work in communication for agricultural or rural development, however successful that work might have been. Therefore, the question that remains unanswered is how to satisfy the communication needs of agriculture?
The most valuable experience in this field now lies in IMTA, and there would be some logic in transferring IMTA's experience and capacity in rural communication to the recently created Secretariat for Agriculture, Livestock, and Rural Development (SAGDR). However, this is unlikely to happen because IMTA will want to keep its communication capacity for its own needs. In particular, it has an agenda of trying to create a new culture around water in Mexico, so that people will regard it and treat it as the precious resource it is. Communication can clearly play the major role in this, and IMTA therefore appears to value the communication capacity it has.
Meanwhile, the SAGDR is actively pursuing new strategies and mechanisms for technical assistance to farmers, and so it will need communication capacity, or access to it. Certainly, the SAGDR could create its own, new communication function, but this would involve starting from scratch, and the loss of hard-won experience and knowledge.
A good solution would appear to be that the two Secretariats reach an agreement that the Communication System serve both of them in the future. Environment and natural resources, and agricultural and rural development are intricately linked. The two Secretariats come together especially in the new emphasis on the proper use of natural resources for sustainable agricultural production and on food security in that context.
The Communication System has worked widely in the fields of both Secretariats. To make best use of its experience, it should continue to do so. In addition to a formal cooperation agreement, it might be necessary to give the Unit a more neutral physical and organisational location than IMTA. Otherwise, its work might not balance out fairly between the two Secretariats.
A final contradiction merits comment: it is evident that, despite all of the past successes, communication has still not been institutionalised as part of Mexican rural development policy. If it had been, the Rural Communication System would not have been left in a secretariat that has little do with rural development.
Clearly, the future of communication for development in Mexico also depends on consolidating the decentralisation process that has already been started. There are some people who were involved from the beginning in the PRODERITH Communication System who say, today, that the decentralisation process should have been launched even earlier than it was.
The five existing Regional Communication Units were facing a dark future towards the end of 1995. They were existing on some remaining funds from the FAO technical assistance project (UTF/MEX/027/MEX). How they would survive after the end of the year was in doubt. What may come to their rescue is a decentralisation process that was just beginning in the SAGDR. Funds and responsibilities were to be transferred to the states, and to the municipal level. In addition to the transfer of funds, however, there was to be a transfer of policymaking so that, for example, development policies and programmes that are best suited to the local needs could be put into operation.
This decentralisation process should stimulate major needs for communication to inform people, to help participatory decision-making, and also to expand people's knowledge and skills. This could result in contracts for communication work being placed with the Regional Communication Units. However, a race against time is under way; will the Regional Communication Units, that have to earn their own living through contracts, be able to survive until the SAGDR at the State level and local authorities are in a position to use their services?
The relationship between the Central Unit and the Regional Communication Units needs to be examined. The Central Unit should provide advice and technical support to the Regional Units but, in recent years, the level of this support has declined.
Training is a particular need. A handicap faced by the Regional Units is that they lack capacity to promote themselves and to manage themselves as independent enterprises. For years, these Units worked exclusively for agricultural and rural development in the tropical wetlands. They are identified with this role, and the services that they could provide in other development sectors are generally unrecognised. The people who run those Units urgently need to be helped to identify the services that they could offer in their regions, and shown how to present their services to the various institutions. In this connection, non governmental organizations have hardly been approached anywhere. Staff also need to be trained in how to make good, well budgeted proposals and in how to manage the whole process of working for client organisations. The Central Unit should be vigorously pursuing this type of support for the Regional Units before it is too late and they collapse for lack of work and income.
At the time of preparation of this case study, each of the Regional Units was working in a vacuum. This will not be the best way for them to survive in the future. They need to form a network to exchange information and knowledge, to cooperate in looking for and carrying out work, to share materials, to organize joint training, and so on. Mutual support would make them more effective and efficient, but they will have to maintain their independent and regional nature. Any tendency to become centrally organized again would be totally inappropriate in the new circumstances. They could well decide in the future that they do not want to rely on the present Central Unit for supporting services, but one of the Regional Units would have to assume those functions, and also look for work opportunities at the Federal level.
Ongoing training of staff should be a key priority. It is clear that, although much training had been conducted under the various FAO technical assistance projects, there has been some decline in the capacities and skills of staff and of members of communities working in communication over the years. The heavy reliance on in-service training in recent years may have had some benefits, but it has also had its cost. Staff turnover, and frequent changes of people in the communication committees in the communities, can only be compensated for by giving priority to regular, well-planned and well-executed training programmes. If the Communication System is going to survive by earning its living, it will need to maintain very high levels of staff competence.
As an international survey [How Decision-Makers see Communication for Development. Colin Fraser (UN/CEF/WHO) 1994] among high-level government and development agency staff showed, there is a perception that people really skilled in communication for development are in short supply. Mexico now has a team of people with those skills; conditions need to be created in which their skills can be used and in which they can pass them on to others.
An era is ending with the termination of the FAO technical assistance projects for the Rural Communication System. At the same time, that Communication System as it was originally conceived, and virtually redesigned between PRODERITH I and PRODERITH II, has again to be redesigned and given new impetus. A new focus is required that is in keeping with the needs and possibilities that emerge as Mexico itself, and each of its states, redefine the socio-economic and environmental aspects of their agricultural and rural sectors.
The new focus for the Communication System will only succeed if it remains decentralised, flexible in its ability to respond to changing needs, has well-trained staff and is well managed. However, given the economic difficulties in Mexico, it appears probable that some form of international development assistance will be necessary to consolidate the System.
The government policy context remains less clear, and there are tantalising questions that remained unanswered at the end of 1995. In the ever-shifting political scene in Mexico, do policy-makers now concerned with agricultural and rural development, especially among small farmers, realize the power of communication to facilitate democratic change? Do those same policy-makers know about the unique wealth of experience and expertise for rural communication they have in Mexico? Do they realize that participatory decision-making, based on full information made available to all concerned, is the key to planning development activities that will enlist people's active participation? Is information given its true value by policy-makers and farmers as an essential input in any production and marketing process? If not, can that value be promoted so that communication and information will be accepted as legitimate and necessary costs, alongside other production inputs? The answers to those questions will determine the future of communication for rural development in Mexico. But it would indeed be sad if future Mexican policy and administrative decisions were to cause the loss of this communication experience and the expertise and capacity it generated.