FAO at the Second World Summit on the Information Society
The digital divide continues to hinder development in rural areas
15 November 2005, Rome/Tunis – The rural digital divide is isolating almost one billion of the poorest people who are unable to participate in the global information society, according to FAO, which will be highlighting its activities on enhancing knowledge exchange and access to information in combating hunger and poverty at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, Phase II) opening tomorrow.
“The rural digital divide is the disparity of access to information and communication technologies between rural and urban people, depriving the rural world of essential information,” said Anton Mangstl, Director of FAO’s Library and Documentation Systems Division. “The divide, therefore, hinders development in rural areas where information and communication are crucial to improve farming methods and market access.”
The rural digital divide is derived from a complex range of problems, including the lack of telecommunications and other connectivity infrastructure; skills and institutional capacity; effective representation and participation in development processes; and lack of financial resources.
Since the first phase of WSIS (Geneva, 10-12 December 2003), FAO has launched the Bridging the Rural Digital Divide Programme in response to the need to bring relevant expertise and resources from across the world into a more coherent and systematic approach.
Such activities are being highlighted in the new website on Bridging the Rural Digital Divide launched today at http://www.fao.org/gil/rdd/.
The website covers the Organization’s work over the last two years since the first phase of WSIS and provides a platform for future work.
The first Millennium goal
FAO’s Programme for Bridging the Rural Digital Divide addresses the first Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme hunger and poverty.
It also addresses the Plan of Action of the first World Summit on the Information Society, which called on all concerned to achieve, by 2015, a series of objectives including building an inclusive Information Society; putting the potential of knowledge and information and communication technologies (ICTs) at the service of development; promoting the use of information and knowledge for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals; and addressing new challenges of the Information Society, at the national, regional and international levels.
FAO has already helped a number of countries to ensure that rural people are in a better position to use technology to exchange information and to communicate more effectively.
Tangible steps towards alleviating hunger and poverty through effective application of ICTs are already being made in several parts of the world.
In Africa, rural radio programmes targeting rural audiences, including women, have been able to upgrade their information on food and agriculture through training workshops organized by FAO.
In Asia, FAO has helped rural finance institutions to benefit from low-cost microfinance software, which enables them to lend money to small farmers.
In Latin America, the Government of El Salvador has developed an Internet-based early warning system for natural disasters, which captures data from a range of local and national sources.
A complex range of problems
International meetings such as the World Summit on the Information Society are useful to overcome the digital divide. By bringing together governments and all stakeholders, they create conditions conducive to mobilizing human, financial and technological resources for inclusion of all men and women in the emerging Information Society.
It is important to note, however, that many technology-oriented approaches to solving problems related to bridging the rural digital divide often give insufficient consideration to how and why technologies can improve livelihoods.
“Often, the weaknesses are not in the infrastructure and tools, but in the process of their adoption and use. So attention needs to be focused on education, information sharing, and communication,” Mr. Mangstl explains.
FAO is addressing these issues, as well as that of institution and policy frameworks, and is particularly looking at ways in which rural stakeholders can use ICTs to develop greater influence in their areas.
“Rural people and institutions need the opportunity to play a vital role in information sharing. These communities have a wealth of local agricultural knowledge to contribute,” Mr. Mangstl noted.
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