This document is the result of a fact-finding mission organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, in collaboration with the Department of Rural Extension Studies at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. The mission was carried out between March and July, 1996, during which time the author, Don Richardson, met with individuals and representatives of organizations in Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Italy, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal, Egypt, Mexico and Chile.

The mission took place at a particularly appropriate moment in the history of the Internet. Internet services are emerging at an accelerated pace in developing countries, pushed largely by the demands of businesses, universities, non-governmental organizations and young professionals. Two years ago, few people would have predicted the current Internet service availability within Asia, Africa and Latin America. Indeed, some development planners remain unaware of the extent of Internet coverage and continue to argue that the Internet is not an appropriate tool for supporting development. They are evidently not aware of what is happening in many countries where Internet is rapidly becoming a communication for development tool.

The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of the following people: members of the FAO Electronic and Information Systems (EIS) Group (Silvia Balit, David Dion, Loy Van Crowder, Jon Anderson and Riccardo del Castello); Greg Searle and Mike Jensen, International Development Research Centre (IDRC); Emilio Canton, Axon Cybercafe, Cuernavaca; Santiago Funes, FAO, Chile; Luis Masias, Federico Salzmann, Arnoldo Rosenfeld, Manuel Calvelo Rios, Solange Zalaquett and Francine Brossard of the Communication for Development in Latin America project (GCP/RLA/I 14/ITA), Chile, and the farmers of Putaendo; Kate Wild, IDRC, Johannesburg; Doug Pletsch, Linda Mayhew and Helen Aitkin, University of Guelph; David King and Rashid Pertev, International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP); and finally, Karen Kennedy, the author's wife.


AGRISInternational Information System for the Agricultural Sciences and Technology
APCAssociation for Progressive Communication
ARPAAdvanced Research Projects Agency
ASERCAAssistance and Services for Agricultural Marketing
CAPCommunity Access Programme (a federal government initiative in Canada)
CATSCommunity Access Telecommunication Services
CGIARConsultative Group for International Agricultural Research
CIDACanadian International Development Agency
CTATechnical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation
EISElectronic and Information Systems Group, FAO
FAOFood and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
FTPFile transfer protocol
GATTGeneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
GCP/RLA/114/ITAFAO's Communication for Development in Latin America project, Chile
IDRCInternational Development Research Centre
IFADInternational Fund for Agricultural Development
IFAPInternational Federation of Agricultural Producers (CIDA)
ILEIAInformation Centre for Low-External-lnput and Sustainable Agriculture
IPSInter Press Service Third World News Agency
IRITSECRegional Information Technology and Software Engineering Centre, Egypt
ISPInternet service providers
IVDNIntegrated Voice and Data Network
MERCOSURSouthern Common Market
NAFTANorth American Free Trade Agreement
NARSNational agricultural research centres
NGONon-governmental organization
RITSECRegional Information Technology and Software Engineering Centre, Egypt
SMESmall and medium enterprise
TICUTechnical Information and Communication Unit (an FAO supported initiative in Sonora, Mexico)
TTYtelephone text messaging device
UNDPUnited Nations Development Programme
USAIDUS Agency for International Development
VITAVolunteers in Technical Assistance
WWWWorld Wide Web


The Internet is rapidly expanding in developing countries. This expansion is, however, largely an urban phenomenon and most rural communities are not yet able to take advantage of the services available to their urban neighbours. This paper recommends an integrated approach to facilitating Internet services and applications that will benefit rural communities and agricultural organisation. This approach begins with the needs of rural people and grassroot agricultural organizations and works to establish vertical and horizontal channels of communication. In this way, rural people and farmers can open new communication channels to enhance relationships with one another, and they can participate in dialogue and information exchange with decision-makers, planners, researchers and others who may reside far beyond rural communities. Pilot projects linked to rural and agricultural organizations can help ensure that rural communities and agricultural organizations remain part of regional and national Internet initiatives. The paper includes recommendations for strategies, funding mechanisms and support systems, together with examples of innovative approaches in Mexico and Chile. It concludes with a call for action and better ways for donor agencies to work together and share lessons learned in this rapidly moving area of international development.

Strategy recommendations include:

All Internet initiatives must engage, as full partners in strategy development and action, the intermediary agencies that serve rural communities and agricultural organizations with development assistance, advice, project support, research, extension, education, health services and training. Internet initiatives also need to be developed in conjunction with intended beneficiaries and stakeholders, through working groups, participatory planning and community facilitation techniques. Pilot projects will help establish "best practices," provide avenues for sharing "lessons learned," act as vehicles for expanding the impact of Internet initiatives, and enhance coordination.

The time to act to support Internet activities in developing countries is now. Today we truly live in a global village, but it is a village with elite information "haves" and many information "have-nots." With the new technologies available to us, we have an opportunity to change this and to support sustainable development in rural and agricultural communities. Adopting a proactive strategy and acting to bring the Internet to rural and agricultural communities in developing countries will help enable rural people to face the unprecedented challenges brought on by the changing global economy, dynamic political contexts, environmental degradation and demographic pressures.

To deal with the challenges we face, and to make critical decisions, people at all levels of society, and especially the food insecure and the organizations that serve and represent them, must be able to access critical information and communicate. Improved communication and information access are directly related to social and economic development (World Bank, 1995). Participatory development is fully dependent upon communication and information sharing processes.

FAO has an historic opportunity to ensure that rural and agricultural communities link electronic "village trails" to the "information super-highway."