Communication for development Knowledge

Posted November 2000

The role of information and communication technologies
in rural development and food security

Workshop papers:

COAIM and the ICT Workshop

INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE play a key role in ensuring food security and sustainable development. In order to address policy issues related to management and access to agricultural information, FAO and its World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) organised in June 2000 the First Consultation on Agricultural Information Management. The Consultation aimed to discuss ways of improving the capacities of decision-makers, professionals and the public to access and use information essential for achieving sustainable agricultural development and food security.

As one of its activities, the Consultation organised a two-day expert workshop on the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in rural development and food security. The workshop brought together twenty participants from NGOs, multilateral agencies, academia, and the private sector in an effort to discuss problems and suggest strategic policies for the development, deployment and use of ICTs for rural development.

Proceedings and findings

Information and communication technologies, and particularly the Internet, are transforming all human activities dependent on information, including rural development and food security. ICTs present new opportunities for individuals and communities to be not only consumers but also producers of information. Through media convergence, ICTs can also build on and integrate the capacities of other media (e.g. radio and television). This enables low-cost creation, access and distribution of information, which requires a networked rather than centralised approach. Yet, while there are numerous commercial initiatives, there is also a need for institutions in the public and non-profit sectors to seize the new opportunities presented by ICTs. With that objective in mind, the workshop participants recognised that key to the impact of ICTs are not the technologies themselves, but the information they carry. This should be the focus of both ICT strategies and programme activities. The participants discussed and agreed on recommendations dealing with six broad areas of intervention: ICT policies, sustainability, system design, capacity building, applications, and research.

With respect to policy formulation, there was a consensus that current trends tend to be biased against rural populations. There is therefore a need for broad-based and equitable access to ICTs in rural areas consistent with ongoing processes of decentralisation, democratisation and policy revisions that take into account good governance considerations. Adequate ICT education and capacity building must be enabled, while high-level "championing" of ICTs was suggested to facilitate a coalition of stakeholders and new institutional partnerships. FAO was also called, in conjunction with other agencies, to develop policies in support of the application of ICTs in rural development.

To achieve long-term results, ICT initiatives need to be financially sustainable. The workshop recognised that the development of open and proactive policies for the rural telecommunication sector is releasing considerable demand for expansion of service, which should proceed however within a social accountability context and with attention to the needs of deprived populations. A portion of revenue from telecommunications should therefore be used to support the expansion of ICTs in rural areas. In turn, there is a need for policies and investments to stimulate initial demand, thereby reducing investment risk for rural ICTs. This could include, for example, enabling the potential of e-commerce for rural producers.

At the level of ICT design, the workshop emphasised that there is a need to develop ICT strategies and investments for rural areas taking into consideration differences in languages, culture, socio-economic conditions and infrastructure. This should be reflected in participatory needs assessment and development of both the technology itself and the forms taken by information content, including linkages to more conventional communication media such as rural radio. There is also a need to move away from centrally maintained reservoirs of information towards distributed systems, which link but do not assume ownership of information resources from a variety of providers.

The discussion at the workshop also addressed the necessity to promote a culture of information and new skills. Adequate awareness should include decision makers and stakeholders, including regional organisations, on the need for investment in ICT capacity building at all levels of formal and non-formal education. This includes training development workers to incorporate ICTs in their activities, and an emphasis on training of rural women, youth, and deprived groups in taking advantage of ICTs.

With respect to content and applications, the workshop noted that they currently are of limited value to rural development and food security. Beyond physical access, information needs to be timely, retrievable and easily applied by a broad range of users, accessible in their own languages and consistent with their values. The workshop called for information providers, such as FAO and other agricultural and rural development agencies, to further facilitate access to their information resources, but also to provide support at the local level for rural people to generate and maintain ownership of their own content and applications, including agricultural portals of information management. Information needs of various users should be identified in order to develop user-specific, locally sensitive content and applications, while procedures should also be implemented to enable feedback and widen participation in the development of these information resources.

Finally, the workshop underlined that these is still an incomplete understanding of the use and impact of ICTs for rural development and food security. This calls for piloting, monitoring, evaluating and documenting of successful and unsuccessful applications of ICTs for rural development. From these applications, models should be developed for identifying strategic future investments and programmes. The workshop report is presented as part of this SD Dimensions special.

Papers presented

In preparation for the workshop, two papers were commissioned which served as background for discussion. The first, "Information and Communication Technologies for rural development and food security: Lessons from field experiences in developing countries", written by Hilda Munyua from the African Regional Centre of CAB-International in Kenya, dealt with lessons from field experiences in developing countries. This paper examined how ICTs have already affected decision-making processes, markets, the media, local empowerment, the targeting of marginal groups, and employment. The paper also pointed out difficulties encountered, notably with the policy environment, infrastructures, illiteracy, gender discrimination, costs, and the lack of human resources. From these experiences, the paper calls for partnerships and coordination to address these issues, pilot further experiments, and promote innovations.

The second paper, "Rural development and food security: a 'community informatics' based conceptual framework for FAO", prepared by Michael Gurstein of the Technical University of British Columbia, proposed a community informatics-based conceptual framework. Dr. Gurstein starts his analysis from the problem of access for what, by whom, and to what. This calls attention to the diversity of users, needs, and constraints, as well as to the interplay of social and technical dimensions such as access gaps left by market forces when contemplating ICTs as tools of rural development. From this angle, community informatics is seen as a means of enabling communities to use ICTs in the pursuit of their own goals, be they of an economic, social, political, health, or environmental nature. The paper therefore considers how ICTs can be used for that purpose, including the dissemination of rural development information, online service delivery, e-commerce, capacity building, and community organising. As a practical solution, Gurstein then discusses the deployment of integrated service delivery systems, notably in the framework of telecentres.

In addition to these two commissioned articles, participants presented a number of other papers as contributions to the workshop discussions. Claire O'Farell from the University of Reading, jointly with Patricia Norrish and Andrew Scott, contributed a paper on ICTs for sustainable livelihoods among small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs in rural communities. The paper presents findings from research on the risks of ICTs for further marginalizing deprived communities and ways to use ICTs to consolidate information systems of small-scale farmers and rural enterprises with a view to reducing poverty. The authors recommend that a better understanding of existing information practices and of socio-technical processes is necessary if ICT-based projects are to be more effective. This can be improved through better information auditing and needs assessments, differentiated by social groups, and with comprehensive monitoring and evaluation procedures for existing projects. It is also recommended that specific strategies be developed to target women and girls, rural communities, and low-income sectors.

Manuel Calvelo-Ríos, from the University of Chile, discusses in his paper "El Papel de las Tecnologías de Información y Comunicación en el Desarrollo Rural y la Seguridad Alimentaria" the potential and limitations of ICTs, with particular attention to the difficulties of rural underdevelopment. He emphasises the need to practice communication as a participatory process, and promote the role that ICTs can play in facilitating this. Calvelo-Rios then draws attention to the fact that most systems are designed by and for urban professionals, with means and messages that respond to commercial demands that are very different from the needs of rural development and food security. As a result, ICTs and the content they carry may end up having little significance and relevance for the rural poor. It is therefore important for ICT systems to seek different objectives, and refocus tools and contents towards the particular needs of rural development and food security, including agro-meteorology, production technologies, commodities, credit, land and labour markets, laws and regulations, management, and training, among others.

Dr. V. Balaji, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, contributed a paper on knowledge systems for sustainable food security, presenting the case of the Information Village in the Pondicherry region of India. Explaining the context of the region, particularly with respect to telecommunications and information, the paper describes how a series of Village Knowledge Centres have been established, assessing information needs and emphasising capacity building and local content development. Balaji recognises that assessing the impact of the project at this early stage is still difficult, but that efforts are made with rigorous compiling of usage statistics and the chronicling of relevant stories. It is already evident however that the key factor of success for ICT-based rural information systems appears to be the management of local content.

Scott S. Robinson, from the Universidad Metropolitana-Iztapalapa in Mexico City, submitted to the workshop a strategy paper for telecentres based on knowledge demand, remittance flows, and micro banking. After criticising elitist policies in both access and education that limits the reach and utility of ICTs for the rural poor in Latin America and elsewhere, Robinson singles out the significance of labour migration and remittances for an increasing number of rural dwellers in the region, which is often at the centre of their subsistence strategy. Under these circumstances, the author shows how ICTs can be used for linking migrants to their families and providing remittance services through telecentres and micro banking with much lower fees. The policy and technical requirements of this self-financed strategy are discussed, as well as the potential it represents for both responding to a pressing need and enabling "a new digital public sphere" of endogenous and locally relevant information services and content.

Information technology and poverty alleviation are the subjects of another paper, presented by Gabriel Accascina, Regional Coordinator of the UNDP-funded Asia Pacific Information Development Programme (APDIP). The paper focuses on processes by which ICTs affect, directly and indirectly, poverty alleviation, notably in relation to rural development and food security. Examples include the delivery of market or employment information, or the creation of well-paid jobs that eventually 'trickle down' to poor communities. ICTs also alleviate poverty by serving as productivity tools for development initiatives, such as databases that permit better coordination of technical assistance. Accascina also discusses the policy, economic, and technological context that defines prerequisites for the enabling of ICT-based systems. Key trends are examined in relation to location and time, with a view towards how different ICTs and contents have implications at the local level in the very short term, (e.g. weather), in local languages, while others have a long-term impact (e.g. e-commerce), more likely in English.

E-commerce and community economic development is also considered by a second paper presented by Prof. Gurstein. He argues that virtual commerce interacts with geographically bound communities, creating new opportunities for economic development. After an overview of e-commerce potentials and requirements, the paper proposes a business model for community development where e-commerce can serve information exchange (billboards), raise traffic through portals or value-added services (such as emails and web hosting), create communities of consumers, or facilitate the brokering of transactions and auctions, and serve as virtual currency (e-money).


SD Dimensions reproduces these papers and the workshop report as a special on potential and actual opportunities for harnessing ICTs for rural development. The workshop and the contributions made by the participants are helping FAO to refine its strategic programming and project formulation with respect to the use of ICTs in carrying out its mandate on agricultural and rural development, and in particular for improving food security. While the papers contributed to the workshop discussions and to the report, they reflect the views of the authors and not necessarily those of FAO. This ICT special is presented with the expectation that it will contribute to the on-going discussion of the role of ICTs in agricultural and rural development.

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