"Information is critical to the social and economic activities that comprise the development process. Telecommunications, as a means of sharing information, is not simply a connection between people, but a link in the chain of the development process itself. "
Heather Hudson. 1995. World Bank report on Economic and Social Benefits of Rural Telecommunications.

At the end of the Twentieth Century, people in rural and remote areas of developing countries are facing many unprecedented challenges brought on by the changing global economy, dynamic political contexts, environmental degradation and demographic pressures. The number of food insecure around the world continues to increase. To deal with these challenges, 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.

One cannot expect poor farmers and food insecure residents of rural communities to list computers and digital telecommunication services as high priority items for improving their lives. However, there exist various intermediaries that serve these populations which, together with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in rural areas, can take advantage of these technologies to improve their work, improve communication capacity, gain efficiencies and reduce telecommunication costs. An integrated approach that fosters horizontal and vertical channels of communication is key to insuring that such benefits are realized.

Intermediary organizations such as extension field offices, rural NGOs, health clinics, government offices, and church organizations together with SMEs, can offer benefit to their rural client groups in numerous ways. Strategies for improving Internet access and use for rural and agricultural development will necessarily involve full participation of intermediary organizations and other rural stakeholders. As Internet services become more widely used among these organizations it becomes more important to facilitate the exchange of lessons learned and best practices that emerge from on-the-ground experience.

This paper recommends 11 activities to assist rural stakeholders in gaining access to, and developing creative uses for, Internet services:

  1. Promote regional coordination of Internet strategy for rural and agricultural development.
  2. Establish pilot projects.
  3. Use a communication for development approach.
  4. Support efforts to liberalize telecommunication policies in developing countries.
  5. Support local Internet entrepreneurs and other service providers in developing countries.
  6. Assist stakeholders in advocating for Internet service provision and telecommunication infrastructure and policy improvements.
  7. Orient existing Internet information services to users in developing countries.
  8. Support rural and agricultural education sector Internet capability.
  9. Provide Internet awareness building and demonstration.
  10. Support rural and remote infrastructure development.
  11. Support creative Internet applications and information services for rural and agricultural development.

Promote policy and regional coordination of Internet strategy for rural and agricultural development

"The first step everywhere is to create awareness and understanding of the nature and fundamental advances which are now possible in development, their practical implications and how they translate into operational terms for individual organizations Every government and donor agency needs to address the new generation of policy which these advances call for and the new public/private sector relationships they require. "
Bernard Woods. "Ceres", The FAO Review No. 158, March-April 1996.

The Internet expansion in the developing world is led primarily by non-governmental organizations universities, and private sector Internet service providers (ISPs). These organizations are typically small and underfunded, but manage to utilize new and emerging technologies to provide reliable Internet services to civil society at competitive rates. With little or no donor support they have emerged as the most effective and sustainable service providers in developing countries.

Governments participate, directly or indirectly, through the provision of improved telecommunication services (such as fibre optic and satellite backbones), improved policy and regulatory environments that enable private sector initiatives, information and communication technology consulting centres (such as the Regional Information Technology and Software Engineering Centre [RITSEC] in Egypt), information and communication technology assistance to the educational sector, and in some cases government telecom Internet service (such as Senegal). Rural and remote regions, however, experience many barriers to receiving the benefits of Internet services. For example, many African capital cities have reasonably reliable Internet services available, but outside such centralized focal points, service is poor or nonexistent.

Donor agencies can play important roles in influencing national policy with regard to rural and agricultural development and national telecommunication improvement strategies. For example, they can:

Recently, many funding and aid agencies have been "jumping on the Internet bandwagon" to support a collage of Internet related projects in Africa and Latin America. Only recently have some of these agencies begun supporting coordinated and collaborative activities to support establishment and enhancement of Internet services to rural and remote areas (e.g. IDRC in partnership with FAO in Southern Africa). These areas are, however, the locations with the greatest need for improved communication and information services. Assisting in the coordinated establishment and enhancement of Internet services to rural and remote areas is an activity that donors can support to achieve many benefits for rural populations. In doing so, donor agencies can ensure that their initiatives take advantage of the gains made by other agencies, while serving a sector - the people of rural areas - that may otherwise continue to be neglected.

An African Networking Initiative report (Jensen, 1996) commissioned by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) contains a number of useful recommendations for regional coordination of strategy in Africa, including:

Because this report was produced by the African Networking Initiative, the leading African effort to coordinate information and communication technology initiatives, it deserves special consideration. It provides valuable information and a vehicle for the voices of Internet and information and communication technology users in developing countries. Hopefully, development agencies are listening to those voices.

Establish pilot projects

Internet pilot projects can enable the development of local applications related to the range of outputs suggested above. These projects should start on a small scale (even small investments of US$18 000 are known to achieve important results) which would allow them to be implemented soon, and take advantage of collaborative opportunities with other agencies. Results should be well documented and shared locally, nationally and internationally via reports, videos, Internet World Wide Web sites, and local and international media. Ties to existing Internet services and projects (urban or rural) that involve significant local participation would improve chances of success. Pilot projects should endeavour to involve women and young people (often the most energetic proponents of Internet communication initiatives) in the planning, development and implementation of activities. Small pilot projects will help establish "best practices," provide avenues for sharing "lessons learned," and act as vehicles for expanding the impact of Internet initiatives and enhancing coordination.

Pilot projects can also document and highlight the challenges of supporting participatory communication for development initiatives. Research on impact not only focuses on users and local applications, but also on people who do not participate directly in local Internet initiatives (perhaps older people or people marginalized from power structures) and suggest mechanisms for enabling them to benefit directly or indirectly from these initiatives. Research can also help provide reliable data on the most appropriate technologies and the essential infrastructure requirements for rural Internet services.

Promote community managed communication and information services

"NGOs - linked through security functionally relevant networks -(have the potential to) play a crucial two-way role of strengthening the work and organizational skills which grassroots communities require for their food self-sufficiency, and articulating grassroots concerns at the policy level. NGOs, therefore, potentially have a developmental function both in directly enhancing the food security context of the poorest populations as well as placing their food security concerns and needs on the national development agenda "
Ephraim Matinhira, Regional Administrator, Food Security Network of SADC NGOs. 1993.

The most effective and beneficial Internet communication and information services are managed and operated by the members of the organizations served. User management ensures that information is appropriate, and actually desired, by local users. Many of the information services currently designed to serve rural and agricultural users are created with little or no collaboration with the intended users.

Non-governmental organizations such as farmer associations and cooperatives, that serve rural and agricultural communities, are best suited for developing and providing information and communication services to those communities. FAO project activities in Mexico, Chile and Southern Africa are pioneering communication for development approaches that ensure that this critical component is present within Internet services. They promote local development of processes for information analysis and locally appropriate techniques for information dissemination. Within these projects, collaboration with private sector, government, and/or university technical support and technical service enables non-governmental organizations to focus on information content and communication processes, while delegating technical service to more qualified personnel.

Developing information services with users and catalyzing sustainable user management of communication networks is not a common strategy among funding agencies. It is common to find that intended users are unaware of the information and communication services being developed for them. The FAO communication for development approach helps to develop communication and information services that begin with user information needs assessments, and helps to create system ownership and management strategies that are financially sustainable. Mechanisms for providing training and continuous support, delivered for and by the organizations and users involved, are an important part of this approach. It is relatively easy to install the technology for electronic information and communication networks. It is much more difficult to create systems that people actually use and from which they receive tangible benefits.

Connecting small producers and rural residents directly to Internet systems is, for most residents of communities in the developing world, impractical. However, many of the intermediaries (the non-governmental organizations and government units) that serve these people can use Internet systems to provide better services to the people they serve. This issue highlights the importance of the integrated horizontal and vertical communication approach promoted by this paper. Organizations that are predisposed to open collaboration with the people they serve can become focal points for information analysis and Internet communication access. Such organizations can become Community Access Telecommunication Services (CATS), providing locally relevant information analysis and dissemination, together with public access to Internet telecommunication services such as electronic mail.

The latter function is emerging as a service in its own right in many developing countries. The "telecentres" of Senegal and the "cybercafes" (simple electronic mail services and World Wide Web access services resembling old telegraph services) of Mexico and Zimbabwe, developed by local entrepreneurs, are examples of such basic telecommunication services. Basic electronic mail services are beginning to replace fax and telegraph services as an extremely low cost medium for sending messages between individuals and organizations As the Internet expands (doubling its number of users each year), various forms of CATS, telecentres and cybercafes will find their niche in developing countries where the purchase of a personal computer is beyond the means of most individuals.

The concept of "community information centres" is not new, but the Internet opens new possibilities for establishing such centres in rural areas. A computer, modem and phone line can place an ever-expanding global library of information at the fingertips of people in rural and remote communities where books are seldom seen. People can gain access to the information resources and tools they need to solve their own problems, set their own development agendas and empower themselves through knowledge. Community centres, schools, rural libraries, local NGOs, producer associations, municipal organizations church centres and health clinics can act as local hosts for community information centres.

In Canada, a federal government initiative known as the Community Access Programme (CAP), has greatly enhanced rural Internet access by providing over 800 (and ultimately a total of 1 500 by the end of 1998) grants to rural and remote communities with the greatest need for Internet services. CAP may be a useful model for assisting rural stakeholders to establish Internet services in developing countries.

CAP offers a relatively low-cost method for introducing Internet tools to rural areas. Community organizations submit proposals consisting of action plans, resource needs, evidence of community support and evidence of matching in-kind and cash contributions. Proposals are evaluated on the basis of community needs and evidence of commitment to local projects. Funding is offered to a maximum of US$25 000, with most proposals receiving between US$4 000 to 18 000. CAP encourages communities to partner with universities, schools, libraries, health care institutions and local non-governmental organizations. People in CAP recipient communities are generally enthusiastic about the project and the benefits it brings. Several communities that established simple Internet services in rural resource centres have been successful in catalysing local entrepreneurs to establish community-wide commercial Internet services.

CAP is a community driven funding mechanism. Projects are designed by community members who must determine technical requirements, appropriate community applications and Internet access locations, together with long term financial sustainability frameworks. Rural communities that demonstrate need and have researched their proposals well are most likely to obtain funding. The CAP administrators provide a great deal of support in the way of information about successful CAP project applications, and the facilitation of horizontal channels of communication between CAP communities. Technical support is the responsibility of the community which must identify the most appropriate level and source of technical support. CAP works well because it is a non-paternalistic, community initiated funding model with few bureaucratic layers between the funder and the recipient community. There are lessons to be learned here for donor agencies working in developing countries.

Support efforts to liberalise telecommunication policies in developing countries

Digital wireless telephony has reached the stage where it is now less expensive to build a new local wireless telephone infrastructure than it is to build a traditional copper wire telephone infrastructure. For many people in developing countries, their first telephone is hand held, portable and wireless. In Zambia, for example, by the end of 1997, an enlightened group of local entrepreneurs (led by wealthy farmers) will likely be providing digital wireless telephone service to rural and remote regions of the country that have never had telephone infrastructure. This new technology provides basic telephone service for less capital cost than a traditional copper wire infrastructure, and also enables the high speed data communication necessary for Internet access. Early planning for involving Zambia's main Internet provider, ZamNet, in this initiative is underway, making the possibility of full Internet access, to even the most remote rural areas of Zambia, a strong probability by the end of 1997.

In other countries, such as South Africa, wireless telephone booths are providing telephone service to rural and remote areas of SouthAtrica, thus providing basic telecommunication service to all residents of the country. Fibre optic telecommunication "backbones" and new microwave and satellite telephone systems are making their appearance throughout the developing world, drastically reducing telephone service costs and dramatically improving telephone service quality and reliability. Internet services are enhanced, or begin emerging, as a direct result of these telecommunication improvements. In many cases, demand for Internet access is driving the effort to improve telecommunication infrastructure.

There is a strong correlation between such telecommunication improvements in developing countries and national telecommunication policies that help liberalise telecommunication services. The Zambian wireless telephone initiative is possible because of a telecommunication regulatory environment that enables private sector initiatives and competitive service. Relatively restrictive regulatory environments in Zimbabwe, in contrast, have so far prevented the release of portable telephony, despite significant demand. Uganda and Ghana, countries in which Internet use is increasing exponentially, have also adopted liberalized telecommunication policies. The Egyptian Government's decision to support private sector Internet service provision is resulting in an explosion of Internet services and parallel growth in Internet subscribers. Countries which have poor Internet access also tend to be countries with monopolistic national telecommunication policies and little or no service competition in the telecommunication sector.

Donor agencies have an important role in advocating for liberalized telecommunication policies that enable competition and the growth of private sector telecommunication and Internet services. It is also important to ensure that liberalized telecommunication environments balance competition with the needs of under served populations, including rural and remote communities. Some of the progressive telecommunication policy initiatives in South Africa, which highlight the needs of under served populations and rural areas could prove to be useful models for governments around the world (both in the North and South) (personal communication with Kate Wild, Project Director, IDRC, Johannesburg).

Support local Internet entrepreneurs and other service providers in developing countries

"No wonder e-mail is so important to the developing world - not least for the planet's poorest continent. It is the only mode of international telecommunication that Africa can afford on any reasonable scale."
Michiel Hegener. 1996. Telecommunications in Africa - via the Internet in particular.

"The requests for installations are snowballing right now and I must thank you for convincing me to venture into this exciting e-mail service providing business. I'm thoroughly enjoying it!"
Thandi Mbvundula in an e-mail message discussing her business providing e-mail services in Lilongwe, Malawi. Brunner, et al. 1996.

Local entrepreneurs, progressive NGOs and university computing departments in urban centres throughout the developing world are becoming Internet service providers (ISPs), providing dial-up telephone access to the sophisticated graphical, sound and video communication environment of the Internet's World Wide Web, together with basic electronic mail services. When the Egyptian Government agreed to license commercial Internet providers in May of 1996, 11 companies almost immediately began providing service in Cairo. In Harare, Zimbabwe, there are three locally owned and operated ISPs. For about US$20 per month any individual or organization with a phone line can have full access to such a service, to send as many e-mail messages as they like and to "surf" the World Wide Web for hours from a computer at their home or office.

Small business people operating telecentres and cybercafes in urban parts of the developing world (e.g. Mexico, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Malaysia and Senegal) are bringing the Internet to people who cannot afford computers. For less than 25 US cents an individual can use a telecentre or cybercafe to send an electronic mail message (e-mail) to any e-mail address in the world. A fantastic bargain compared to the cost of international fax messages which can cost up to US $20 for a single page international transmission.

A simple way for donor agencies to support these initiatives would be to advocate that their field offices and project officers use local Internet service providers wherever possible. Not only will they gain access to better knowledge and communication services, but they will be able to learn more about the local Internet user community and about local development information created by local communities [FAO's use of CGNET provides field offices with good e-mail service, hut does not provide them with full Internet World Wide Web access.]. Furthermore, while it might be tempting for donor agencies to fund the direct creation of Internet service provision and infrastructure, this may not serve user communities well. Donors funding Internet projects would be wise to direct their funds to user communities who can then determine the best choice for Internet service provision. This will help insure that Internet service providers remain responsive to the needs of their clients, rather than the other way around.

Assist stakeholders in advocating for Internet service provision and telecommunication infrastructure and policy improvements

Despite tremendous technological and service advances in every country in the world (developed or developing), rural and remote areas continue to suffer poor telecommunication infrastructure. In rural and northern parts of Canada (one of the technological powerhouses of new telecommunication advances), for instance, thousands of people continue to do without basic telephone service, or are unable to utilize existing infrastructure to operate fax machines. Poor telecommunication infrastructure is recognised as an important factor in leading people in rural areas to choose to migrate to urban areas. Rural economic development officers in Canada, for example, rank improvements in rural telecommunication infrastructure as more important than either improved health services or improved educational services, and cite poor telecommunication infrastructure as a primary factor in the out migration of professionals and the difficulty in attracting skilled professionals to relocate to rural areas (Ontario Federation of Agriculture, 1995). They also believe that improved rural telecommunication infrastructure is the key to economic development.

In rural areas, access to communication and information sharing systems can provide simple, but dramatic benefits. For example, the HealthNet Internet service that operates in Zambia is able to provide rural health care professionals with access to medical databases and rapid medical advice from specialist physicians around the world. Such information can literally make the difference between life and death. In Mexico and Chile, rural farmers are able to obtain timely and accurate commodity prices from Internet and fax services, and use this information to bargain for prices from brokers that are 15 to 20 percent higher than they were previously able to obtain (personal communication from a Mexican farmer). Such price differences, within an agricultural system with increasing input costs, tight profit margins, and global competition, can make the difference between a farmer staying in business or losing the farm.

In North America, the poor availability of Internet services in rural areas has catalyzed an important advocacy effort among rural and agricultural NGOs for general improvements to telecommunication infrastructure and policy. Technical obstacles to Internet service have focused attention on a history of government and corporate blindness to the telecommunication service needs of rural communities. In Canada, advocacy partnerships have emerged that have forged alliances between rural NGOs, women's groups, national and regional health care agencies, municipal governments, agricultural producer associations, universities, consumer groups, aboriginal communities and government bodies responsible for agriculture and rural development. These advocacy efforts are responsible for significant telecommunication service upgrades, policy improvements and federal and provincial programmes that support rural telecommunication and Internet projects.

In developing countries, organizations such as FAO can play important roles in championing emerging rural stakeholder advocacy efforts, and assisting rural stakeholders in gaining voices on national and regional telecommunication/ Internet advisory bodies. Special attention should be paid to the involvement of rural women and women's organizations that serve rural communities.

Orient existing Internet information services to users in developing countries

The global Internet now provides access to a plethora of agricultural and rural development information and discussion services. Information resources on low input agriculture, commodity prices, alternative crops, international crop market patterns (seasonality of specific regions, crop successes and failures, etc.), new techniques, integrated pest management, rural development strategies, FAO reports and research, and countless other topics are freely available to users around the world. In order for all this information to truly be of benefit to small producers and the people of rural and remote areas, it must be easily available to them and/or to the organizations that serve and represent their interests.

One of the common complaints among Internet users within the development communities of developing nations is that the people at the agencies who provide access to this information via the Internet do not know very much about the difficulty of accessing Internet services outside of headquarters or central offices. The speed of information retrieval in Africa is vastly slower than it is within FAO headquarters, for example. While Internet access is expanding rapidly in developing countries, users do not tend to have access to the same range of high speed telecommunication lines and phone lines that are available in the North. Internet "bandwidth" (a function of the size and speed of telecommunication lines) is generally less in developing countries than it is in the North. Low bandwidth translates into longer transmission times, and for many users in developing countries, increased costs. As one interviewee told the author "in Uganda it costs US$50 an hour to sit in an Internet traffic jam" (personal communication with Paul O'Nolan).

One remedy for the bandwidth problem, and one that has a relatively minor cost, is to "mirror" information on regionally located servers that could be managed by local Internet service providers. The service providers could gain some much needed revenue, and local users would have dramatically improved retrieval speeds which would encourage use and analysis of the information that is available to them from development agencies.

Attention should also be given to opportunities for Internet based copublishing efforts between information services in the North and stakeholders in the South. Organizations such as ILEIA, IDRC, the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), Toolnet and CTA are already actively pursuing copublishing initiatives, and in some cases providing support for local Internet publishing capacity.

Another simple remedy for improving the speed of information access is to significantly reduce the size and scale of the use of graphics to help increase data transmission speeds. Many World Wide Web international development and agricultural knowledge resources are exceedingly difficult to access from within developing countries because they are laden with graphics that transfer slowly across the Internet. This effectively prevents access to the valuable information that lies behind those images. Involving intended Internet information users in developing countries (especially, in the case of FAO, those from rural and agricultural communities) in the design and development of Internet information dissemination techniques is uncommon among development agencies. User consultation methodologies should be developed, and employed as a matter of course, to ensure that users are consulted on an ongoing basis. This will help to avoid user frustration and win user confidence that agency claims to having an understanding of developing country contexts are in fact true.

Support rural and agricultural education sector Internet capability

The most important current Internet user group consists of recent university and college graduates. These individuals are exposed to Internet benefits while at school, and when they obtain jobs in business or government, they encourage the adoption of new technologies and methodologies. Their creative uses of information and communication technology is often adopted by managers and colleagues. Indeed, within any organization one is likely now to find recent graduates leading the way with Internet adoption efforts. Their enthusiasm for the Internet can potentially have far-reaching benefits, and is worthy of development agency support.

In Hermosillo, Mexico for example, three dedicated recent university graduates continue to work full time to provide a valuable agricultural information service despite the fact that they have not received a salary in over eight months. Within FAO's project in Chile, one young woman who recently graduated from a social communication programme, and with no previous computer experience, is primarily responsible for the technical development of information resources currently available to farmer organizations Much of her technical support comes from other young Internet users in other countries with whom she communicates via electronic mail. Throughout the organizations visited during his FAO fact-finding mission, the author consistently found young, recent university graduates playing key roles in the development of local Internet initiatives.

Internet support activities must take account of the availability of dedicated young people, and involve recent graduates wherever possible. Many urban young people, who might not normally be interested in working in rural areas, are excited about the possibility of working with modern communication tools in rural communities. IDRC, for example, is considering developing an international "Internet Youth Corps" to assist in the spread of Internet services in Africa. A similar approach has been endorsed by the participants at the United Nations Youth Summit, August 1995.

Activities can also focus on assisting students to gain access to Internet tools. For the purpose of diffusing Internet services to rural and remote areas, educational institutions in those areas, together with urban educational institutions that have programmes of study related to those areas (e.g. rural development, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, etc.), and research organizations with links to the educational sector (such as national agriculture research centres), could be provided with assistance in acquiring networking computers, training and technical support targeted to young users. Support could also be provided to enable in-course students to engage in practical Internet projects and internships in rural and remote areas. Not only would services be expanded, but local educational institutions would gain a new awareness of rural and agricultural development needs. In Mexicali, Mexico, for example the university hosting the technical infrastructure for the agricultural communication and information services is now considering offering courses in agricultural communication for development and agricultural marketing.

Activities should make a strong effort to involve recent graduates and students in as many ways as possible. Their efforts, creativity, and visions will help ensure success and sustainability.

Provide Internet awareness building and demonstration

Despite the rapid growth in Internet service, general awareness of the Internet and its benefits is weak in developing countries. Ties between existing Internet user groups and the rest of the civil society are poor, and there is very little local information content available on the Internet to help stimulate local interest. Existing Internet services have difficulty marketing the Internet beyond early adopters because it often requires fostering desires and needs among clients who may not know they can benefit from the Internet. Thus, awareness building, through workshops, seminars, training courses, public events and media attention, can help to better inform potential user groups and bring them closer to making the decision to begin using the Internet. Awareness among national non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and rural development and agricultural extension services, is particularly weak. These groups should be specifically targeted for awareness building initiatives, and it is here that agencies such as FAO can play an important role through their existing relationship with such groups.

Findings from the author's fact-finding mission and research lead to the premise that the majority of current Internet users in developing countries belong to one of the following groups:

Awareness building initiatives can make use of such existing user groups to provide testimonials, demonstrations and public opportunities to share their experiences with non-users. Groups that are already active in using the Internet in rural and remote areas can provide persuasive information on cost savings, efficiencies and effectiveness, as well as obstacles and solutions to overcoming them.

Awareness building initiatives must also travel to the potential user's location, and demonstrate Internet tools within the context in which they may be adopted. There are several ways to accomplish this, including:

The benefits of awareness building can be accelerated when key decision makers, from both government and civil society, make public statements of acceptance and encouragement for Internet service to rural and remote communities. Such champions can help pull support from uncommitted decision makers and smooth the way for awareness building initiatives. Efforts should be made to identify such champions and support their work.

Promote rural and remote Internet infrastructure development

Internet service providers (ISPs) in capital cities of developing countries are often keenly interested in extending service to rural and remote areas. However, lack of market research on potential client bases for Internet services in rural and remote areas, and the necessity to take financial risks in providing such services, can prevent existing ISPs (private, non-governmental organization, or government) from building an infrastructure. Where there is good information on potential client base demand, some existing ISPs, particularly those oriented to revenue generation and profitability, are making plans to provide services. Such is the case for rural and remote tourist destinations and mining areas in Zimbabwe (e.g. Victoria Falls) and profitable farming and mining regions in Zambia. A rural and remote connectivity support strategy could contribute to the realization of such existing plans and help expand these plans to provide service to other areas.

Existing ISPs recommend packages of incentives to enable them to take the risks involved in providing rural and remote Internet services. Such incentives could include one or more of the following components:

Donor funding, as mentioned earlier, is probably best directed at user communities who can then determine the best local strategy for partnering with ISPs. The user communities can then directly provide the incentives for enhancing rural services. Donor agencies could assist in helping to link user communities with existing ISPs and encourage the creation of unique applications on behalf of user communities.

Support creative Internet applications and information services for rural and agricultural development

Internet users are fond of saying, "content is king," when it comes to the ultimate value of Internet use. People use the Internet because it provides them with information they need, and the ability to communicate with friends, colleagues, co-workers and peers from around the world. It also provides a communication environment that encourages creativity, expression, enjoyment and experimentation. There are currently relatively few African information services, for Africans, by Africans, on the Internet. In countries where there are organizations encouraging the development of creative information services and applications, African content is high, and general support for Internet activities is also high. Such is the case in Zambia where both national newspapers publish daily versions of their newspapers on the World Wide Web, and host various e-mail discussion groups. Supporting creative Internet applications and information services, particularly among rural stakeholders, will significantly extend the reach of information sharing efforts (locally and globally).

In Latin America, creative Internet applications and information services are developing quickly and there are many organizations and businesses ready to "host" and create World Wide Web information. There are several Spanish and Latin American World Wide Web "search engines" (such as "Ole") to help users quickly locate information resources. However, information services and applications related to rural and agricultural development are sparse. There is an opportunity to develop a distinctly Latin American rural and agricultural development information service. Ideally, this service would be decentralized support creativity and experimentation, and contain information maintained and updated by many different organizations using a common "homepage."

African and Latin American agencies and NGOs that currently provide creative "on-line" information services report that there are numerous benefits. They report that current and prospective funding agencies find it easier to make contact because NGO information is instantly accessible from the North. NGOs are also able to publicize the value of their contributions within the developed world via creative World Wide Web sites complete with photographs, graphics and even sound and music. Having information on the World Wide Web increases opportunities for recognition by donors and access to new donor initiatives. As the population of African, Asian and Latin American Internet users grows, there will be more and more opportunities to enable Africans, Asians and Latin Americans to develop and share locally relevant information such as extension materials, crop market prices (already on-line in Zambia, and to some extent in Latin America), health information and other information that is poorly distributed due to print publication costs.

There is no shortage of African, Asian and Latin American produced information that can be transferred to the Internet in creative ways. Many national agencies, including national agriculture research centres, extension services, women's organizations (e.g. the Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre), and national/regional NGOs, publish paper newsletters, booklets, manuals, guides, factsheets, and pamphlets, but, due to the costs involved in printing and distribution, these publications may not receive the attention they deserve. Many of these publications are produced on computers using word processing software, and can therefore be easily transferred to Internet software packages for distribution on line. Static printed information can be recycled and gain a new lease on life when mixed with interactive Internet applications that support quizzes, learning games, discussion groups and user responses.

Most existing ISPs rent electronic storage space on the computer network "servers" that can serve such Internet resources to users. They also provide electronic publishing services to clients who may not have the skills to create World Wide Web documents or gopher file archives. A strategy for supporting creative Internet information services and applications in Africa, Asia and Latin America among rural stakeholders can make use of these existing ISP services in several ways:

The Internet already represents a vast global library of information that can become more easily available to rural and remote residents of developing countries. Combining existing resources with locally relevant and culturally oriented information can increase peoples' understanding of their own issues and contexts, and increase the rest of the world's understanding of people in developing countries.