Updated July 1999
Special: The first mile of connectivity
Applying the lessons of participatory communication and training to rural telecentres
by Jon Anderson, FAO Forest Conservation Research and Education Service
Significant sums are being invested by governments, donors, com-munities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the commercial private sector in the deployment of new information and com-munication technologies (Jensen, 1996). There is widespread belief that while information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a "new social and economic force in the world economy," their adoption and utilization in developing countries are constrained by, among other problems, inadequate infrastructure, limited human resource capacity, absence of national policies and low ICT literacy (Moyo, 1996).
In the rush to "wire" developing countries, little attention has been paid to conceptual frameworks or guidelines for ICT utilization, inviting the risk that attempts to introduce ICTs will ignore lessons from past technology transfer efforts, especially those involving information and communication technologies. As with past technologies, ICTs do not in themselves guarantee benefits to local people. In our enthusiasm for ICT technologies and their potential, we should not forget that the focus should be on people, organizations and processes rather than on the technologies themselves. ICTs will not fulfil their potential for rural development unless the special characteristics of the technologies are combined with applications, which focus on participatory communication and training methodologies.
Background to telecentres and the Internet
Telecentres that employ ICTs are a relatively recent phenomena. The first ones were built in Denmark and Sweden in 1983-5. The idea has been taken up quite widely in Europe, notably in the UK where at the last count there were some 200 telecottages (Simmins, 1997). More recently, and on a limited scale, they have been established in developing countries. Such facilities are called a number of names, including "virtual village halls," "telelearning centres," and "telecottages".
Telecentres may employ a number of types of ICTs and offer services such as access to telephones and fax machines, photocopiers, printing equipment, e-mail, the Internet and electronic networking. Telecentres are also a venue in which new ICTs, such as the Internet, can interface with conventional ICTs (print, radio and video).
The Internet is relatively cheap, powerful, decentralized and potentially an ideal platform to build a flexible and powerful environment for sharing and learning. The Internet is the first communication tool that allows every user to be a sender, receiver, narrowcaster and broadcaster in a global sphere (Richardson, 1996).
The nature of the Internet suggests it could be an effective tool for development, and the success of telecentres in Europe suggests that telecentres may be an effective mechanism for making the Internet and other ICTs available to rural communities. This explains the recent initiation of a number of telecentre pilot projects in developing countries.
Purpose of this set of considerations
The provision of access to ICTs by rural communities in developing countries is likely to go through telecentres. The purpose of these considerations is to ensure that this development is as effective, efficient, sustainable and equitable as possible, so that the promise of the technology becomes a reality - a tool in the hands of rural people.
This paper is based on accumulated experiences with communication technologies, training, extension and rural education for development. However, the considerations presented here have not been specifically tested for telecentres. These considerations are intended for reference and to inform the assessment and development of telecentres; they should not be perceived as a foolproof recipe for success - they are not. They are offered as a foundation, which can be built upon and developed as knowledge, and experience in the use of telecentres grows.
Preconditions and prefeasibility considerations
When selecting locations for telecentres, consideration should be given to the level of potential demand for communication and information services from a large number and a wide range of users. This will ensure utilization of the facility and reduce the expense to individuals through cost sharing.
The proximity of the telecentre to other organizations and institutions that can play roles in using, supporting, maintaining or operating the telecentre should be investigated. Such organizations might include: hospital health centres, schools/colleges/universities, community and cultural centres, religious centres, libraries, organizations of farmers/fishermen/craftsmen, post offices, local/national government administration offices, radio and television stations, NGOs and community-based organizations, among others.
Infrastructural considerations should include: a location that is easily accessible to potential users (i.e., near public transport or within walking distance); the availability of an existing structure(e.g., school building, library, extension office) or a new structure which is suited to use as a telecentre (appropriate layout, secure); access to electricity; and connection to telephone lines and the Internet (terrestrial or satellite link). In some situations the development of telecentres may be inappropriate, and other types of communication solutions, electronic or otherwise, should be explored.
Socio-cultural aspects that may affect the utilization of the telecentre, or which groups within the community have access to the telecentre, should be investigated. To be effective, telecentres need to be integrated into communities so that they lessen instead of widen the communication gaps between the information rich and the information poor. As in the case of other communication media, the advocates of Internet and other ICTs for development need to look beyond the technologies "to the social and economic systems in which the media function and how these systems influence media access, exposure and impact" (Crowder, 1991). In this context, it is important to pay attention to the communication gaps that often exist based on gender, and incorporate into telecentre organization the differential communication patterns that exist between men and women (Subedi and Garforth, 1996).
Local needs and skills assessment
A participatory needs assessment can help to identify the information and training requirements of the local population. At the same time, it is important to uncover local skills and knowledge. These two items will help guide the selection and development of applications and help make the technology useful and appropriate for local people. Good techniques for these kinds of assessment, such as participatory rural appraisal (PRA) tools, have already been developed and can be selected according to specific situations.
The time required for the assessment will vary depending on factors such as the availability of existing information about the proposed telecentre location, the depth of information required in the planning stage of the telecentre, and the level of use of ICTs at the proposed location.
The communication for development approach
As a strategy, communication for development can mobilize people for action, promote coordination and linkages among groups and stimulate awareness of, planning for and participation in development. As a strategy for ICT applications, communication for development "begins with the needs of people in rural communities and grassroots agricultural organizations and works to establish vertical and horizontal channels of communication" (Richardson, 1997).
Through dialogue and consultation, communication can facilitate participatory problem analysis and development planning; it can ensure information flows among concerned groups and promote local information networks; it can link rural knowledge and information systems and help integrate indigenous and scientific knowledge; and it can empower local people to take control of their own development processes (FAO, 1995).
A good understanding of local communication patterns and processes is essential for telecentre development to ensure appropriate applications of technologies and content to the local situation and for harmonization and integration with existing communication channels and processes. This includes cultural and social norms, where and how people communicate, what is communicated, and by whom. This information can be collected at the same time as the local needs and skills assessment.
Awareness building for ICTs
"Cyberspace" as a whole can be seen as an ideal platform to build a flexible and powerful environment for sharing and learning. Electronic mail is a uniquely discursive communication mechanism, which can break barriers of time and place. The World Wide Web is a powerful tool for collaboration and participation. At the same time, interactive multimedia applications are redefining publishing and "reading" (Negroponte, 1995). The cultural impact of ICTs has been demonstrated in business, education, public and private life (Woods, 1996).
However, information and communication technologies are new to many people in rural areas. To assist rural people to identify what technological applications, services and content they may need or want, they will have to be familiar with the uses of the technologies and the potential applications and content appropriate for their situations. Familiarity with the technologies will enable the end users to have a productive dialogue with the designers and suppliers of the applications and to adapt and create their own content. Ways to accomplish this are study tours, which take rural people to where the technologies already exist and/or organizing demonstrations of and training with the technologies in rural areas.
One of the greatest risks in telecentre development is that the technology will remain "alien" to the local community and they will feel little involvement or ownership of the telecentre. This of course limits effectiveness and sustainability of the initiative. This can be addressed by engaging the local community in all stages of development of the project and by capacity building which develops the skills of local people to take responsibility for the organization, maintenance and operation of the telecentre.
Types of applications: externally and internally developed
Applications that could be available in telecentres include "generic" content developed outside the community, however the most important applications are likely to be those which are developed specifically for and by the local users. Many segments of the community should be included in the development of specialised applications, including youth and women. The "generic" applications, which are provided for use in telecentres should, where possible, include functions that allow local communities to contribute their own information to the pool of knowledge.
Telecentres are not just technology centres; they can also be living laboratories, which facilitate local sharing of information and ideas. A telecentre can take full advantage of global information as well as facilitate the creation of a common local development vision. Telecentres are not only a way to provide simple, single-point access to external information and services, but also a facility for local residents and groups to organize village meetings, video conferences and technology training to address their development needs.
Links and integration with existing communication processes
Although the emphasis in developed countries has been on the personal computer and personal access to the Internet, this situation is not feasible in rural areas of the developing world at present. Therefore, the link between ICTs and the local people will most likely have to be made through existing communication channels, such as extension agents, NGO workers and rural teachers. Attention to creating and sustaining these linkages will be crucial to ensure that ICTs reach their potential as tools for development. In this regard, it is important to direct attention to how telecentre infrastructure and technology can best be configured or organized to facilitate group use.
As well as linkages between the technology and people, there are potentially new interfaces between electronic and non-electronic media and processes. Creative ways of combining the two media will help to increase the effectiveness of both.
Training for agricultural and rural development can do more than provide improved knowledge and skills for individuals - it can also improve the quality of life and the environment of rural communities by "development through collaborative learning" . This is collaborative learning with a purpose - teachers, extension agents and researchers "working together with rural people to deal with their everyday problems" (Bawden, 1996).
As a "purpose-centred system of education" (Cohen, 1993), adult training and learning can promote a process of shared problem appreciation, solution design and finally collective action (Röling, 1993, 1996). This is learning that encompasses both individual and community improvement through "planned interventions into the natural processes of social change and individual learning" (Rogers, 1992). It can be facilitated by and take advantage of ICTs.
Training will be necessary at all stages of telecentre projects. For example, ongoing training will be necessary for the users of the telecentres and periodical training will be required on an as-needed basis to upgrade skills as the technology and content requirements change. Rural colleges and schools, as well as extension services, can use telecentres for professional training, as a facility for distance learning and for farmer tele-training.
When designing training, the users' requirements and learning preferences should be considered, which means that the content and method of delivery should be developed in collaboration with the learners. In addition, training-of-trainers (e.g., the staff of the telecentres) will be necessary to ensure that the training methods and the content of the training sessions they conduct are current and appropriate.
Participatory monitoring and evaluation
It is necessary to monitor and evaluate the process of telecentre development and implementation. The elements monitored should not only include the number of users and the telecentre services that are most utilised, but also the impact of the telecentre on the quality of life in rural areas. Participatory methodologies should be used.
On the basis of monitoring and evaluation, modifications will need to be made in the mode of operation, the services provided and the technology used at the telecentre, because all of these will evolve over time. Although this is true for many projects, it is particularly pertinent to telecentres which employ new and rapidly changing ICTs.
Some concluding observations
Whereas some communication media for development have had a tendency to reinforce vertical bureaucracies, ICTs can facilitate horizontal and vertical networks for information-sharing and purposeful learning as a basis for sustainable development. The rural organizations and structures that are created or adapted for ICT applications should take this into consideration. The communication for development approach demonstrates that people's needs and local communication patterns should be analysed if ICTs, and their applications through telecentres, are to be effective; to be successful, ICTs will need to be integrated with local communication networks. Provisions for local people to "dialogue" with the technologies, inter-act with each other and create or modify content are essential. Training and learning experiences show us that while people learn in different ways, their collaborative learning can be structured for development purposes, and that these processes can be enhanced by ICTs.
New information and communications technologies, in particular the Internet, offer a potentially powerful tool for contributing to rural development. However, the introduction of these technologies into rural settings through telecentres will inevitably be accompanied by many of the same constraints and difficulties experienced with previous technology transfer attempts. The lessons learned and the skills developed through past experiences and approaches should be applied to current investments in telecentres. An approach that incorporates the unique characteristics of ICTs with participatory communication and learning strategies can help to guide the contributions that telecentres can make to agricultural and rural development. In the absence of such an approach, the rush to "wire" rural areas may result in development "short circuits".
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To Applications: Training community animators as participatory communication for development practitioners