"Already the Internet is making spectacular advances in the developing countries of the world. Africa is trying to break out of its scientific and commercial isolation, despite the mediocre quality of its public telecommunications networks, by making the most of new technology. By the end of I 996, only five or six African countries will have absolutely no contact with the Internet. The Conference felt that, far from being unsuited for developing nations, the Net is well adapted. Its capital costs are low: all that is required is a personal computer, a modem and a normal telephone connection. And in many developing countries the culture of collective ownership and use of telephones means that only a small investment is required to get on the Net. "
Inter-parliamentary Conference on Education, Science,
Culture and Communication on the Eve of the 21st Century, Paris, 3-6 June 1996.
Investments in development require vision. Development initiatives that involve technology will sometimes lose sight of the human dimensions of development. The goal of an integrated approach to improving Internet services for rural and agricultural development is to enable rural people to increase the community resources they require to improve their lives. Communication networks that enable information to flow to and from rural communities and agricultural organizations as well as between and among the many intermediary organizations that touch rural communities and farmers directly or indirectly, will strengthen community resources. This requires a vision of all the stakeholders involved in rural and agricultural development communicating with one another, with rural organizations and people having access to the same communication tools and information resources as their urban peers.
The Internet suits this vision well. The Internet is a medium of communication, and is perhaps the most flexible medium currently available. It has the potential for integration within a wide variety of projects that have objectives such as local participation, training, education, research (especially participatory research), technical support and institutional strengthening. In short, it is a tool that can be of value to integrated rural and agricultural development. Whenever a project involves people who need to communicate and share information across geography, across social groupings, between organizations and throughout production systems, there is a need to create flexible systems of communication and information sharing. Thus, projects that might find a role for Internet applications could range from apiculture training to community forestry to veterinary medicine.
The Internet is a multipurpose tool that, in its essence, enables people to learn from one another and work together. The results of Internet projects are not technical, but human and social. The Internet is essentially a tool for enhancing human relationships. Projects need to be driven, not by technical concerns, but by human knowledge, communication, and social relationship concerns. Thus, the intended results of an Internet project ought to relate directly to improvements in social relationships, improvements in knowledge sharing and knowledge access, and enhancement of communication among people and organizations Such project results can happen through efforts to increase rural community resources and agricultural resources to achieve project outputs (depending upon local circumstances) such as:
When considering project outputs, the question is not simply "how do we provide Internet access and infrastructure?". The question to be asked is "how can we use this flexible medium to help people meet their information and communication objectives to obtain their development goals?". Improving rural community information and communication resources must also link to efforts to improve the capacity of rural organizations and rural people to make the most effective, and sustainable, use of those resources.
Internet initiatives for rural and agricultural development need to be approached with a degree of caution. Different regions, organizations and communities will have different application, capacity building and technical needs. In some areas it is possible to have farmers and rural residents as direct Internet users (e.g. Chile, Mexico). In other areas, the challenge will be to help build the capacity of intermediary organizations (such as extension field offices, NGOs, rural schools, libraries, health clinics, government satellite offices, and church organizations or assist in the establishment and promotion of community information centres linked to the Internet. In all cases, it will be important to link Internet activities with existing media and local communication methods and patterns. Every initiative is likely to have its own unique characteristics as a result of the unique characteristics of the local people involved and their social, cultural and economic backgrounds.
Special attention also needs to be given to women's involvement in these initiatives. Overall, there are more male Internet users than female Internet users. North American surveys place the ratio in that region of the world at between three and four to one, male to female Internet users. This situation seems to be improving over time. However, special efforts must be made to insure that women have a chance for early participation in new Internet initiatives for rural and agricultural development. Concern for gender equity is one reason for this recommendation. Another is evidence which suggests that women can play a role in ensuring that community oriented Internet services remain focused on community needs and do not get carried away by technological gimmickry (Richardson, 1995).
"Participatory development communication values process over product. With participatory video, the communication process is vastly more important than the damn video tape. "
Tony Williamson, Canadian development communication pioneer (personal communication).
FAO's twenty-five year experience with a communication for development approach to rural and agricultural communication (FAO, 1989, 1990a, 1990b, 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1996a, 1996b), using media such as rural radio, small format video (participatory video), photography and print, is now being applied to the Internet in three small scale initiatives. This simple and common-sense strategy of involving people in assessments of their knowledge and communication needs is the cornerstone of communication for development methodologies. This strategy is essential to achieving outputs such as those listed in the previous section.
Much of FAO's success with communication for development approaches has involved the use of a medium that many development planners first dismissed as too "high-tech" and as being inappropriate technology. This medium is small format video (consumer grade video cameras and portable television monitors). Facilitators use small format video to enable rural residents to articulate their ideas, aspirations, needs and solutions.
Using video, people can speak directly to distant decision makers and researchers, gain access to knowledge presented in audiovisual form by experts (often other farmers), and share their experiences with one another across distances. In participatory video work, the communication process is more important than the production of a video. This aspect of the process is frequently misunderstood by observers of communication for development projects. It is not important for participants to become communication professionals: the goal is to provide media that are flexible enough to allow people to articulate and share their ideas. Integrated into development planning activities, such a communication for development approach enables farmers and rural people to actively participate in development processes. These approaches enable rural stakeholders to articulate their knowledge, organize local activities, take part in decision making and fully recognize the value of sharing their ideas.
Like participatory video processes, the Internet may help people to attain their development goals, but it must be used as a communication process tool and not simply as a static "information technology." Otherwise, Internet tools will be relegated to the junk heaps of inappropriate development technologies or dismissed because of previous failures to make the medium locally relevant and useful. If, for example, the information outputs derived from highly technical electronic information systems such as famine early warning systems or food security databases are not made available to the people whose lives are the subject of those systems, then we are failing to fully exploit the large infrastructure investments involved, and we are failing to assist people in making appropriate decisions based on such valuable information. Before we even create such tools, we ought to involve the ultimate beneficiaries in determining the value of these initiatives and discussing planning approaches.
We must avoid contributing to the gap between the information "haves" (experts, academics, researchers, policy makers, etc.) and the information "have-nots" (usually the ultimate beneficiaries of development work), a gap that can emerge when we create Internet applications to serve only elite researchers and bureaucrats. A review of African Internet projects and Internet project proposals conducted at the Bellanet Secretariat reveals to any interested party that only a handful of many dozens of project plans (some funded and some in the discussion stage) go beyond providing services to elite researchers and bureaucrats. Few project plans show evidence of participation from ultimate beneficiaries. A scarce few (e.g. the IDRC ACACIA Project) involve community based organizations.
We must strive to find ways to bring knowledge producers, such as researchers and policy makers, closer (in the social as well as geographical sense) to the other less recognized knowledge producers: the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of development programmes (cf. the Indigenous Studies Virtual Library. The Internet helps make this possible. Thanks to the Internet, farmers can (and do) now have access to the same information, and many of the same information publications and dissemination tools, as researchers at major agricultural universities and research centres. We must insure that Internet projects are planned with and for the ultimate beneficiaries of development programmes.
A fact that is well known to current Internet users is that the Internet has the power to cut across social and geographic distance and help people find new ways of facilitating the flow of information and knowledge. In many ways the Internet has always been a development communication tool. Within bureaucratic organizations it has a way of levering hierarchies, facilitating new communication patterns, and helping enable activities that might not otherwise occur (Negroponte, 1995). This factor makes it an especially attractive medium within communication for development efforts. The key to achieving similar results in new Internet and development projects is to begin with a grassroots, beneficiary-inclusive communication for development approach during the planning process.