Communication for development Knowledge

Posted November 2000

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

Workshop report


Workshop papers:

Article I. Background

As part of the First Consultation on Agricultural Information Management (COAIM) held at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome 5-7th June 2000, a workshop was conducted on the role of information and communication technologies in rural development and food security. There were approximately 25 participants in the workshop from a range of public and private sector organisations.

In preparation for the workshop, two papers were prepared:

  1. Information and communication technologies for rural development and food security: lessons from field experiences in developing countries by Hilda Munyua, CAB-International, Africa Regional Centre, Kenya)
  2. Rural development and food security: a community informatics-based conceptual framework (Michael Gurstein, Technical University of British Columbia, Canada).

These papers were background for discussion of implementing and building partnerships for information and communication technology (ICT) related activities. Workshop participants agreed that both papers represent an accurate synthesis of the issues and assessments of ongoing efforts to apply ICTs to rural development and food security.

Article II. Preamble

Information and communication technologies (ICTs), and particularly the Internet, are transforming broad areas where information is a central activity, including rural development and food security. The transformation is based on the opportunities for individuals and communities to be information producers as well as consumers and which builds on and integrates the capacities of other media (e.g. radio and television). This enables increasingly low-cost access and distribution of information and also facilitates interactive participation in the creation and use of information. In this process there is a priority role for generating and distributing public information. This in turn is transforming organisations everywhere who create, manage and distribute information.

The social context and the emerging information culture of ICTs should be given higher priority than purely technical and commercial considerations. While the Internet is impacting on the commercial sector, there is a need for a parallel transformation in the concepts and practices of those institutions with responsibility in the public and non-profit sectors to reflect the new opportunities presented by ICTs.

ICTs offer the unprecedented opportunity for decentralising information access and creation. This in turn brings demand-led innovation in all spheres of information-intensive activities resulting in a change in the mode of information development and management requiring a networked rather than centralised approaches. There is a need to integrate the currently fragmented institutional experiences applying ICTs to rural development and food security.

Key issues and recommendations

Section 3.01 Policy/Governance

Current government policy on the use of ICTs is primarily directed towards the management of telecommunications infrastructure. Rural populations are disadvantaged with regard to access to information and supporting ICTs.

There is a need for broad-based and equitable access to ICTs in rural areas consistent with ongoing processes of decentralisation, democratisation and policy revisions, in the context of global and national governance considerations. There is a further need for the adjustment of policies and awareness-raising with respect to capacity building in the context of emerging ICT opportunities.

Recommendations:

A specific policy regime needs to be established to ensure equitable access for rural populations to information and ICTs.

There is a need for high-level "championing" of the use of ICTs for development which would include a coalition of stakeholders and new institutional partnerships.

FAO, in conjunction with other agencies, should develop draft policies in support of the application of ICTs in rural development.

Section 3.02 Finance/Sustainability

ICTs for rural development are not given sufficient priority in national budgets. Strategies for financial sustainability for the use of ICTs in rural development need to be formulated.

Recommendations:

The development of open and proactive policies for the rural telecommunication sector is releasing considerable demand for expansion of service. Such changes should proceed within a context of social accountability and attention to the needs of under-served populations. A portion of revenue from telecommunications should be used to support and promote the expansion of ICT infrastructure in rural areas.

Investments in ICTs should be assessed in the context of their contributions to long-term human capital development in areas such as health care, skills development (e.g. for employment), continuing education and environmental management.

There is a need to provide investment and policy structures to stimulate initial demand (thereby reducing investment risk) for rural ICTs and to facilitate the leverage of investments in infrastructure.

Section 3.03 Design

There is a need to develop ICT strategies for rural areas taking into consideration differences in languages, culture, socio-economic conditions and infrastructure. There is also a need to encourage the private sector to invest in the design of ICTs appropriate for use in rural areas.

The opportunity exists for individuals and communities to become content developers, appropriate the technology and create information resources that respond to their needs.

Recommendations:

The socio-economic context should be integral to the design of ICT projects. Local initiatives should be encouraged to explore the opportunities presented by ICTs and incorporate participatory communication and learning processes. Appropriate methodologies for needs assessments should be implemented (e.g. participatory rural communication appraisal).

Projects should be undertaken to examine the specific requirements for the selection and use of ICTs in rural development (e.g. technological solutions and standards for information collection, processing and storage specific to rural areas) with special consideration for cultural and linguistic diversity.

ICTs should be linked to traditional communication forms to meet identified needs and reach specific groups (e.g. rural radio linked to the Internet).

There is a need to move away from centrally maintained reservoirs of information towards an approach which links widely distributed information resources from a variety of providers.

Section 3.04 Capacity building

The realisation of the opportunities offered by ICTs for rural development and food security require a culture of information and new skills.

Recommendations:

There is a need to build awareness among 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. Furthermore, emphasis should be placed on training women and youth in using ICTs and ensuring the inclusion of disadvantaged groups.

The private sector should be encouraged to extend its current involvement in technical training for ICTs to rural areas and efforts should be made to ensure new opportunities for training in open source as well as proprietary software.

Section 3.05 Content / Applications

There is currently a shortage of content, applications and access to existing data of particular interest to rural development and food security. Beyond physical access, data need to be timely, retrievable and easily applied by a broad range of users. There is now the opportunity for participation by small and decentralised content providers, ensuring that information is available in local languages and reflects local cultures.

Recommendations:

Information providers, such as FAO and other rural development agencies, should further facilitate access to their resources. Procedures should also be implemented to enable feedback and widen participation in the development of these information resources.

The information needs of various users should be identified in order to develop user-specific, locally-sensitive content and applications. The role of civil society and the private sector is key in this identification process.

Rural development institutions should provide support at the local level for rural people to generate their own content and applications.

Section 3.06 Studies

There is incomplete information about the use and impact of ICTs in rural development.

Recommendations:

There is a need to extend the monitoring, evaluation and documentation of successful and unsuccessful applications of ICTs for rural development and to develop models for identifying strategic future investments and programmes.

Research and pilot projects on the role of ICTs in support of rural development should be extended.



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