Communication for development Knowledge

Posted April 1999

Special: The first mile of connectivity

Participatory approaches for promoting rural connectivity

By Titus Moetsabi
SADC Centre of Communication for Development
Harare, Zimbabwe

1. Introduction

  • Why the first mile?
  • Telecommunication services and stakeholders
    2. Lessons learned
  • Communication for sustainable development
  • Eyes see; ears hear
  • Participatory rural communications appraisal
  • Radio and video
  • State media for democratic development
    3. Technologies
  • Telecommunications for sustainable development
  • Rural telecommunications in Africa
  • Integrated rural development through telecommunications
    4. Applications
  • Internet and rural development
  • Participatory approaches to rural connectivity
  • Empowering communities
  • Rural telecentres
  • Training community animators
  • Video conferencing
  • Connecting with the unconnected
    5. Policies
  • Global information infrastructure
  • Rural networking cooperatives
  • Public and private interests
    Editors, contributors
  • This article is a direct result of the FAO/IDRC/SADC/University of Guelph sponsored conference on rural connectivity held in Harare in February 1997 and represents the perspective of someone with a great deal of experience in rural communication for development, applying that perspective to these new tools and trying to come to grips with how the tools might be developed to meet needs at the village level.

    The need for participatory approaches

    This article will look at ways electronic communication networks (ECNs) can be used to promote participatory exchange of information, knowledge and experiences at the grass roots level. ECN is a new medium of communication, and its casting and content need to be thought through. Participatory approaches can help in ECN design and use by all involved

    Before looking at the details of why and how there could be benefits, it is important for us to understand what we mean by "participatory approaches". There are many forms of participation, but the bottom line is that communities participate genuinely if they will derive benefits aimed at satisfying their real felt needs as they define them themselves. These benefits need not solely be material benefits - material benefits only make sense when they satisfy communities' fundamental needs such as subsistence, identity, freedom, protection, affection, understanding, participation, creation and leisure. The material needs accomplished by the development activities we engage in with communities are satisfiers of these actual basic needs.

    If participation is a basic need, it is worth looking at the typology of different types of participation so as to put the type of participation that empowers communities in the context of other non-genuine forms of participation. This might help to ensure that we speak the same language when we refer to participation.

    How people participate in development projects


    Components of each type

    Passive Participation

    People participate by being told what is going to happen or has already happened. It is a unilateral announcement by an administration or project management without any listening to people's responses.

    Participation in information giving

    The information being shared belongs only to external professionals. People participate by answering questions posed by extractive researchers using questionnaire surveys or such similar approaches. People do not have the opportunity to influence proceedings, as the findings of the research are neither shared nor checked for accuracy.

    Participation by consultation

    People participate by being consulted, and external agents listen to views. These external agents define both problems and solutions, and may modify these in the light of people's responses. Such a consultative process does not concede any share in decision making, and professionals are under no obligation to take on board people's views.

    Participation for material benefits

    People participate by providing resources such as labour, in return for food, cash or other material incentives. Much on farm research falls in this category, as farmers provide the fields but are not involved in experimentation or the process of learning. It is very common to see this called participation yet people have no stake in prolonging activities when incentives end.

    Functional participation

    People participate by forming groups to meet predetermined objectives related to the project, which can involve the development or promotion of externally initiated social organization. Such involvement tends not to be at early stages of project cycles or planning, but rather after major decisions have already been made. These institutions tend to be dependent on external initiators and facilitators, but may become self-dependent.

    Interactive participation

    People participate in joint analysis, which leads to action plans and the formation of new local institutions or the strengthening of existing ones. It tends to involve interdisciplinary methodologies that seek multiple objectives and make use of systematic and structured learning processes. These groups take control/ownership over local decisions, and so people have a stake in maintaining structures or practices.


    People participate by taking initiatives independent of external institutions to change systems. Such self-initiated mobilization and collective action may or may not challenge existing inequitable distributions of wealth and power.

    Source: Pretty et al. 1995: 61

    According to Robert Chambers (1997), the three pillars of interactive participation are:

    Some of the benefits of ECNs are:

    Participation is therefore fostered by putting communities themselves "in the driving seat" with facilitators taking the passenger seats. Practically, this means the ownership and control of the technical, financial, socio-cultural, and institutional (overall community resources) components of a development programme should be vested in villagers themselves.

    Implications of the paradigm of participatory development on rural connectivity and the Internet

    Structurally, villagers should have an understanding of the systems involved. They need to understand the system of networking they are involved in. This is important if they are to be empowered to get maximum benefit out of the system. Like designing any communication programme, and the communication media and activities that go with it, designing an ECN has several challenges if it is done in a participatory manner:

    Such assessment would focus on issues such as:

    Some ECN materials may need to be tailored to specific audiences, but this does not preclude connection to the Internet although it focuses on immediate needs for purposes of encouraging participation and developmental objectives. A major issue is how the system will be designed to bridge the first mile with participatory approaches that use other media and channels to encourage people's inputting and receiving relevant information, knowledge and experiences to and from the network, even though they do not have direct access to the computer.screen. Channels such as multimedia, print-outs, radio, audio-tapes, popular theatre, language translations will be important.

    An article from Time, (February 3, 1997, pp. 38-39), makes this interesting observation on the relation between ECN and culture:

    A survey in the Japanese weekly news magazine Shukan Asahi (performed by e-mailing the top executives of 160 companies to see who wrote back) yielded a bumper crop of technophobes: of about 70 companies that responded, more than half said their presidents did not use a computer, let alone the World Wide Web or e-mail. In this high tech industrial powerhouse, the statistics raised eyebrows. Why the avoidance of networks and PCs? Many Japanese say the problem lurks in the very cultural practices that built Japan: rigid groupism, conformity and steel-stiff hierarchies .... Most Japanese companies still require plans to be submitted in person before the president will stamp his hanko (seal of approval). And, managers still need to go through nemawashii (consensus building) and ringi (circulating drafts for group approval). The result is a gelatinous management channel incapable of making decisions in 'real time' - hours instead of weeks.

    From this example, we see that information and communication change has to be rooted in peoples' local cultures if such change is to be taken seriously by the people involved. Participatory consultations with villagers will expose the different cultural trends, which need to be taken note of before they will accept the new technology or realise its full potential.

    The following diagram is important to understand the communication and information needs discussion:






    village farmers

    district level

    provincial level

    central level

    other publics

    Each part of the chain from 'a' to 'e' will need to determine the type of information it needs to share. Whereas, in terms of packaging, 'a' might need graphics and sound, 'b' might need a map, 'c' might need diagrams, 'd' might need statistical presentations, and 'e' might need a bit of everything from sound to statistics.

    Appropriate packaging is thus an important issue to be considered. The fundamental question is, "Who decides the type of packaging and types of information to be sent out to the community?" There are two possibilities:

    The horizontal trend in participatory information sharing and communication. Through participatory rural communication appraisal, establish how 'a' wants communication coming from 'b', 'c', 'd', or 'e', to be packaged when it is received and the type of information wanted from each different point. The reverse is equally true; that is, each point can establish how 'a' can send particular types of information they need in terms of packaging.

    The hierarchical trend in participatory information sharing and communication. Through participatory rural communication appraisal, establish how:

    The reverse is equally applicable.

    In both cases referred to above, the computer point could be at village the level itself or at the district level. Preferably, it should be at village level for the villagers to feel and exercise ownership.

    Group formation/community organization

    Electronic communication networking could easily supercharge the speed of everything from cash flow to customer services in a community. The network in this case is not only a means of facilitating business but the business itself. Since important activities cannot be entrusted to one person, the community will need to be organized/reorganized to deal with the new changes in communication. Changes in communication of this nature bring extreme changes like free-flowing information, and the community needs to be organised for this. Information is power, and investing it in few hands could disempower the other villagers. This can be overcome by group rather than individual training.

    The information/communication market place and/or the "electronic communication network knowledge workers"

    Village activities are usually conducted under a big tree or in a big grass thatched enclosure with the people sitting together, circular fashion that is intimate. Information received (e.g., for training, marketing, inputs, prices, etc.) could be enlarged from a PC monitor to an overhead projector screen and the villagers could together or in groups discuss and strategize on what action to take next. As soon as they make their decision they could respond via the same medium. Juxtaposed to this is the possibility of the extension worker, the facilitator at village level, being an information worker too. This means people can still meet under the big tree or big grass thatched hut and discuss information they have received and plan together sending back replies. However, the information worker will also play the role of decoding a lot of information, which could be difficult to comprehend or respond to. Although emphasis is placed on group activity, we should not make it seem a must. Whereas in nascent community organizations group approaches are strong, in emergent and mature community organization decisions taken collectively are more and more delegated to individuals to implement or critique.

    Functional literacy

    If people cannot read and write it is not the end of the world. Programmes can be designed so that people understand interaction in the written word with regards to specific functions. This has been known to work very well with teaching bookkeeping to village groups involved in small-scale enterprises.

    Village resource centres

    Villagers are not concerned about into food security only. A resource such as electronic communication network would be under-utilised if left for one function only. The people may like such a resource to be linked to development of other things like a library, information on opportunities for school leavers and entertainment. Participatory approaches could also establish different preferred information and communication needs.

    User friendly

    The systems, the technology itself and the atmosphere should be sensitive to the needs of women, men, children, adults and old people. If conflicts arise in use or content or type of technology, villagers would need to be familiar with conflict mediation and resolution.


    Chambers, Robert. 1997. Whose reality counts? Putting the first last. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.

    Pretty, Jules et al. 1995. Participatory learning and action: a trainer's guide. London: IIED.

    Time. 1997. Personal computers in Japan. February 3, 1997, pp. 38-39.

    To Applications: Empowering communities in the information society

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