Posted July 1999
Special: The first mile of connectivity
The Internet and rural development
By Don Richardson
There has been a rapid increase in the use of the Internet in developing countries, although this expansion is still largely an urban phenomenon. Rural communities represent the "last mile of connectivity" (or the "first mile" if you look at it from a rural perspective) in both developing and developed countries with regard to access to Internet services and the telecommunication connections that help transmit those services. People in rural areas are generally unable to take advantage of the services available to their urban peers.
Internet initiatives for rural development need to be approached with a degree of caution. One cannot expect less privileged 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 are various intermediaries serving these populations which, together with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in rural areas, could take advantage of these technologies to improve their work, improve communication capacity, gain efficiencies and reduce telecommunication costs. With SMEs, intermediary organizations such as extension field offices, rural NGOs, health clinics, government satellite offices and church organizations can offer communication services in numerous ways. Strategies for improving access to the Internet and use for rural development will necessarily involve the full participation of intermediary organizations and other rural stakeholders. This article draws attention to the potential of the Internet for rural development initiatives.
Today we truly live in a global village, but it is a village with privileged information "haves" and many information "have-nots". To face the unprecedented challenges brought on by the changing global economy, dynamic political contexts, environmental degradation and demographic pressures, and to make critical decisions, people at all levels of society - especially the food-insecure and the organizations that serve and represent them - must be able to access critical information and to communicate. Improved communication and information access are directly related to social and economic development (Tallero and Gaudette, 1995).
The Internet is a multipurpose tool, a medium of communication and perhaps the most flexible medium currently available. It has the potential to be integrated within a wide variety of efforts that have objectives such as local participation, training, education, research (especially participatory research), technical support and institutional strengthening. Thus, endeavours that might find a role for Internet applications could range from training to the development of criteria and indicators for sustainable agriculture.
A decentralized "people's network"
The Internet was conceived and designed in 1963 by Larry Roberts, working for the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) with funding from the United States Department of Defence (Negroponte, 1995a and 1995b). ARPAnet, as it was then called, emerged as a communication tool in the late 1960s for a handful of Department of Defence workers and contractors. It was designed to be a fail-safe communication system because it would be fundamentally a "decentralized" network. People could send packets of information from one computer to another, across the United States, and those packets could travel by a variety of routes to reach their destination. If one or several routes were destroyed or malfunctioning, the packets would find alternative routes and eventually reach their destination. ARPAnet grew during the late 1960s and 1970s because new "nodes" and routes were added to include university researchers. The many benefits of electronic mail (e-mail) were attractive to users and, as a wider community of faculty and students began to use the tool, it quickly gained popularity as a communication tool in North America. Because it was a decentralized network, there were few means to control its popular expansion, and it soon transcended its Department of Defence mentors.
The Internet today is a people's network. Anyone with basic computer equipment and a telephone line can connect to it, communicate through it, host information on it and look through or browse it. Unlike many other media such as television and radio, every user of the medium can be an information producer and knowledge sharer. No one knows for sure how many people are using the Internet today, but estimates range from 40 million to 100 million people.
Communicating over the Internet costs a fraction of what it does to use traditional telephones or fax because information flows in discrete packets of digital bits that are able to share telecommunication lines with hundreds of other packets. Where a traditional transatlantic telephone call will tie up a single telephone line for only two people, an e-mail message can travel along a telephone line with hundreds and even thousands of other messages. Thus, the Internet is cheap, powerful, decentralized and in the hands of civil society.
A fact that is well known to veteran 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. Within bureaucratic organizations it has a way of levelling hierarchies, facilitating new communication patterns and supporting activities that might not otherwise occur (Negroponte, 1995a).
The Internet in support of sustainable rural and agricultural development
With regard to Internet use in support of rural and agricultural development, applications fall into five main areas: economic development for agricultural producers, community development, research/education, SME development and media networks. The following sections explore these areas.
Applications in planning and market information for agricultural producers
The change to a global market economy over the last ten years has produced some very big changes for small producers. Now they need to understand global market situations to make better decisions about timing, marketing and management.
- Monica Besoain, field worker for the Chilean NGO, INPROA, Rengo, Chile (personal communication, July 1996)
Rural communities and small-scale agricultural producers are deeply affected by global economic, environmental and political forces. The idea that communities of small-scale agricultural producers are isolated and living in closed, self-sufficient societies is a myth. In fact, with the appropriate knowledge, small-scale producers can even have a competitive edge over larger operations. When knowledge is harnessed by strong organizations of small producers, strategic planning can be used to provide members with lower-cost inputs, better storage facilities, improved transportation links and collective negotiations with buyers. The Internet is one tool that can enhance this flow of information. It is an inexpensive way to communicate and access global information. Local Internet services can be easily managed by well-organized local user groups and farmers' organizations. Information and analyses can be tailored to local, regional and national knowledge and communication needs and realities. When combined with national and global market information systems, and with the ability to communicate quickly with potential buyers and brokers, local Internet systems become valuable strategic planning and decision-making tools.
Community information centres and farmers' organizations can also gather information from the Internet and disseminate it via local radio stations, newspapers and other local information-sharing networks and tools. For example, daily market prices and agricultural news can be posted at cooperatives, local stores, transportation hubs, agricultural supply outlets and social gathering points. Simple newsletters can be developed using Internet information and distributed to members of farmers' organizations. When integrated with other media tools, the Internet can be a powerful information resource and research tool.
Community development applications
Modern communication technologies, when systematically applied and adapted to conditions in rural areas of developing countries, can be used for rural communication to increase participation, disseminate information and share knowledge and skills. The establishment of new institutional frameworks, including all stakeholders, which are autonomous and income-generating, can lead to sustainable and cost-effective efforts, as opposed to working only with government agencies.
- Manuel Calvelo Rios, FAO Communication for Development in Latin America Project (FAO, 1996b).
Internet services are also valuable when placed at the service of rural development-oriented organizations which act as local communication conduits or intermediaries. Along with providing improved market knowledge, they can also:
Toolnet is a network for small-scale development projects that fosters exchange of information, experiences, expertise and solutions to technical problems. It provides multifunctional electronic mail to link field workers, local organizations, technological institutions, international development organizations and individual ... directed toward technology transfer among developing countries ... Points are operating or planned in about 25 countries world-wide.
- Volunteers in Technical Assistance (Tallero and Gaudette, 1995).
Within national, regional and international research communities, increased attention has been directed towards "participatory research" strategies (Chambers and Guijt, 1996; FAO, 1995a and 1995b). These strategies place farmers and rural residents at the centre of the research process and enable them to enrich their knowledge base and share it with one another as well as with field workers, researchers and decision-makers. Internet use among intermediary organizations and leaders involved in participatory research can provide a cost-effective method for documenting and sharing lessons learned and research results. Internet use also has the potential to strengthen linkages between and among farmers' organizations, extension workers, researchers and policy-makers.
The cost of accessing printed academic materials within developing countries is usually so high that students and faculty members have great difficulty acquiring books and journals. Furthermore, the time required to obtain printed materials from overseas can be long enough to render some information outdated by the time it arrives. Via the Internet, any information published on-line can be accessed almost instantly and at a fraction of the cost of obtaining printed materials. Archival lists of resources can be easily reviewed and assessed in remote locations.
Electronic distance education services are already in use in North America, Australia and Europe (particularly among people in rural areas), and with the continued growth of Internet access in developing countries there is a very good chance that similar services will develop a significant demand. On the African continent, Internet-based distance education programmes are already underway in Ghana, South Africa and Egypt. Distance education (as well as traditional education) partnerships between universities in the North and the South (such as the University of Guelph's partnerships with universities in Cameroon and India to develop distance education extension worker training programmes) have proved to be beneficial to the institutions involved. With the assistance of Internet tools, these partnerships can be further strengthened and Internet learning resources can be cooperatively developed across oceans to be utilized by participants in developing nations. Of course, this process can work in the other direction too, to enable students in the North to learn more about the conditions, challenges, potentials and knowledge development of the South.
Overall, the Internet holds significant potential to enhance learning and research relationships among researchers, academics and students wherever they may be located. The list of potential applications is infinite and thousands of informal linkages of this sort take place every day in Internet discussion groups. Development agencies such as FAO can play a role in helping to formalize and provide credentials and diplomas for people who participate in specific electronic learning initiatives delivered via the Internet.
Small and medium enterprise development
The removal of international trade barriers has brought quickly changing global markets. Large international corporations can now compete for the SMEs' market, but SMEs traditionally have not had the infrastructure or necessary resources to fight back. Our mission [is] to provide a productive and professional Internet/WWW-based network to help SMEs communicate about business needs, share their resources and expand their markets.
- Mission statement for the International Small Business Consortium (http://www.isbc.com).
Private sector businesses, large and small, are using the Internet to reach new markets, promote products and services globally and access critical business and financial information.
The tourism sector has been quick to recognize the benefits of the Internet for advertising destinations, tours and holiday services. Of particular interest are the World Wide Web sites for "ecotourism", game parks and adventure tours in areas of southern Africa where rural tourism is a growing industry (c.f. Welcome to Zimbabwe: Africa Tour Net). Tourism operators in rural and remote areas have a difficult time marketing their destinations through traditional media owing to production and distribution costs. The Internet now represents a very inexpensive way for them to showcase their sites to the world and interact directly with potential tourists.
News media networks
The news media in developing countries have also been at the forefront of developing Internet applications. For example, in Zambia, both national daily newspapers mirror their daily copy on the World Wide Web, making the local news accessible to expatriate Zambians around the world. E-mail discussion groups provide these expatriates with an opportunity to discuss the daily news with one another and with their Internet-connected peers in Zambia. A discussion group joined by the author generated a minimum of 30 e-mail messages per day! Such e-mail discussion groups for expatriates and nationals exist for virtually every developing country in the world and represent a relatively untapped resource for accessing the views, ideas and creativity of members of civil society with regard to development policy and initiatives.
In addition to the latter news and information applications, organizations such as Inter Press Service (IPS) Third World News Agency use the Internet to source news stories from local writers in developing countries and share those stories with international wire services such as Associated Press. IPS is also able to provide Internet feeds that enable African news media to have access to African news from around the continent. This is particularly relevant to rural radio stations and other rural newspaper and newsletter producers that would otherwise be unable to obtain the same news from other sources. IPS can also provide an outlet for rural news writers to share their stories regionally, nationally and globally. Similar Internet strategies for rural radio networks, which might also incorporate digital audio transmissions, may well emerge in the near future.
The information revolution offers Africa a dramatic opportunity to leapfrog into the future, breaking out of decades of stagnation or decline. Africa must seize this opportunity, quickly. If African countries cannot take advantage of the information revolution and surf this great wave of technological change, they may be crushed by it. In that case, they are likely to be even more marginalized and economically stagnant in the future than they are today.
- World Bank (1996).
The Internet is not a panacea for rural development, but it does bring new information resources and can open new communication channels for rural communities. It offers a means for bridging the gaps between development professionals and rural people by initiating interaction and dialogue, new alliances, interpersonal networks and cross-sectoral links between organizations. It can create mechanisms that enable the bottom-up articulation and sharing of local knowledge. Benefits include increased efficiency in the use of development resources, less duplication of activities, reduced communication costs and global access to information and human resources.
The Internet may help in meeting peoples' information and communication objectives in order to attain their development goals and objectives, but it must be integrated within human contexts and seen as a "communication process tool", not simply a static "information technology" or unit-directional broadcast medium. 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. Of course, the Internet is not the only communications tool that may be used; radio and television may have equal or even greater potential, at least for the moment.
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) that can emerge when we create Internet applications to serve only privileged researchers and bureaucrats. In particular, we must strive to find ways to bring knowledge producers, such as researchers and policy-makers, closer (in the social as well as the geographical sense) to the other less recognized knowledge producers: the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of their development programmes.
Early Internet users in developing countries have proved that they can develop excellent local services and locally appropriate knowledge resources. However, without support from development agencies, there is a risk that such efforts will never meet the needs of people in rural communities.
Adopting a proactive strategy and acting to bring the Internet to rural and agricultural communities in developing countries will help enable rural people to face the unprecedented challenges brought on by the changing global economy, political changes, environmental degradation and demographic pressures. 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 access to information are directly related to social and economic development (Tallero and Gaudette, 1995).
The time to act in support of Internet knowledge and communication systems in developing countries is now. Today we truly live in a global village, but it is a village with privileged "information haves" and many "information have-nots". With the new technologies available to us, we have an opportunity to change this.
Chambers, R. and Guijt, I. 1996. PRA - five years later: where are we now? World Wide Web publication of the Forest, Trees and People Network of the International Development Research Centre, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden and the FAO Community Forestry Unit.
FAO. 1995a. Farmer-first approaches to communication: a case study from the Philippines. Rome.
FAO. 1995b. Understanding farmers' communication networks: an experience in the Philippines. Rome.
FAO. 1996a. The Internet and rural development. Recommendations for strategy and activity. Consultant's report by D. Richardson. Rome.
FAO. 1996b. Communication for development in Latin America: a regional experience. GCP/RLA/114/ITA. Unpublished project report. Rome.
Negroponte, N. 1995a. Being digital. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Negroponte, N. 1995b. Survey of rural economic development officers. Unpublished paper presented to the Ontario Agriculture Electronic Communications Working Group, Canada, January 1995.
Taller, E. & Gaudett, P. 1995. Harnessing information for development: a proposal for a World Bank group vision and strategy. Washington, DC: World Bank.
World Bank. 1996. Increasing Internet connectivity in sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, DC.
To Applications: Participatory approaches for promoting rural connectivity